I can see Nick’s face now. ‘I didn’t ask for that.’ Know it or not Nick, you actually did. So, let me give some quick background on this story, then we can talk about Nick and why I am writing this article. Nick is Jason White’s son and he wanted a turtle. Jason in his wisdom thought at the time, this wasn’t a great pet for someone so young. He was right.
All pets are investments of time and materials, which should be fully understood before taking them on as a responsibility. Before buying or even thinking about a new pet please do yourself a favor and spend a few extra dollars to get at least one book on the pet to better acquaint yourself with the species. You can also look for magazine articles and other sources talking about the reptile you’re planning to purchase. This will save you and your dad many future issues and help avoid trips to the veterinary clinics.
Too many times kids get animals they think they want and then lose interest. Nick however, isn’t one of those kids. He reminded his dad that he still wanted a turtle or a tortoise. Jason asked around on the social networks which would be the best kind of turtle or tortoise. Lots of people gave their thoughts and so did I. In my opinion, a Russian tortoise would make a great first turtle or tortoise pet. Here’s where your research comes in Nick.
So too many years ago to count now, a really smart guy decided to classify all living things into an order so that we could better identify them. We now have all these really long scientific names and things are all in order. You will learn about this later in school, for now though, know this. All turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are in the Order of Testudines that’s taxonomy speak for they are distantly related. So, you are looking into tortoises because they are a little easier to take care of and not as messy. Tortoises, all belong in the family known as Testudinidae.
The Russian tortoise is the one known in the science community as Testudo horsfieldii. The reason it’s important to know that; is the common name Russian tortoise may actually refer to another animal when you talk with someone else. So we try to use the scientific names.Their natural homes include the dry open areas of Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. They also occur in sand and clay deserts which have very little spots of plants, usually grasses and bushes.
Male Russian tortoises tend to be smaller in size than females. This is probably because the males don’t have to carry the eggs that the females do. Females Russian tortoises get 8-10 inches while males generally get to a size of 6-8 inches. Usually, they have a brown colored shell with yellow between the scutes or rings of the shell. The back or top part of the shell is naturally bowed in a convex shape, where as the plastron or bottom part of the males shell may have a slight indent to more easily mount the female. Their skin is a yellowish straw color in areas not usually exposed to the sun, such as behind the neck and upper legs just before entering the shell. The areas where sunlight is in regular contact with their skin is usually a darkened brown color.
Remember when selecting a Russian Tortoise Testudo horsefieldi as a new pet, to look for one that is free of any boogers or goop coming from the eyes or nostrils. Also be aware, when they are frightened they may expel any water they are holding so, make sure to hold the tortoise away from you when inspecting them. They are not an overly active species in my experience, when encountered in some of the pet stores where I have worked they tend not be moving a whole lot. So it’s tough to watch them eat, as I would recommend for most reptile species. If they are sluggish to respond to touches, I would consider a different tortoise that is more responsive and alert.
When it comes to housing the Russian Tortoise Testudo horsefieldi, you need a lot of room. These reptiles have instincts to wander the open spaces where they’re from, whether or not they actually came from Kazakhstan or were born in captivity. They will have the instinct to wander. I recommend using an outdoor pen in an area where it doesn’t get below 40°-45° F at night. I would recommend investing in a 75 gallon plastic tub, which are found at most home improvement centers and are inexpensive. I would steer clear of metal tubs as these may pull heat from the substrate (the stuff you put in the bottom of the enclosure) and many actually use more energy than needed for heating.
Quite a few pet stores and their employees would recommend that tortoises be kept in a large aquarium. This is not their fault, it’s how they are trained and most of them do not do their own research. Glass or clear aquariums are detrimental to the tortoises’ health because they do not comprehend the glass as a wall that they cannot walk through. This could lead to problems like the tortoise flipping over and possibly getting stuck. Depending on décor, and if this happens under a heating element, well I am sure you could imagine what would happen.
Within the 75 gallon tub you can safely heat and keep your tortoise with all the things that they will ever need for their entire life. They will not be able to see out the sides but they will have enough room to wander as they want safely, without risking injury.
Outdoor pens must be of a solid material such concrete block, plywood, or solid plastic sheets that the tortoise can not see through. I recommend digging a burrow for your tortoises if they are kept outdoors by digging a ditch about two to three feet long at a 45 degree angle like a downward facing ramp. Over this place a piece plywood and then place the dirt back onto the plywood and throw some grass seed on it for a more natural look. Leave the entrance exposed so that the tortoise can enter and exit freely. I would also place a line of blocks buried under the sides of the outdoor enclosure to make sure that they do not burrow their way out into the yard. Usually rocks a couple of feet down are sufficient to prevent this. The ditch itself should be about 18” wide.
The best substrate I have found for housing the Russian Tortoise Testudo horsefieldi in a captive indoor environment is 50/50 mixture of topsoil and washed play sand, both of which are available at most home improvement stores and are inexpensive. If you can’t find topsoil you can also use the expandable bedding bricks available at most pet stores. This allows for some humidity to be held by the substrate, but not so much moisture that it molds begin growing. You might be thinking that this seems odd being that the Russian Tortoise Testudo horsefieldi comes from an arid environment.
We must also remember that these Tortoises dig burrows which are kept at approximately 70% humidity. They may actually dig burrows for themselves in your tub as well. Substrates to stay away from are newspaper, rabbit pellets, and recycled newspaper bedding. All of these can become moldy if they get wet and this could lead to other health issues with the tortoise itself.
During the day it is a must that you provide the tortoises with a source of UVB lighting which will stimulate the production of vitamin D3. This allows proper growth of both bone and shell. Without this, the tortoise will develop many medical conditions such as soft shell and improper bone growth, inevitably leading to a large veterinary bill. Russian tortoises Testudo horsefieldi must also be provided with a proper heat source.
My personal preference is to keep the two elements as separate sources. I keep a fluorescent type lamp for the UVB and ceramic heating element for the heat itself. As with all reptiles, you must provide them with what is known as a thermal gradient. This means you have to have a basking spot around 90 to 95° F on one side of the pen. This will insure that the tortoise will be able to thermoregulate (warm themselves up as they don’t heat up like humans do) their core temperature to digest the food and remain active. The other side of the pen should be around the mid to low 70s.
When it comes to diet there is still quite a few misunderstanding about what is good and what is not. Rather than run through a huge list of what should and shouldn’t be fed and why, I will make it really easy. Go to the local grocery store and buy the organic mixed spring greens. There is nothing to my knowledge or experience with this type of diet that will harm the tortoise. For a treat every so often, throw in some Hibiscus, Dandelion, Rose, and also Prickly pear cactus. The flowers and leaves of all of these can be eaten as long as they are prepared as if a human was to consume them. Be sure that no pesticides or systemic has been used on them, as this may make the tortoise sick. We must also give them a regular dose of calcium on their greens that we feed them. There is a wide array of calcium sources and you should use the brand name that you’re most familiar with.
In my experience, a shallow rimmed bowl of water should always be provided for drinking. Not once in over ten years have I ever seen a Russian Tortoises Testudo horsefieldi drink standing water from a bowl. Once a week they are to be soaked in lukewarm water which just goes above their plastron or bottom of the shell. This causes them to poop and helps to keep the enclosure a lot cleaner and healthier for the tortoise.
Since I have personally not out lived a healthy Russian tortoise I can only go with the reports of them living in captivity up to at least 50 years that I have seen. Some report, they can live into the centurion mark of age (100 years) which given the typical slow metabolism (how the body processes food) of other species, I wouldn’t doubt it. They could easily achieve extremely long lives in captivity.
This is the favorite argument of most reptile breeders. Whether or not to hibernate; next to size, this is one of best and most often asked questions when it comes to Russian tortoises Testudo horsefieldi. In my experience, the tortoises in question should be an average size of at least 5 inches total length for males and the females should be at least 6” overall. I have heard reports of smaller, but the most successful attempts have been these sizes.
Hibernation is usually achieved naturally if they are kept outside without the intervention of humans. As the seasons change the tortoises automatically hibernate themselves. In an indoor enclosure, I would begin shortening the light cycle to match the daylight cycle outside. Also gradually drop the temperature to 50 degrees or so as well over a period of a few weeks during the onset of the winter season where you live. At the end of the cycling process, the heat should be completely off and the lights coinciding with the regular daylight outdoors.
You should gradually decrease the amount of feeding until you are sure that their stomachs are completely empty. This makes sure that there will be no food to spoil in the gut and potentially cause infections. Hibernation lasts about three months, and then the temperature and light cycle changes as does outdoors. With the reheating the tortoises, you will see them become active again. Males will typically become very restless and begin searching out females immediately. Females will also become restless and may become disinterested in feeding.
The best tortoise to start with is the Russian Tortoise Testudo horsefieldi if you are interested in keeping tortoises. They are readily available and their care is relatively easy when compared to most of the other species of tortoises available. While they do require room to move and grow they do not have the same requirements as say an African Spur Thigh Tortoise (Sulcata) Geochelone sulcata or other species which grow to enormous proportions.