Russian Tortoise: Lifespan, Size & Beginner Care Sheet

Tortoises can be found all over the world, from the jungles to the deserts!

These long-lived, slow-moving, and delightful reptiles are often kept as pets by anyone willing to take on the commitment.

One of the most popular pets is the Russian tortoise.

This relatively small species only grows to 5-10 inches, can be kept outside and is very personable and fun to watch. Want to find out what it takes to own a Russian tortoise?

Keep reading for a complete guide to their lifespan, size, diet and care.

Quick Overview
Common Name Russian, Afghan, steppe or Horsfield’s tortoise
Scientific Name Testudo horsfieldii
Family Testudinae
Range Southeastern Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Northern Iran and Pakistan
Size 5-10 inches
Color Yellow, tan, gray and brown
Lifespan 50+ years
Husbandry Simple
Diet Leafy plants, shrubs and grasses
Enclosure Size 4 feet x 4 feet
Temperature 65°F to 85°F
Humidity 40% to 75%
Price $100 to $300

Russian Tortoise Species Guide

Russian Tortoise

The Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) is also known as the steppe, four-toed tortoise, Afghan or Horsfield’s tortoise.

As tortoises go, they are low maintenance, active and have big personalities.

This is a small, hardy species and one of the most popular pet tortoises for beginners.

They are an excellent choice for owners with minimal experience. When given the proper space and enclosure setup, they will actively burrow, explore and stay healthy.

These reptiles are active and need a large, spacious enclosure to roam. An adult needs a minimum of 16 square feet of floor space, though a bigger area is always better. As avid diggers this species needs at least 3 feet of substrate to create burrows and tunnels.

Anyone interested in keeping this species should either adopt or buy captive bred individuals. You should be aware of the effect that their popularity has had on wild populations and avoid contributing to their decline.

Unfortunately, many tortoises sold as pets are imported from the wild.

This activity has led to a decline in wild populations.

Russian tortoises are native to arid grasslands and windy steppes that surround the Caspian Sea. Their range spans from Southeastern Russia, through central Asia to Northern Iran. They spend most of the year in a period of dormancy due to the harsh climate of their natural range.

They have the northernmost range of any tortoise species and can survive at altitudes of 7,000 feet above sea level.

In fact, in the wild this species is only active for 3 months out of the year.

Thanks to their hardiness, these tortoises can be kept outdoors in many environments.

In some areas of the US like Arizona and Nevada they can comfortably live outside year-round. In other regions where winter temperatures dip below 40°F, they should be provided with an indoor enclosure that remains consistently above 60°F. Some owners may choose to hibernate them during the winter.

Lifespan

This tortoise has a surprisingly long lifespan.

Russian Tortoises have been known to live for over 50 years.

This incredible lifespan is due to several characteristics that make them unique. Their very slow metabolism, slow growth, and ability to hibernate for months at a time all contribute to their long lifespan.

When deciding whether this reptile is a good fit for you, consider that a Russian tortoise’s lifespan can be 50+ years.

Make sure you are fully prepared for a potentially life-long commitment!

Unfortunately, their long lifespan does not prevent illnesses. They still require exotic veterinary care on occasion. The most common illnesses include:

  • Shell rot
  • Tortoise herpesvirus 1
  • Pneumonia
  • Urolithiasis (kidney stones)
  • Metabolic bone disease

Shell rot in tortoises is like scale rot in snakes. It is an infection caused by high humidity, a dirty enclosure, or injuries to the shell. It is characterized by rough, eroded, and discolored patches or a loss of scutes.

Herpesvirus can cause mild, cold-like symptoms in the spring.

Pneumonia can be caused by high humidity and cold temperatures. Watch for wheezing, coughing, open-mouthed breathing, or discharge from the nose and mouth.

Kidney stones form in response to dehydration or a diet high in protein. Symptoms may not develop for several months, so it is important to bring your tortoise to the vet for regular exams.

Metabolic bone disease is a serious condition that occurs when a tortoise does not have access to UVB light. If untreated it causes shell deformations, lethargy, lameness and potentially death.

Size

Testudo horsfieldii

Russian tortoises are only ~1.25-1.33 inches when they hatch.

They are extremely slow growing, as their 50 year lifespan gives them more time to mature than other reptiles. Though they become mature at 10 years old, they only reach their full grown size after 20 years.

Full grown Russian tortoises max out at 5-10 inches long.

The size of an adult depends on if it is a male or female, as females grow larger than males.

Adult males usually max out at 5-8 inches, while females average 6-10 inches. 10 inches is considered exceptionally large for a female.

Even when fully grown, this tortoise is smaller than most other members of its genus.

Russian Tortoise Size Chart
Age Male Size (inches) Female Size (inches)
0-2 years 1.25” -1.33” 1.25” – 1.33”
2-4 years 1.5” – 3” 1.5” – 3”
4-10 years 3” – 4” 3” – 5”
10-20 years 4” – 5” 5” – 6”
20+ years 5” – 8” 6” – 10”

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Diet

The diet of Russian tortoises consists exclusively of plants.

Leaves, grasses, shrubs, succulents, twigs, and flowers are all on the menu, as well as some vegetables. Fruits should only be fed as a treat.

In the wild these tortoises can survive on very little food.

Studies of wild Russian tortoises found that they spend less than 15 minutes each day actually eating. This suggests that they are highly efficient at converting food to energy.

They are also able to eat many plant species that are toxic to mammals, including buttercups, poppies and koelpinia.

The best Russian tortoise foods are leafy greens and weedy plants high in beta-carotene. Avoid overfeeding spinach and other foods high in oxalates; these negatively impact their ability to absorb calcium.

Vegetables like carrots, bell peppers, beets, and zucchini can be given once per week.

These reptiles should not have fruit as part of their regular diet.

Food for Russian tortoises should be varied. This not only provides enrichment, but also ensures they get the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.

For a healthy pet, try to mimic its natural diet as closely as possible. Clovers, dandelions, hibiscus, Opuntia cacti, rye grass, timothy hay, and escarole are all excellent food options. Food should be dusted with a vitamin D3 supplement powder twice each week.

In addition to feeding a mixed salad 3 times per week, you can even plant edible vegetation in an outdoor enclosure. For most of the year they will graze on grasses and weeds.

Feeding Russian tortoises is simple.

They should be given as much salad as they can eat in an hour. The exact amount they eat will vary depending on their size and age. After three hours, remove any uneaten food to prevent it from spoiling.

You may need to experiment with the amount of salad until leftovers are minimized.

Salads reduce the risk of selective feeding (where a tortoise only eats one type of food) and let you adjust vitamin and nutrient mixes as needed.

Russian Tortoise Food List
Best Foods Foods to Avoid
  • Collard greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Kale
  • Red-leaf lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Romain lettuce
  • Hibiscus
  • Mulberry leaves
  • Bermuda grass
  • Rye grass
  • Clover
  • Geraniums
  • Spinach
  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Meat
  • Insects
  • Grains
  • Fruits (except as rare treats)
  • Cat or dog food

Food for Russian tortoises should be fresh.

There are many commercial diets available at pet stores. These often come in a dry, pelleted form.

Though not all tortoises will eat them, commercial pellets can be mixed into salads for a balanced diet. However, commercial diets should never become their staple diet.

Finally, they should have access to a large, shallow pan of fresh water at all times.

The pan should be emptied, cleaned and refilled daily as they often defecate in their water bowls. Some will choose to soak in the shallow pan each week to stay hydrated.

Russian Tortoise Care

Russian Tortoise Enclosure

These tortoise are hardy, but they still need proper care and housing to live long, healthy lives.

The hardest part of caring for a Russian tortoise is setting up its enclosure. This step takes quite a bit of landscaping and preparation.

Specifically, this species requires a spacious outdoor enclosure that is suitable for burrowing.

At a minimum, their enclosure should measure 16 square feet and have a substrate that drains well. Though they do best when kept outdoors, they can live indoors for shorter periods of time.

Once their habitat is setup, this species is very easy to care for and is one of the best tortoises for inexperienced keepers.

Russian Tortoise Enclosure

In the wild this species lives in a variety of habitats from treeless scrub deserts to wind-swept grasslands.

Russian tortoises have adapted to survive hostile and unpredictable environments with highly variable temperatures and rainfall. Though mostly ground-dwelling, they are surprisingly adept climbers and can navigate rocky terrain with ease.

  • Enclosure Size: 4 feet long by 4 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall.
  • Substrate: 4 inches of a peat moss and vermiculite mixture.
  • Décor: Plants, logs, clay pots, and sticks.
  • Temperature: 75-80°F.
  • Humidity: 60-70%.

A single adult should be kept in an area at least 16 square feet in area and 2.5 feet tall, though they always appreciate more space. The walls of the enclosure must be solid (not see-through) and ideally sunk 2 feet into the ground to prevent escapes.

They are extremely territorial.

While a male and female can be housed together with the correct enclosure setup, we highly recommend only keeping one per enclosure.

Temperature

Ideal Russian Tortoise temperatures can be anywhere between 65°F to 85°F during the day.

At nighttime, temperatures can drop by 5°F, though these hardy tortoises are built to withstand a wide temperature range. Adults can withstand nighttime temperatures as low as 40°F, provided they have a heated burrow.

During the day, a basking spot that is ~10°F hotter than their ambient temperature should be provided.

Your Russian tortoise enclosure should have both shaded and sunny areas year-round.

There should be enough difference in elevation, shading and cover to create variations in temperature throughout the enclosure. This can be achieved by planting non-toxic vegetation such as mulberry or citrus trees, hibiscus bushes and prickly pear cacti.

These tortoises greatly benefit from exposure to UV light, so make sure they also have direct sunlight.

Humidity

These tortoises must have low humidity in their enclosure.

Their native range is dry and arid, so they are not well-equipped to deal with humid conditions. High humidity can quickly lead to pneumonia and infections, as well as increasing the risk of parasitic infections.

With Russian tortoises, humidity should be between 40-70%, with slightly higher humidity in the burrows.

An enclosure should have at least 2 burrows that face different directions and are constructed on raised areas of the landscape. You can make artificial burrows by half-burying 5-gallon buckets or digging a trench and covering it with planks.

One alternative method is to make a humid hide box lined with damp sphagnum moss.

Offering a shallow pan of water 3 times per week can help boost local humidity levels, even in an outdoor enclosure.

They are not picky about décor, and enjoy digging, climbing, and moving objects in their enclosures. Flat rocks, half logs, tree stumps, brush piles, and bushes are excellent, natural options that give them the opportunity to climb and explore.

Cinderblocks and bricks are also good choices, so long as they are secured to prevent them falling.

Substrate For Russian Tortoise

These tortoises love to burrow and need a deep substrate to accommodate their digging.

A good substrate will hold its shape when disturbed, stay relatively compact, be reptile-safe and not hold too much moisture.

While these parameters may rule out a lot of beddings, there are several substrates that are perfect for Russian tortoises.

Organic soil, large bricks of compressed coco coir and cypress mulch can be used to make the best substrates.

These substrates can be combined to create the ideal consistency, though it may take some trial and error to get it right for your climate.

All substrates should be free from pesticides, fertilizers, or chemicals.

For a full list of reptile-safe substrates check out our guide on bearded dragon substrate.

No matter what bedding you choose, the enclosure should be spot-cleaned daily.

Russian tortoise beddings to avoid include wood shavings, pine or cedar chips and clay. Pine, cedar, and redwood contain oils that are toxic to reptiles and should never be used.

Indoor Enclosure

Russian tortoises should only be housed indoors during winter or bleak weather when temperatures regularly fall below 60°F. Indoor enclosures should follow the same temperature, humidity and substrate as an outdoor setup.

A large plastic tote can work well as a temporary indoor enclosure for an adult.

Baby Russian Tortoise

Babies are a little over one inch long when hatched and stay small for many years.

These tortoises hatch from eggs after incubating underground for 65-70 days.

They are most vulnerable to predation in their early life stages because of their tiny size. In the wild this reptile falls prey to foxes, jackals, wild cats, snakes, and birds of prey.

Baby Russian tortoises have the same care requirements as adults, though they should be housed in a smaller, indoor enclosure to protect them from predators. A setup measuring 1.5 feet long by 3 feet wide is suitable for one baby.

How Much Does A Russian Tortoise Cost?

Generally, Russian tortoises cost $100 – $300 as babies and adults.

Though not as widely available as reptiles like bearded dragons, these tortoises can still be found at reptile expos, online, or at exotic pet stores.

We highly recommend buying one from a captive breeder, instead of one collected from the wild. Captive individuals are healthier, friendlier and do not contribute to the decline of the species.

If you are interested in adopting a baby, keep in mind that this species can live for over 50 years. It is possible your pet might outlive you.

Adults can be adopted and are often found for a better price at reptile rescues.

A healthy and happy tortoise will have bright, clear eyes (without any discharge), a smooth shell without rough or irregular patches (which can be a sign of shell rot), and have a curious, docile disposition.

Appearance

Horsfield’s tortoise

The Russian tortoise is a stocky little reptile with a compact, wide shell that is flattened along the top. The color of the shell is typically shades of olive, beige, or yellow, with dark brown or black scutes rimmed with white.

There is an unusual color variant that is occasionally found in the wild. Known as black Russian tortoises, these individuals have large black patches on each scute, outlined by gold or tan.

The underside of every Russian tortoise shell is either solid or dappled black.

Other tortoises of the genus Testudo have a hinge that divides the underside of their shell into two sections. This hinge is located between their front and hind legs on the bottom of their shell. The underside of this species’ shell is one smooth piece with no hinge.

The skin of these reptiles is tough, leathery, and covered by thick, overlapping scales that provide protection from both predators and unforgiving climates.

When threatened they will tuck their head and limbs into their shell. Though they do not have many natural weapons to defend themselves, they rely on their tough shells, camouflage and burrowing ability to escape.

This species is equipped with a small but strong beak for biting through stems and leaves.

Their long claws and powerful front legs are adapted for digging. They have four claws on each foot, which sets them apart from other related species that have five.

Male vs Female Differences

It can be tricky to tell the difference between baby male and female Russian tortoise.

However, adults can easily be identified once they are larger than 4 inches.

Males are smaller than females, only growing to 5-8 inches in total. Females can grow to nearly twice the size of a male, maxing out at 10 inches.

In addition to their overall size difference, male and female tortoises have differences in the size and shape of their tails and cloacas.

Females have a tail that is thick and stubby, while a male’s tail is slimmer and can reach the hind leg when curved around. Males also have a small, curved scale called a ‘spur’ on the tip of the tail, which is absent in females.

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Final Thoughts

Russian tortoises make excellent pets for new and experienced owners.

They are popular for their small size, active nature and simple care requirements.

Full grown Russian tortoises max out at 5-10 inches long!

The most difficult part of caring for one is setting up and landscaping their enclosure. This species needs 16 square feet of outdoor space with enough substrate for digging and burrowing.

Owners should also be aware that this species is not a short-term commitment. Some Russian tortoises have a lifespan of over 50 years.

If you are looking for an easygoing, lifelong friend, then this tortoise may be perfect for you!

Just take the time and effort to find a responsible breeder or rescue.

About Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild!

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