The Horsfield tortoise or Russian tortoise is a docile and hardy species of tortoise. They are popular pets, commonly found in homes around the globe. As with any pet, it is important to understand the animal you are caring for to be able to provide them with everything they need. Here’s everything you need to know about Horsfield tortoises.
Horsfield Tortoise Fact File
Although they are most commonly known as Russian tortoises or Horsfield tortoises, you may also hear them being referred to as:
- Afghan tortoise
- Afghanistan tortoise
- Four-clawed tortoise
- Central Asian tortoise
- Steppe tortoise
- Four-toed tortoise
They have been known to live over 50 years of age.
One of the main differences between Horsfield tortoises and Mediterranean tortoises is that they have four claws on each foot, rather than five. Their shells are also slightly flattened when compared to other tortoise species. They grow up to 18-20cm in length which is considered to be relatively small.
The shell of the Russian tortoise varies in colour from olive green to mustard yellow, with dark edging and a dark plastron, too.
You can easily tell males and females apart by taking a look at their tails – the tail of the female is shorter and rounded whereas the male’s tail is longer, is often tucked to one side, and has a sharp point on the end.
Unlike some other tortoise species, the Russian tortoise is known to be able to tolerate harsher climates and can be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, all the way through Asia and in Western China. They have been seen in higher altitudes as well as in semi-desert environments where they can tolerate extreme temperatures.
Due to their sometimes mountainous habitat they are known to be good at climbing so they can navigate over the rocky terrain. They are also great diggers and will burrow to escape the cold temperatures where they can begin to hibernate. In the wild, they will naturally hibernate for several months between October and March. This is not only due to the harsh drop in temperature over winter, but also because of lack of food.
Males are known to be particularly aggressive, especially during breeding season, where it has been documented that they will continually harass females, as well as bite and ram at their male competition.
A common occurrence within tortoise species is that they will most often begin breeding as they come out of hibernation in Spring, and Russian tortoises are no exception.
Males will begin to circle their female, often biting at her legs and harassing her until she submits to him; females will try to escape from the male but after some time, they will give in, allowing the male an opportunity to mount her. During copulation, the male Russian tortoise will be very vocal, sticking his neck out throughout the process and making loud squeaks.
Females will not lay eggs until they are at least 4-inches in size. When they are large enough, they will lay several clutches, each with around 1-5 eggs. The eggs will remain in the nest for 8-12 weeks and, when the hatchlings emerge, they will be completely independent, similarly to other reptiles.
Although listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, it is thought that their populations are relatively stable thanks to their wide range of habitat and hardy nature. It has been suggested that habitat protection would be the most effective form of species management however, in this case, a lot of their natural habitat is remote and quite dangerous for humans to access therefore there are no active efforts at this time.
As with most species of tortoises, the pet trade has a negative effect on the population of Horsfield tortoises. While there are thousands living in captivity, their numbers are listed as vulnerable as people will take them from the wild to sell for money or resources. In many countries that the Russian tortoise inhabits, they are also faced with the threat of habitat loss due to agricultural processes and overgrazing by livestock.
What’s more, small mammals and domestic dogs will dig up and destroy nests, meaning many eggs never get a chance to hatch.
Keeping a Horsfield Tortoise as a Pet
Now we have learnt more about the Horsfield tortoise in their natural habitat, we can use that information to create a complete guide on how to provide the correct care for them in captivity. Things like lighting, substrate, and furniture are all things that can be inferred from what they experience in the wild.
As with most tortoises, we want to be able to provide them with as much space as possible. A tortoise table is sufficient for your Horsfield tortoises and we recommend something around 2 foot x 4 foot to get started. Obviously, if you choose to have more tortoises then you should increase the size of your enclosure accordingly.
Thanks to their hardy nature, Russian tortoises are able to tolerate the cooler climate that we often experience in the UK so many tortoise owners will opt for an outside enclosure. However, you should always consider the weather conditions you may experience, especially at night, and shut them inside if the temperature drops too low or if it rains too much. If you have the space, you can always consider fitting a shed or greenhouse with additional heat and UV lamps to provide them with everything they need without having to carry them in and out of the house.
You may remember that we mentioned that they are excellent burrowers and quite adept at climbing too, therefore any walls must be tall enough that they can’t climb out and, if outside, buried deep enough that they cannot burrow out of their enclosure.
As we have mentioned earlier, there are many things you should consider when setting up your Horsefield tortoise enclosure. If they are housed outside, make sure that they are properly protected from the elements as well as from pests and predators.
As we will talk about later, the Horsfield tortoise can be sensitive to too much humidity so you will need to choose a substrate that remains dry. Wood chips or a soil-sand mixture usually make a great choice as they are also easy to clean and remain relatively dust-free.
Thanks to their burrowing behaviours, we recommend giving them sufficient substrate to be able to dig and cover themselves up; pile up their substrate in certain areas, however be careful you don’t do so too close to the walls where it could enable them to climb out.
If outside, you can break up the ground for them in certain areas to encourage digging in these specific spots.
Reptiles need UVB light to be able to grow a healthy shell. In the wild, tortoises will get this UVB light directly from the sun; however, if your tortoise is kept inside, then filtered sunlight is just not sufficient and you must provide them with supplementary lighting. Without this lighting, your tortoise will not be able to absorb calcium which can lead to metabolic bone disease which can have devastating long-term health effects.
For desert species, such as the Horsefield tortoise, a UVB bulb of 10% is recommended to provide them with everything that they need. Add in a reflector so that none of the UV light is lost into the room and you should be all set up!
Keep the light on for 10-12 hours a day to mimic the sunlight that they would experience in the wild. You can buy a timer to turn the bulb on and off for you, so you don’t have to worry about remembering each day.
Keeping your pet horsefield tortoise at the correct temperature will have a number of benefits to your tortoise’s health including enabling their digestive system to be efficient and giving them the energy to move around and forage for food.
Most tortoise owners will have one bulb for lighting and another for heat, as you will most probably want to keep the heat bulb on long after the UV light has been turned off.
Although Horsefield tortoises can tolerate lower temperatures, they need a basking temperature of around 32C and a night time temperature no lower than 15C. No matter the type of enclosure you have, make sure that your Horsefield tortoise has a suitable temperature gradient so that they have a space to get out of the heat if they need to.
If in outdoor housing, you should give your tortoises an additional heat supply and consider shutting them inside for the majority of the winter months, especially if you want to avoid hibernation. However, even during the summer months you should monitor the temperature with an accurate thermometer and provide them with additional heat if they require it.
Tortoise tables are a great option when avoiding high humidity of your tortoise enclosure. Horsefield tortoises live in relatively dry habitats therefore this needs to be mimicked in their captive environment, thus we recommend keeping the humidity to around 40-50%.
You can spray some areas of the enclosure to provide a little more humidity but it’s best to keep it down as much as possible to prevent issues such as shell rot or respiratory infections.
If your tortoises do require a little more moisture, they will dig into their substrate where the humidity is naturally a little higher.
In the wild, the Horsfield tortoise is used to climbing over rocky terrain and up slopes, therefore you should make their enclosure as dynamic as possible by placing rocks and logs throughout.
If housed outside, you can add piles of stones to mimic the natural incline they would experience in their habitat and create gentle slopes using sand and grass. If in a tortoise table or another indoor enclosure, break up the space with bark, rocks, and plants, to encourage exploratory behaviours and ensure they use the entirety of their enclosure.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t put anything too close to the sides that could facilitate an escape.
All tortoises need a source of water so provide them with fresh water in a shallow bowl which they can freely move in and out of. Keep an eye on it as they will often drag substrate into it, making the water dirty.
If you are worried about their water intake, you can bathe them a couple of times a week to ensure that they are getting enough and staying hydrated. Place them in a shallow bath of water – it should be shallow enough that the water does not go above the underside of their shell, and they can keep their head out of the water, even if they lay down – and then allow them time to absorb the water. Make sure you dry them off before putting them back into their enclosure
Horsefield tortoises do naturally hibernate, as the temperature in the wild would drop too low for them to be able to survive without. If you wish to mimic this behaviour at home, you should only ever hibernate a healthy tortoise, as it can be dangerous for those too old, too young, or with underlying health conditions.
If you do not provide them with additional sources of heat then hibernation will be unavoidable, however, many tortoise owners skip hibernation by providing their pets with constant heat and lighting throughout the year. The process of hibernation is stimulated by a drop in temperature, therefore by providing constant heat and long hours of UVB light, your tortoise will assume normal activity levels.
If you want to hibernate your tortoise then make sure you follow all the recommended practises and consult with your vet to ensure your tortoise remains safe throughout.
A Horsfield tortoise diet should consist of a variety of weeds, greens, and vegetables. Some food items that you can collect and feed them regularly include;
- Curly kale
- Spring greens
- Plaintain weeds
- White nettle
Tortoises love fruits and vegetables such as bell pepper, banana, carrot, and strawberries however they should only be given as an occasional treat. Many people will feed their pet tortoises iceberg lettuce however this contains very few nutrients and should not make up the bulk of your tortoise’s diet.
If you are unsure, consult your vet to ensure that your tortoise is receiving a high-fibre, calcium rich diet that provides them with everything that they need to function.
You can also consider giving them a pre-formulated pellet diet that will include all of their nutritional requirements and makes it easier to monitor their food intake. However, fresh food also provides them with an additional source of water should they need it.
Check with your vet if you should give them any additional calcium supplements if you are unsure you are giving them everything they require. A lack of calcium can lead to metabolic bone disease, as well as other ailments.
Your pet tortoise’s health is directly related to the level of care that you provide, including the diet you give them, the temperature, and the UVB lighting. By following our guidelines, your tortoise shouldn’t experience any health problems however it is important to always check on them daily for signs of illness.
Horsfield tortoises, similar to other reptiles, are prone to developing respiratory infections if the humidity is too high or if their enclosure is not cleaned regularly. If you start to see bubbles around their nose, or a mucus forming, or if they begin making a squeaking noise when they breathe, you should take them to the vets to be checked out.
Common signs that your tortoise is sick include:
- Reduced appetite
- Discharge from eyes, nose or mouth
- Change in faeces
If you watch your tortoise on a regular basis, you should know what is healthy and normal for them, making it easier to spot any changes that could be a sign of illness.
Horsfield tortoises make a great pet thanks to their hardy nature and high activity levels. They are generally quite friendly but, similarly to other reptiles, they don’t enjoy being handled too much so keep it to a minimum and only when necessary.
Buying a Horsfield Tortoise
Due to their vulnerable status on the IUCN red list, Horsfield tortoises are also listed on Appendix II of CITES which means that they cannot be sold, imported, bred, or traded without specific licenses and permissions.
Make sure that you buy your tortoise from a reputable breeder and ask for the required documentation to ensure that you are not unknowingly supporting the illegal pet trade.
From their diet, to their water dishes, there are so many things you need to consider when caring for your Horsfield tortoise and it is so difficult to find all the information that you need when you decide to get one as a pet. Hopefully, this guide will help you keep a healthy pet Russian tortoise and will give you a better understanding of their needs.
Let us know if you have any questions!