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Russian Tortoise Basic Care and some insight

 

Russian tortoises seem to be one of the most popular tortoises sold in pet stores. They are fairly easy to care for and are hardy torts.

If you purchase your Russian tortoise (RT) from a pet store the first thing you should do is bring your new tortoise along with a fecal (poop) sample to a qualified veterinarian who works with reptiles, turtles in particular, so the tort can be checked over and the fecal checked for parasites. Most pet store RTís are recent imports that are wild caught (WC) and are usually loaded with them. Some will fare well for a while and then suddenly their appetite and activity level drops and illness is inevitable. Best to get them checked out and treated before illness sets in.  

These tortoises are shipped in crates when imported into the states. They are crammed in with no regard to their health and well-being. This tortuous method of shipping over stresses these fine torts and this is what brings parasites and illness, so itís really important to have them checked out. 

An alternative to buying from a pet store is to buy a captive bred (CB) tortoise from a reputable breeder. A CB tortoise may cost you more financially in the beginning, but over all will save you money in vet bills as they will arrive to you with a clean bill of health. WC tortoises sell for between $50 and $90 in most of the pet stores Iíve seen them in and online for about the same price. A vet visit is on average about $50, a fecal check about $25 and meds probably another $25 or so. So your inexpensive WC tortoise just from the get go has cost you at least $150 or more and its health is questionable.

If you purchase a CB hatchling they usually sell for anywhere from $150 to $175 and will arrive healthy and parasite free with minimum stress because even if shipped they will be shipped individually, not piled in a crate with hundreds of other torts. So this should all be considered before purchasing your tortoise. 

Set Up: 

The larger you can make the set up for your tortoise the happier and healthier it will be. So do your best to provide it with as much space as possible.

That being said if you canít provide a large habitat you can keep your RT in a large Rubbermaid type tub (50 gallon or larger) or larger under bed storage box. Many people build tortoise tables, which can be raised up and built against a wall, built on table legs, or on the floor. Iíll provide some links with pictures to give you some ideas.  

I find the best substrate to be a 50/50 mix of play sand and topsoil (no additives like perlite, just plain dirt) or sand and coir (sold in a brick that you expand in water). Some brand names are Flukkers, Eco Earth, Bed a Beast. Itís easy to clean up and if some is ingested it is easily passed so long as you keep your tortoise well hydrated. Iíve not had any problems with keeping either my hatchlings or adults on these mixes. No matter what substrate you use there will be somebody out there that has something bad to say about it, so you need to work with whatís best for you and your tortoise. Contrary to what some will tell you, the substrate should not be kept bone dry. It should have some moisture to it. Not enough so the torts are getting wet, but not so dry that itís dusty either. I usually have to pour water in the area of the basking lamp every couple of days to keep that area damp. The lamp dries it up rather quickly. It should be damp enough so when squeezed it holds together but no drops of water come out.

The basking area needs to give them a good warm spot at about 95įF and the other end of their enclosure should be cool at about 70į. A regular household bulb can be used for the basking area, but a good UVB lamp must be provided. This is critical for a healthy tortoise. There are fluorescent types and there are also combination bulbs that provide both heat and uvb.Iíve found the UV/heat lamps to be most reliable and cost effective and provide the best output of both heat and uvb. Fluorescent bulbs need to be replaced about every six months because the uvb depletes over time. Avoid the screw in coil like bulbs as they DO NOT provide sufficient UVB. There are also quite a few that have caused eye problems in reptiles called photo-kerato-conjunctivitis. I like the convenience of the combo bulbs since you only need one fixture over your enclosure. To make life easy and to set a regular schedule for your tortoise set the lamp on a timer. At night all lamps should be turned off to let the temperature have a normal drop like they would have in the wild. 

When setting up your enclosure keep the cost of the fixtures and bulbs in mind. A hood fixture may cost $20 - $30 or more plus a new bulb about $15 or more. Then you also need to buy a fixture to hold a heat bulb for basking, which is about another $10. You may pay $50 for a UV/heat lamp and another $10 for the domed fixture it goes in, but you get much better UVB output and you have the simplicity of one fixture and the bulb lasts longer than six months. If youíre lucky youíll have a pet shop or herp society member that owns a solar meter to check your bulbs output for you. 

There is no substitution that compares to all natural sunlight. If you have a yard and youíre able to provide a secure outdoor enclosure for your tortoise please do so. The bigger the better. Plant it with all sorts of edible plants and weeds, provide a good soaking dish and your RT will be as happy and healthy as it can possibly be in captivity. Just be sure to provide a secure enclosure, which includes a good cover, made with hardware cloth. Not only are predators a threat to RTís but also RTís are amazing escape artists. 

Russian tortoise diet consists of all healthy greens. They need a high fiber, low protein diet. Never give your RT fruit of any kind except for Cactus pear. Fruit has the tendency to disrupt the gut flora and cause a parasite bloom in RTís. Following is a partial list of good greens for your tort. 

Turnip greens, dandelion, chicory, endive, escarole, red or green leaf lettuce, radicchio, romaine, mustard greens, collard greens, watercress and spinach (high in oxalates, but over all good vitamin content). The key to a good diet is variety. Although spinach is listed as a bad food on many sites the other vitamins it contains offset the fact that itís high in oxalates. As long as you provide good variety spinach is a good part of the diet. A whole carrot or broccoli stalk can be given about once a month. Good for them to chew on and help keep the beak trim.

Always provide your tortoise with a water dish large enough to soak in. Change the water daily and/or if soiled. Often RTís will use their water dish as a toilet. If you see a white discharge when your tortoise poops this is urates. Urates are excess proteins being excreted. As long as they are coming out looking more like slime they are okay, this means your tortoise is hydrated. If they begin to get pasty or gritty the tortoise is dehydrated and should be soaked more often and also check your substrate to make sure itís not drying out.

As long as you are providing your tortoise with a good varied diet and lots of uvb, supplements arenít needed. There are excellent dried powders that can be added to your torts food to ensure they are getting the vitamins and nutrition they need.  TNT, sold exclusively by www.carolinapetsupply.com is an all natural supplement that provides great nutrition for your tortoise including calcium. Since there is no USDA recommended dosage this is a good way to be sure you are not over-supplementing because itís made from a variety of nutritious plants.

RTís normally hibernate in the wild so if you do your homework and get the conditions right your RT can be hibernated. Iíll provide a link below for instructions. Never hibernate a tortoise you have had for less than a year, and never hibernate a tortoise that has been ill or is not in optimum health.

Links:      

Tortoise Enclosures:

http://www.russiantortoisepictures.com/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=965 

http://www.turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=726

Male / Female & Other Photos:

            http://www.turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=1596

Hibernation:

http://www.russiantortoise.net/hibernation_journey_orig.htm  

Outdoor heated housing:

http://russiantortoise.org/deck_box.htm 

For further information and detailed care from everything on health to habitat to breeding RTís go to http://www.russiantortoise.org/  There you will find all the information you will ever need on keeping these wonderful tortoises.

For an excellent source of supplies for your tortoise with exceptional customer service go to:

http://www.carolinapetsupply.com/catalog/  Be sure to try the Russian tortoise seed mix and the TNT.

Check List:

  • Enclosure Ė NO TANKS Ė Need open and airy Ė Tortoise table preferred (Tortoise Palace or Tortoise House are great) or large tote 50 gallon + per tortoise
  • Lighting Ė Basking spot 95įF (35įC) basking spot 70įF (21įC) cool side
  • Substrate Ė 50/50 mix Coir/Play sand or Plain topsoil (no additives)/Play sand kept slightly damp
  • Water dish with easy access should be provided Ė shallow water to cover plastron.
  • Provide Cuttlebone for added calcium and to keep beak trim
  • Diet Ė No pellets Ė Dark leafy greens high in fiber, low in protein with double calcium to phosphorus ratio. No Fruit.
  • Soak tortoise once or twice a week for about 20 minutes in warm water up to carapace
  • White excretions when they poop are called urates. This is normal as long as they are not real thick or gritty.
 

 

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