The Russian tortoise is known by many names; the Afghan tortoise, the four-clawed tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise, the steppe tortoise, and the Central Asian tortoise.
Its scientific name is Testudo Horsfieldii or Agrionemys horsfieldii. This tortoise actually has five different scientific names, but those two are the most common.
They originate from high-elevation areas with extreme temperature fluctuations in areas of Asia. They are found in Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, at elevations as high as 7000 feet.
These tortoises make great, long-lasting pets as they live an average of 40 to 50 years old, while some have been known to make it twice that long. One way to ensure the Russian tortoise has a long and healthy life is to feed it correctly.
But what do Russian Tortoises eat?
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About The Russian Tortoise
Before we get into their diet, let’s find out more about these unique tortoises.
Since they live in such extreme climates, they have to find a way to survive the extreme heat and cold. They do this by burrowing into the ground.
The Russian tortoise only grows to about 8 to 10 inches long. The females are usually a little larger than the males. They have four long claws on each of the front legs that they use to dig deep burrows.
They can dig into the rocky ground up to 6 or 7 feet deep. These deep burrows protect them from extreme cold and hot temperatures. Being cold-blooded, or ectothermic, means their body temperature is regulated by their environment.
In the wild, the Russian tortoise will hibernate for about 6 months, though some have lasted as long as 9 months. It depends on the temperatures in their habitat.
As pets though, they can be active year-round as long as they have the right enclosure and temperatures.
What Do Russian Tortoises Look Like?
The Russian tortoise is a smaller tortoise, especially compared to giants like the African spurred, or Sulcata tortoise. It only grows to a length of about 8 to 10 inches long, with males being smaller than females.
Their domed shells are colorful compared to other tortoises. It can range from tan to yellow, or even olive colored with darker brown or black markings on the scutes. The plastron or the bottom part of the tortoise’s shell can be solid colored or have brown or black patches.
The Russian tortoise can pull its head and limbs into the shell for protection, but they don’t have a hinged shell like the box, or painted turtle. Male Russian tortoises have longer tails with bony tips.
Their skin is yellow, tan, or olive-colored, and they have four claws on each foot. It’s why they are sometimes affectionately called the four-toed tortoise.
The Russian Tortoise Is Listed As Vulnerable
Even though the Russian tortoise is a very popular pet because of their pleasant, and active disposition, these animals are listed as vulnerable in the wild. This means their numbers are in decline.
This is because of habitat loss as people expand across the land, being exploited in the pet trade. Many Russian tortoises are taken from the wild and sold as pets.
Tortoises and turtles that are taken from the wild and turned into pets often don’t live very long. This is because of the stress they are under, and more often because they don’t get the proper diet.
Another reason this tortoise is listed as vulnerable is that they are actually a food source for many people in these endemic regions.
To read more in-depth information about the Russian tortoise, please check out our page on The Russian Tortoise.
What Do Russian Tortoises Eat In The Wild?
The Russian tortoise is an herbivore that eats mostly grasses, succulents, flowers, leaves, twigs, and the occasional fruit in the wild. Some have been observed eating insects and the occasional amphibian but they should never be fed these things in captivity.
Since they spend much of their time hibernating in the wild, these tortoises spend the majority of their waking existence eating. The Russian tortoise diet is one that is very high in fiber, and low in protein.
Most grasses have a lot of fiber in them and don’t contain very much nutrition, so they have to eat a lot to absorb enough nutrients to keep them going in these harsh environments. And since they will be spending several months sleeping the cold winter away, they need to store enough food and fat to keep them healthy.
While most tortoises get the majority of their water needs from the foods they eat, the Russian tortoise will drink from pools and puddles when they are available. They also like to soak themselves when it rains or when they find shallow pockets of water.
What Do Pet Russian Tortoises Eat?
Pet Russian tortoises have a large variety of foods available for them.
They get the most benefit from dark, leafy greens, but they can also be fed commercial tortoise pellets. Though if you are going this route, the pellets shouldn’t make up more than 25% of their overall diet.
Processed foods contain too much starch and don’t provide a properly balanced diet for a long and healthy life. It’s best to feed your Russian tortoise a varied diet of greens, and vegetables.
Their diet should mimic what they would get in the wild as closely as possible. A diet rich in fiber, while being low in fat, sugars, and protein, while also consisting of calcium-rich foods is best for your Russian tortoise.
These tortoises are known to be “chow hounds,” meaning they tend to eat as long as the food is available to them. This is because their instincts are to prepare for long hibernation, but as pets, they may not have to hibernate.
This behavior can easily lead to overweight tortoises. If your tortoise starts getting plump, and can’t pull itself into its shell without seeing pudgy rolls sticking out, you should reduce its food a little.
A good way to limit their intake is to remove leftover food after about 20 to 30 minutes. This way they are less likely to overeat.
What Vegetables Can Russian Tortoises Eat?
The majority of their diet needs to consist of dark greens and hay for grazing. You can mix chopped hay into their veggies for added fiber.
Timothy, alfalfa, orchard, and Bermuda hay are all good choices. It can also be beneficial to leave some hay in their enclosure so they can graze on it throughout the day.
Greens your Russian tortoise can eat:
- Collard greens
- Kale (sparingly)
- Turnip greens
- Mustard greens
- Dandelion greens
- Swiss chard (sparingly)
- Bagged Spring Mix
- Romaine (sparingly)
- Red and green leaf lettuce (sparingly)
- Cabbage (sparingly)
- Carrot tops
- Radish tops
You can feed your Russian tortoise some vegetables, but the majority of their diet should consist of a variety of greens listed above.
Vegetables often contain sugars, and starches, and most should be either avoided completely or only fed about once a week. When feeding vegetables to your Russian tortoise, make sure you chop them up or grate them for ease of consumption.
Safe vegetables that can be fed to your tortoise include:
- Bell peppers (all colors)
- Sweet potatoes (only on occasion)
- Prickly pear pads (spines removed or burned off)
Can Russian Tortoises Eat Broccoli?
Russian tortoises can eat broccoli, but it should only be fed in very small amounts and only on occasion. The problem with broccoli is it contains high levels of goitrogens, which in high enough levels can affect vital organs such as the kidneys and liver.
Broccoli can be beneficial in small amounts when included in a balanced diet for your Russian tortoise. Just feed it very sparingly and not very often.
Can Russian Tortoises Eat Spinach?
Russian tortoises can eat spinach as long as it’s not the main green they consume. Spinach contains high levels of oxalates. These can cause calcium absorption problems and the oxalate crystals can group together to cause kidney stones and other kidney problems.
When mixed sparingly with other greens and only offered on occasion, spinach is safe to feed your tortoise.
Can Russian Tortoises Eat Carrots?
Your Russian tortoise may pick out carrots and eat them first over its other vegetables.
Though carrots and the tops are safe for tortoises to eat, they should only be fed about once a week. They should also be mixed with other greens and vegetables instead of feeding only carrots as a meal.
Carrots have a lot of nutrition for Russian tortoises, but they also contain a lot of sugar for a vegetable. Most tortoises, Russian tortoises included, can’t process a lot of sugar at one time. So feed higher starch and sugar-containing vegetables only on occasion.
What Flowers Do Russian Tortoises Eat?
In the wild, the Russian tortoise will eat weeds, leaves, and flowers whenever they are available. In captivity, these tortoises enjoy eating weeds, some grass, and many different types of flowers.
Many wildflowers are actually healthy for Russian tortoises and can be added to their diet on a regular basis. You can also let them graze on their own by planting some of these flowers in their enclosure.
Grasses, weeds, and flowers that Russian tortoises can eat include:
- Clover (both the red and white flowers and the greens)
- Grasses (fescue, bluegrass, rye, Bermuda)
- Prickly pear cactus
- Grape leaves
- Mulberry leaves
- Hens and chicks
- Ice plants
- Plantain weeds
- Chrysanthemum flowers
- Chinese lantern
- Evening primrose
- Purple coneflower
- Violets (not African violets)
If you plant any of these in your tortoise’s enclosure, it may end up eating it down to the roots, resulting in killing the plant. To avoid this, plant them outside the enclosure and snip pieces off for them to eat.
This way the plants last longer, but your tortoise still gets to eat a wide variety of foods. After all, a good, varied diet is the best way to make sure your tortoise is getting proper nutrition.
While your tortoise is eating or grazing on grasses or flowers, he or she may ingest the occasional insect or two. If it does, there’s nothing to worry about, in the wild, they occasionally eat insects.
Just make sure they aren’t consuming insects as part of their diet because too many insects can cause problems because of the high protein content.
What Do Baby Russian Tortoises Eat?
If you have a baby Russian tortoise, it should eat the same varied diet the adults eat.
They still need a wide variety of leafy, dark, green veggies with hay sprinkled in. You can also let them graze in a protected outdoor environment when the weather is warm enough.
The only difference is that babies need to eat more often than adult tortoises. Young Russian tortoises should be fed daily, and the amount of food should approximately equal the size of the tortoise’s shell.
Adults can be fed less because they are not growing as fast as babies, and they usually aren’t as active. The general consensus for feeding adult tortoises is to feed them 5 days a week while leaving two days without food. These no-food days are often referred to as “starve days.”
What Fruits Can Russian Tortoises Eat?
In the wild, Russian tortoises will rarely come across fruit.
They live in arid and desert-like environments which means fruits don’t show up often. When they do find the sweet treats, they will eat them with hearty relish.
Unfortunately, fruits are not good for Russian tortoises because their bodies have a hard time processing all the sugars. You can feed your Russian tortoise a small piece of fruit or two on occasion, but it should be only offered as a treat.
A good rule of thumb is to offer a chunk of apple, melon, a slice of banana, or a single strawberry about once a month.
Too much sugar can cause a bacterial bloom in their gut which can lead to diarrhea and other stomach issues.
Safe fruits to feed your Russian tortoise on rare occasions include:
- Melon (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew)
- Prickly pear fruits
Can Russian Tortoises Eat Grapes?
Grapes are on the list of safe fruits for a Russian tortoise, but again, only in moderation.
As a treat about once a month or so, you can feed your tortoise one or two grapes max. Raisins aren’t recommended—even though they are just dried grapes—because the sugars are concentrated, and the fruits are very sticky.
Plus, it’s easy to feed tortoises too many dried fruits because of their small size. Grapes are okay as long as it’s only a rare treat, but raisins should be avoided altogether.
What Foods Should Be Avoided?
There are several foods that you should avoid giving your Russian tortoise altogether. With the lists above, you should have plenty of variety to feed your tortoise that will provide all the nutrients it needs, but these foods should not be fed to your pet at all.
Iceberg lettuce—The most popular type of lettuce is also the most nutrient-lacking. This watery lettuce has almost no nutrition, so feeding this leafy green to your Russian tortoise is like feeding it solid water. Its stomach will get full, but if you feed it this lettuce all the time, it will quickly become very malnourished.
Grains—Don’t feed your tortoise any whole grains such as wheat, oats, or barley, and definitely stay away from processed grains such as bread, pasta, oatmeal, and anything similar. These usually have way too much protein in them or too many processed chemicals that can be harmful to your tortoise.
Rhubarb—This plant contains very high levels of oxalates, especially in the leaves. These compounds are so high in the leaves that they are considered toxic. Too many oxalates can lead to kidney stones and kidney failure. Rhubarb, even the stems—which are great in pies by the way—contain too much for tortoises to safely eat.
When rhubarb is cooked, the oxalates are broken down, which is why people can eat rhubarb jam and pies and not get sick. Cooking also removes most of the nutritional content, so again, it’s best to avoid feeding this to your pets altogether.
Dog or cat food—Most dog and cat foods have very high levels of grains like corn, soy, and wheat, and are high in protein content. Too much protein can cause shell deformities in tortoises.
When they get too much protein in their diets, tortoises’ shells can grow too fast, causing pyramiding, and the shell loses density. This can lead to extremely painful, and sometimes fatal cracks in their protective shells.
Meats, insects, or other sources of protein—Russian tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores. In the wild, they may consume the occasional insect or other sources of meat, but the vast majority of their diet still consists of high-fiber plant matter.
As a pet and in captivity, they should not be fed anything other than grasses, weeds, leaves, vegetables, and the occasional piece of fruit. As stated above, if your tortoise consumes the accidental cricket or grasshopper, don’t stress about it.
We simply advise against purposefully feeding them insects, pinkies, meat, or other sources of protein.
Do Russian Tortoises Need Supplemental Vitamins?
Depending on the diet, your Russian tortoise may benefit from the occasional calcium supplement. Healthy tortoises that spend a lot of time outside, and have a healthy, varied diet, may not need supplemental calcium as they typically get enough.
If you have a mated, or gravid—growing eggs inside her—female, then you should give her food a light dusting of calcium powder.
Also, if you have an indoor Russian tortoise, make sure you have good UV lighting, and provide a light dusting of calcium powder on its food every other feeding. A great brand of supplemental calcium powder is Zoo Med Reptile Calcium with Vitamin D3, 8 ounces.
Calcium is essential for reptiles. When they don’t get enough they can end up with metabolic bone disease. If it goes untreated long enough, it can prove fatal.
With a proper diet, your Russian tortoise won’t need any other supplemental vitamins. Supplemental vitamins can easily overdose small animals like the Russian tortoise, so it’s recommended to offer a varied diet, as opposed to feeding them one item every day and giving vitamin supplements.
Should I Feed My Russian Tortoise Pellet Food?
Pellet foods may not be palatable to your tortoise. Not only that, but these processed foods contain a lot of starch, and typically are lacking in essential nutrients.
They can be a great alternative in a pinch, or when you don’t have time to fix a proper meal, but they shouldn’t be the bulk of your tortoise’s diet. If you are having someone take care of your pet while you are away, a pelleted diet could be an easy alternative.
How Often Should I Offer My Russian Tortoise Water?
You should give your Russian tortoise a shallow dish of water every day. They may not drink from it every day but it should be there for them to drink or soak in.
You may have to clean it more than once a day because tortoises often release their bowels into the water bowls. In the wild, tortoises will usually drink from shallow puddles when the rain comes. When they do so, they also release any waste they were holding onto just in case they needed it to keep from dehydrating.
You might also want to let your adult tortoise soak in a shallow dish of warm water weekly, especially if they are kept outdoors. During the hottest months, you should let them soak in a shallow bath 2 to 3 times a week.
Baby Russian tortoises can dry out and dehydrate faster than adults so you should keep an eye on their water bowls throughout the day. Soaking them daily, especially during hot days will help keep them hydrated.
Russian tortoises can make great pets for beginners or experts.
They are small, lively, and social tortoises that require plenty of greens and vegetables. Feeding them a small amount of Timothy, Bermuda, or orchard hay mixed with leafy greens is the best way to feed them.
They need a diet high in fiber and calcium and low in protein. By offering a varied diet of collard greens, radicchio, endive, dandelion greens, and wild weeds and flowers such as clover, pansies, roses, and nasturtiums, your Russian tortoise will have a long happy life with you.
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