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Practical care & breeding of the Horsfield's or Russian tortoise in captivity.

A C Highfield & Jill Martin

Testudo horsfieldii - Russian Tortoise

Trade in the Horsfield's or Russian tortoise has unfortunately greatly expanded following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Repeated seizures of illegal shipments have now resulted in the need for greater practical maintenance information being made available as many more enthusiasts may find themselves encountering this species.

Sick or injured specimens

A high proportion of legally traded and an even higher proportion of seized specimens are severely stressed and suffer from a variety of traumatic injuries and contagious diseases. The shipping conditions frequently leave much to be desired, and most animals are subject to faecal contamination and extreme temperature variations in transit. Of particular note is Hexamita parva, a highly damaging parasite of the renal and urinary system. This organism has been identified frequently in T. horsfieldi and if untreated leads to rapid weight loss, dehydration and terminal renal failure. It responds to oral dosing with Metronidazole (Flagyl) at 260mg/kg. Other symptoms include thick or slimy urine which often smells strongly of ammonia. It is imperative that hydration is maintained in affected animals and that precautions are taken to prevent contagion of adjacent stock. Routine urine tests should be carried out on all suspect animals. It should also be noted that Horsfield's tortoises have proved susceptible to epidemics of viral disease (Lange, 1989) and should be regarded as potential carriers of Herpes-type organisms. All other health problems are diagnosed, and treated, as per T. hermanni or T. graeca.

Mixing of stock and quarantine

It is highly inadvisable to mix T. horsfieldi with other species. Not only are there potential health risks in so doing, but the structure and behaviour of T. horsfieldi renders them incompatible with most other tortoises. For example, male T. horsfieldi are typically highly aggressive and can inflict severe bites, especially around the face and eyes. Females are also poorly protected against the "butting" or "ramming" behaviour of species such as T. graeca or T. ibera (a behaviour pattern not engaged in by male Horsfield's). Severe traumatic injuries are a frequent consequence of mixing Horsfield's with other species. No safe minimum quarantine period can be recommended even where 'new' Horsfield's are to be introduced to existing colonies of the same species: 12 months should be adequate to eliminate most cases of Hexamita, but indefinite quarantine may be necessary to offer complete protection against viral (or mycoplasma) organisms. Routine worming is also recommended before new stock is introduced to old.

Basic housing

This species has a high tolerance of both extreme heat and extreme cold, and in the wild survives these conditions by either hibernating or aestivating. In captivity, it is essential to provide a very secure pen as these tortoises are exceptionally agile and persistent escapers, capable of burrowing underground tunnels several metres long. They are also excellent climbers. External pen walls should ideally be 'dug in' with at least 30mm of wire mesh set into the ground. In summer, T. horsfieldi is active outdoors throughout Britain and most of Europe, but should be provided with good protection from rain and damp, to both of which it has a poor tolerance. A cold, dry Horsfield's tortoise can survive for some considerable time; a cold, damp Horsfield's tortoise is likely to succumb to pneumonia very quickly. In prolonged spells of cold and wet weather, T. horsfieldi is best removed to an indoor terrarium equipped with a basking lamp and dry substrate.


Essentially as for T. graeca and T. hermanni. A high fibre, low protein and calcium rich diet will ensure good digestive tract function and smooth growth. Horsfield's tortoises fed on cat or dog food frequently die from renal failure or from impacted bladder stones of solidified urates. Avoid over reliance upon 'supermarket' greens and fruits which typically contain inadequate fibre levels, excessive pesticide residues and are too rich in sugar. Fruits should be given very sparingly to this species as they frequently lead to diarrhoea and colic.


As for T. graeca and T. hermanni. Horsfield's tortoises can prove difficult to 'settle' in hibernation, and may scrape the bottom out of cardboard boxes. A plywood box is recommended. Recently imported specimens SHOULD NOT BE HIBERNATED unless they are in excellent condition. Suspect specimens should be over wintered in a warm, dry and well ventilated terrarium. An indoor pen is infinitely better than a 'fishtank' type terrarium.


Highfield, A. C. (1992) Testudo horsfiedli (GRAY 1844) A brief review of its Biology, Ecology and Captive Breeding. ASRA Monographs Vol.2(2):9-15.

Lange, Herbst, Wiechert, Schliesser (1989) Elektronenmikroskopischer Nachweis von Herpesviren bei einem Massensterben von griechischen Landschildkroten (Testudo hermanni) und Vierzehenschildkroten (Agrionemys horsfieldii). Tierarztl. Prax. 17:319-321