Horsfield’s Tortoise Care Guide

A popular species of tortoise to own, Horsfield’s or Russian tortoises make an excellent tortoise for the first time keeper. This is our guide on their care, including instructions for both hibernation and overwintering.
Horsfield's tortoise


Horsfield’s tortoise goes by many names, including the Russian tortoise. Named after American naturalist Thomas Horsfield, these herbivorous reptiles originate from a widespread area of Asia. They are most common in semi-desert environments that experience quite extreme temperatures and are also found at moderate altitudes. They are a small species of tortoise closely related to Mediterranean species but with a few differences, such as having four claws on the forelimbs instead of five. Males on average reach 13-20cm in length, and females are slightly bigger at 15-25cm. They are also sexually dimorphic, with females having a short, fat tail compared to the males’ longer one which is usually tucked to one side. Males also have longer claws than females. Horsfield’s are listed as vulnerable species by the IUCN, mainly threatened by human development into natural habitats and over-collection from the wild. They however do not require documentation as with some other tortoise species.

Generally, these tortoises are characterised by having round, slightly flattened shells that feature brown or black scutes alternating with yellow to olive green. Two Horsfield’s tortoises were some of the first creatures of earth to travel safely to the moon and back as part of the Zond 5 mission in 1968. As you may expect, they are long lived animals living up to 80 years old on average with the correct care. Ensure you are receiving a healthy tortoise and supporting responsible trade by only choosing animals bred in captivity.


Horsfield’s tortoises do well in specialised enclosures known as tortoise tables. This is mainly because wooden vivarium enclosures can retain humidity, and tortoises generally do not interact well with glass doors. Tortoise tables are wooden all the way around and allow complete evaporation of any moisture. They also allow for deeper substrate, being accessible from above. A minimum enclosure length of 3ft is recommended. Larger sizes are available such as the range produced by Vivexotic. Additional space is always appreciated by reptiles (especially at adult size) and allows for better temperature/light gradients, as well as more opportunities for enrichment and activity.

Outdoor housing is possible and encouraged for this species during the warmer months, but there are some things to take into consideration. In terms of design, you will want something akin to an outdoor rabbit run, with additional wire mesh at around 8 inches below the ground – these tortoises are much more expert at burrowing than you may expect. The location should be well drained, with ample sun exposure and contain no toxic plants (e.g foxgloves, ivy, daffodils, buttercups). Shelter will need to be provided in this outdoor enclosure as well. Applying wooden boards as a border around the sides of the outdoor run will also make your tortoise feel more secure as well as reducing any temptation to dig a way out. Note that in the UK it is not acceptable to keep your tortoise as a ‘garden tortoise’; our weather conditions simply do not match up with their natural environments. Time spent outdoors during warm months will however be beneficial.


The basking area should be kept at 29°C-32°C at one end of the enclosure. The cooler end can be maintained at a regular room temperature, down to about 20°C. This allows a tortoise to move between temperatures and thermoregulate appropriately. To create the basking spot, a basking spot bulb can be used (this needs to be used with a dimming thermostat). For tortoise tables the bulb will be placed in a lamp stand which should be adjustable to help position the heat source to create the correct temperature and spread.

A natural drop in temperature at night is tolerated by horsfields, and naturally colder nights of about 10°C will stimulate the beginning of brumation. Use a digital thermometer to keep track of the temperatures in your setup. If your night temperatures are always colder than 15°C, a low power ceramic heat emitter or similar infrared heat projector on a pulse thermostat can increase ambient temperatures at night without producing disturbing light.

Horsfield's tortoise


UVB lighting is essential for tortoises. Being animals that bask in sunlight in nature, they would normally be exposed to UVB from the sun’s rays. UVB light is essential for reptiles to produce vitamin D3 in the skin. This vitamin is involved in the processes that metabolise and transport calcium from the gut around the body, for use in many functions including bone growth. For tortoises this is paramount to develop a healthy shell. It is all too common for tortoises and turtles to suffer debilitating metabolic bone disease (MBD) where the shell is warped and misshapen, compressing the internal organs. Once it has set in, this condition is sadly not considered reversible and often shortens life expectancy.

A source of 12% UVB, or Ferguson Zone 3 (1.0 – 2.6 UVI) should be used, with a reflector for better spread of light. Position the UVB light at the hot end of the enclosure. Alternatively, for ease of setup over a tortoise table, bulbs are available that deliver both heat and UVB light (mercury vapor lamps). Examples of these include the Reptile Systems D3 Basking Lamps or Zoo Med 100w Powersun. These are generally not compatible with thermostats, so should be positioned at the distance recommended by the manufacturer and carefully monitored with a thermometer to ensure correct positioning. Horsfield tortoises should receive 10-12 hours of light per day from spring to autumn.


Horsfield’s tortoises need a substrate that is dry and not prone to accumulating too much humidity. Some is good for skin health, but excess humidity can cause illness in these dry-environment reptiles. The substrate should also be deep to facilitate digging and burrowing which are common activities exhibited by these active tortoises. The bottom layers can be slightly damp while the top dries out, so the tortoise can dig down to access humidity. Alternatively substrate can be kept slightly damp in a specific area/hide for accessible humidity.

The best choices will be tortoise-specific brands, avoiding any large indigestible particles that could cause problems if eaten accidentally. ProRep Tortoise Life comes in different varieties and serves well as a specialist tortoise substrate for digging and with small particles that can pass through the digestive system safely if eaten. The substrate should be at least 10cm deep.


Being active in the daytime, many horsfields will appreciate small climbing apparatus such as wood or rocks. These can also be used to create shaded areas, so your tortoise can shelter away from light if it feels the need – there should be spots with 0 UV exposure. A dark cave hide area should also be provided for privacy and security, particularly for younger individuals. Water and food dishes should each be shallow and easily accessible. Extra decorations such as desert or artificial plants will also add to the overall enrichment of the environment.

Horsfield's tortoise


A high quality herbivorous diet is essential for the long term heath of your tortoise. Naturally they are grazers that browse all the plants available to them, making the most of the narrow opportunities to eat lush vegetation before they become too dry and the tortoises must aestivate or brumate, waiting for more favourable conditions. There is a wide range of suitable plants that you can offer, usually ranked from safe as part of the staple diet, to only being fed in moderation, or only as a rare treat (usually due to high sugar, or oxalates that bind calcium). As a starting point, the following are good for a horsfield’s staple diet: violet, hollyhock, lilac, sedum album, garden thyme, bergamot, lamb’s lettuce, fescue grass, plantain, cat’s ear, and hawkbit. To mix in with moderation, you can try: garlic mustard, dandelion, chickweed, chicory, clover, endive, pak choi, basil, coriander, radish, cress, and cucumber.

You can also include some dry tortoise diet for added vitamins and minerals, such as ProRep’s Tortoise Dry Formula sprinkled in with greens and vegetables. Scarce additions to the diet include: apple, blackberry, strawberry, peach, carrot, blueberry, and safflower. Toxic plants that should never be offered include: daffodils, foxgloves, ivy, buttercup, begonias, hydrangea, cyclamen. There are many more items in these categories, so be sure to do some research into any food items you want to try with your tortoise. The main composition of the diet should be low protein/sugar, high fibre.

When gathering food for your tortoise, ensure anything shop-bought is organic and pesticide free and that wild plants are not contaminated. If this is not guaranteed, growing fresh stems from the plant yourself would be a safer bet. ProRep has also designed a kit you can use to grow your own wild plants at home suitable for herbivorous reptiles.

Tortoises also require supplementation in their diet to remain healthy. The main focus is calcium intake. With the D3 produced from the UVB light exposure, calcium is needed so it can be absorbed for use in various bodily processes, including the growth of the bones and shell. At each feeding, sprinkle calcium over the food to lightly coat it. ProRep now produces a calcium dust specifically for tortoises, including botanical ingredients for added nutrition. Calcium can also be provided as a block left in the enclosure for self-regulated grazing.

As for frequency of feeding, you can vary this between once or twice a day with enough food to last around an hour. Tortoises will eat quite a lot when they find food they enjoy, but keep the diet varied to avoid any stubbornness. It is useful to weigh your tortoise once a month to monitor weight gain and adjust accordingly (a few grams a month is considered normal).


Provide fresh water daily and remove old uneaten food scraps. Spot clean the substrate of droppings. A full cleanout should be done every few months or as you see fit, using reptile-safe disinfectant such as VetArk Ark-Klens. There will also be instructions included with your UVB lighting indicating how often it should be replaced.

Bathing tortoises is considered good practice to keep them hydrated. Use a container taller than your tortoise, and enough warm water to reach the level where their limbs meet both halves of the shell. 15 to 20 minutes is plenty of time. This often encourages tortoises to urinate/defecate. You can also take this opportunity to gently clean off any dirt with a soft toothbrush.

Tortoises may also need to be wormed. Becoming familiar with your nearest exotic vet is essential, and by doing this you can schedule annual check-ups for your tortoise including faecal sample checks. Fenbendazole is usually prescribed. Check to make sure that a dog or cat wormer has not been prescribed as these are toxic to reptiles.


Technically speaking, tortoises and other reptiles do not truly hibernate – the term used is brumation (simply a state not as deep as mammalian hibernation). This means that if the weather were to suddenly change, they could briefly awaken to make use of resources. However, in captive conditions we keep the winter conditions constant, so hibernation is used as the common term.

It is beneficial to hibernate your tortoise as it is a natural process in environments where winter conditions change dramatically. It is a natural fasting period where consumed energy stores are used up, preventing excessive weight gain. There are some circumstances where you should not hibernate your tortoise, though. Firstly, it is advised that tortoises should be at least 2-3 years old, or above at least 35 grams before they hibernate for the first time – this ensures that they will have gained enough weight to endure the process. At any age, your tortoise needs to be in 100% health by late August at the latest to be considered safe for hibernation (hibernation often begins by November in the UK and lasts until warm weather arrives in the spring). If your tortoise has had any health issues or has been losing weight, or even failing to gain weight consistently in the weeks before this time, it is safer to ‘overwinter’ your tortoise instead.

A guide to overwintering will be included at the end of this section. A good practice is to take your tortoise for a vet checkup with a specialist veterinarian before preparing for hibernation, to be sure they are in good enough health. If you are at all in doubt, just overwinter your tortoise to avoid any harm coming to them.

A 4 week ‘wind-down’ period is usually sufficient for tortoises that are prepared to hibernate. Beginning in late October, start to reduce lighting and heating hours as well as food offered. Provide water throughout. Cooling temperatures will usually prompt tortoises to stop eating naturally, but you may need to persevere if they have a strong appetite. You need to get your tortoise to stop eating as soon as possible into the wind down. During the first week, keep lighting and heating at 10-12 hours as normal and drastically reduce or stop providing food. You can begin to bathe your tortoise daily in warm water which encourages drinking, as well as bowel movement.

During the second week bring the heat and light hours down to 8 hours. This begins to slow down the tortoise while allowing the last of the gut food to be digested (their digestive system must be empty before hibernation or the undigested food will rot). Bathe every other day, monitoring the frequency of bowel movements at this stage. If they are still going very regularly, you can extend this period for an extra week.

At week 3, continue to bathe every other day or so and monitor. Week 4 is for the final checks before hibernation – turn off heating and lighting and give your tortoise a final warm bath mid-week. If they have a bowel movement, extend this period for 2-3 days until they stop leaving droppings and you are sure the stomach is empty. Your tortoise will start to become very inactive. Move them to a cold but frost-free location at about 10°C. Make sure the hibernation box is prepared.

The safest way to hibernate tortoises due to potential erratic weather changes is using a refrigerator (separate from your food storage fridge) monitored with an accurate thermometer. The temperatures and conditions need to be constant. The most common occurrences that can kill a tortoise are accidental freezing, or on-and-off warming that speeds up their metabolism and causes excessive weight loss during what is supposed to be a cold hibernating period of minimal metabolic activity.

The fridge used needs to be reliable, well-insulated and set up well enough in advance to get the temperature stable. It also should not be able to reach freezing point if possible, to eliminate this danger. Make sure it is placed in a location that will not reach freezing point as this will affect the inside of the fridge. The ideal temperature to be kept constant during hibernation is 5°C. Tolerable extremes are 3°C-7°C. Any lower or higher than this poses great risk to your tortoise during hibernation.

Create a hibernation box for your tortoise – you can use thick cardboard, thin wood, or plastic. Double layering is recommended (a box within a larger box). Make sure there is adequate ventilation, and enough space for your tortoise to readjust its position, turn around, and that it is deep enough for some substrate. You can use the substrate your tortoise normally lives on for a natural effect and for temperature retention, but make sure it is completely dry. Shredded paper is also fine, and makes it easier to check on your tortoise if you place some on top of it. Again, an accurate digital thermometer will be very important in keeping your tortoise safe and comfortable.

Check the temperature of the fridge regularly so that you can correct the situation if any issues with temperatures are detected. Temperatures approaching 2.5°C or 10°C call for immediate action. A thermometer that saves minimum and maximum temperature fluctuations is especially useful. You should also weigh your tortoise once a week or so to monitor weight loss. This should be around 1% of total weight lost per month in hibernation.

When temperatures naturally start to increase in early spring, you can wake your tortoise (no tortoise should be in hibernation for longer than four months). The duration can be shortened to 2 – 3 months for younger/smaller tortoises. Remove them from the fridge and the box, placing them in their enclosure at room temperature with no lighting or heating on for a few hours so it can slowly acclimate. Once they have warmed to room temperature, you can turn the lighting and heating on again as you would normally. You can also bathe your tortoise in warm water to encourage activity and hydration. VetArk Reptoboost is a product that can be added to the bathing/drinking water to provide electrolytes that will help in rehydrating your tortoise if they need a pick-up to begin eating again. It may take them a few days to eat.


If you are overwintering your tortoise instead of hibernation, it’s important to keep them consistently warm to fight against the natural hibernation cues. Keep lighting on as normal – at least 10 – 12 hours per day, and the heating as normal as well. If the room is causing temperatures to struggle, you may need to relocate the enclosure or use some extra heating. Try utilising as much natural daylight exposure as well. Temperatures below 15°C may tempt your tortoise to slow down for hibernation, so be vigilant here. You will certainly need night-time heating to prevent your tortoise cooling too much – we recommend a ceramic heat emitter above the area that your tortoise sleeps. Make sure to use a thermostat with this (pulse or dimming). If your tortoise is shying away from basking areas, don’t give up. Moving them there persistently will help them to stay out of hibernation. Encourage them to eat and drink as normal also.


Do tortoises like to be handled? Russian tortoises are considered to be active and friendly as a species and certainly enjoy being let out to explore your home or garden. Tortoises do tend to get stressed when held suspended in the air, so if you handle them, do so gently and support them fully. Sitting on your lap or on the floor with you is ideal compared to being lifted into the air for longer than necessary. Make sure they are supervised, especially if wandering outside of an enclosure – other pets can easily harm your tortoise, even by accident.

How do I know if my tortoise is sick? Any sudden changes in appetite that don’t correspond with cold weather could indicate an issue such as impaction or otherwise. Residue or bubbles around the nose and/or mouth are cause for concern about respiratory illness. If you are concerned, take your tortoise to an exotic vet for assessment. It’s important to become familiar with your nearest one before you buy your tortoise.


Horsfield’s Tortoise Care Guide

Horsfield's tortoise
AT A GLANCE: Agrionemys horsfieldii

Origin: Central Asia; Eurasia
Experience Level: Intermediate
Longevity: 80+ years
Diet: Herbivorous
Temperament: Generally friendly and active

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