Home » How To Care for Horsefield Tortoises [A Complete Guide]
how to take care of a horsefield tortoise

How To Care for Horsefield Tortoises [A Complete Guide]

(Last Updated On: January 30, 2023)

Horsefield tortoises (also known as the Russian tortoise, central Asian tortoise, steppe tortoise, four-toed tortoise, and Afghan tortoise) are popular family pets.

They’re desirable due to their small size, with the average adult measuring just 5-10 inches. It takes the Horsefield tortoise about 10 years to reach maturity.

According to Zoo Biology, tortoises grow faster in the wild due to their higher feeding intensity.

Horsefield tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) can live for 50-100 years. They’re so long-lived that there are stories of owners passing them between different family generations.

According to Natural Ecology Evolution, their life expectancy is attributed to genetic and evolutionary characteristics. However, the life longevity of Horsefields depends on their genetics, care, and diet.

Horsefields can keep themselves occupied and live alone but don’t mind company. They’re usually docile reptiles that can learn to tolerate handling if socialized from an early age.

Horsefield Enclosure Setup

Despite their diminutive size, Horsefields enjoy exploration, disliking tight and enclosed spaces.

They prefer large areas of ground where they can roam freely. Putting a Horsefield tortoise in a small tank can lead to a stressed, depressed, and unhealthy tortoise.

The ideal Horsefield tortoise enclosure is a minimum of 6 feet wide and 6 feet long. The height should be 2 feet from the ground, giving them room to dig and explore. 

If you want to house more than one Horsefield tortoise, provide twice the enclosure space. Also, consider adding a divider, especially if you have two males.

Bedding

Bedding for horsefields should be dry to reflect their natural environment. Excess humidity from the substrate can damage the bottom of the shell (plastron) and cause respiratory problems.

Loose particles can also stick to food and be swallowed when eating, sometimes leading to impaction.

Beech woodchips are made by grinding up the Beech tree’s bark and wood. They’re popular for horsefield tortoises due to their absorbent qualities, keeping the environment dry, comfortable, and odor-free.

Horsefield Tortoises dig burrows in their enclosure for these reasons:

  • Hiding
  • Sleeping
  • Temperature regulation
  • Laying eggs
  • Enjoyment

According to the Tortoise Trust, a Russian tortoise’s substrate must be at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep.

UV Lighting

Tortoises need UVB light to enable their bodies to synthesize the vitamin D3 needed to absorb calcium. This is essential for keeping their shells and bones healthy and preventing Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD).

If a tortoise is kept outside, you can circumvent the need for artificial lighting with natural sunlight. Ensure that the tortoise has access to direct sunlight and shady spots (if it gets too hot).

Tortoises are ectotherms, so they need the freedom to move from one area to the next throughout the day to regulate their body temperature. So, set up the enclosure with a thermal gradient.

Horsefield tortoises need an overhead heat source or lamp. Since they’re cold-blooded (ectothermic), this is necessary to regulate their body temperatures.

Aim for temperatures of 84-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Basking lights are ideal, as the tortoise can move in and out of the heat when required.

Ensure the lamp is positioned where the tortoise can’t touch, bump, or knock it over.

Alternatively, you can get ceramic heat plates, which provide no light but keep the enclosure warm.

what to feed a horsefield tortoise

Enrichment

Horsefield tortoises need enrichment to keep them active and entertained.

Place items like rocks, hides, ramps, and logs in the enclosure. This will allow them to walk, dig, and explore to keep themselves occupied.

Horsefield tortoise enrichment ideas include:

  • Alternating foods.
  • Puzzles and rewards.
  • Setting up mazes.
  • Pushing toys.
  • Digging activities.

Food And Diet

Horsefield tortoises are herbivorous animals, so they can’t eat animal protein. So, avoid feeding them insects or meat because even worms can adversely affect their digestive process.

In the category of plants, Horsefields need a diet rich in fiber and calcium while low in fat. Leafy vegetables and non-poisonous plants are staples.

Horsefields enjoy weeds, flowers, and grasses, including the following:

Include nutritional supplements, especially calcium, in a Horsefield’s diet.

What Not to Feed a Horsefield Tortoise

Flowers that appear harmless but are poisonous to Horsefield tortoises include the following:

  • Buttercups
  • Begonias
  • Daffodils
  • Ivy
  • Hyacinths
  • Foxgloves
  • Milkweed
  • Tulips

There are many others, so verify that each food is tortoise-safe.

Water Requirements

Tortoises need a supply of clean, fresh water available 24/7. Horsefields also glean water from certain foods, like lettuce and cucumber.

A tortoise’s water should be changed regularly, and any bowls cleaned frequently.

Tortoises like to soak in warm water, which can aid hydration, help them shed skin, and relieve constipation. They’ll benefit from 2-3 soaks a week that last 15-20 minutes.

However, ensure the water level is below neck height to prevent the tortoise from drowning. Tortoises aren’t strong swimmers, like turtles.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Like Company?

Horsefield tortoises don’t require company, and most can live alone if given enough space to explore and enrichment to keep them occupied.

If socialized from a young age, a Horsefield may like company but won’t grow lonely when you’re away.

Horsefields can be kept with other tortoises of their species, but you’ll need to take precautions. Males are naturally aggressive with each other, often fighting for dominance.

Conflict can be limited by giving the tortoises enough space to carve out their territories. As long as they can get away and unwind from each other, they can live harmoniously.

You can place dividers in the enclosure to give tortoises a defined territory.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Like to Be Handled?

Horsefields can be overstimulated if they’re handled too often. It’s best to keep handling sessions to 5-10 minutes or slightly longer if done every other day.

Horsefields can be trained and socialized to tolerate the company of their owners. The earlier you enter the tortoise’s life, the more accepting it’ll be of human company.

There are stories of Horsefields enjoying rubs, especially on their necks. Sometimes, they’ll even stretch out their necks toward you. This leads to questions about whether tortoises feel love and affection.

When picking up a tortoise, use both hands, as this provides a solid grip and minimizes the risk of accidentally dropping the tortoise, which may lead to a cracked shell.

Do Horsefield Tortoises Bite?

Horsefield tortoises can bite, and this nip can be painful, depending on the pressure exerted.

A tortoise might snap its mouth at your finger when you attempt to grab it. This is most likely when the tortoise is new to the home and hasn’t grown used to your presence.

Snapping can intimidate other tortoises, pets, and humans into backing down and giving them space. That, in effect, makes that area the tortoise’s private territory.

This is common among males, which bite and ram each other to fight over mating partners.

Sometimes tortoises bite in error, perhaps because your finger looks or smells like food.

Do You Have To Hibernate A Horsefield Tortoise?

Horsefield tortoises need to hibernate (or, more accurately, brumate) once a year.

They’re adapted to the warm Mediterranean climate and brumate during the winter. If you’re preparing to brumate a tortoise, ensure it’s fit, healthy, and has enough weight to survive its long sleep.

In the 2 weeks before brumation, stop feeding the tortoise so that no food remains in its stomach during the brumation process. Food that remains in the stomach will rot and cause disease.

Before brumating a tortoise in a fridge or indoors, bathe it in clean, warm water and dry its body before putting it into a hibernation box. The temperature must be controlled.

You need to know what to do if a tortoise wakes up from hibernation early. Also, it’s important to know if a tortoise is dead or hibernating because the two are often confused.

are horsefield tortoise easy to keep?

Horsefield Tortoise Health Problems

Horsefield tortoises are vulnerable to illnesses and diseases. To keep a tortoise healthy, be aware of the early warning signs. The most common medical issues include:

Respiratory Illnesses

According to The Veterinary Journal, respiratory infections are a leading cause of declining tortoise populations. Horsefield tortoises are prone to respiratory infections caused by:

  • Bacteria infections from dirty enclosures.
  • Weakened immune system and malnutrition from a poor diet.
  • Sudden drops in temperatures, particularly during the winter.

A Horsefield tortoise likely has a respiratory infection if it begins wheezing or producing a mucous-heavy discharge from its nostrils and mouth.

Empty Gut Syndrome

Horsefield tortoises can be vulnerable to empty gut syndrome (dumping syndrome).

This involves the digestive process moving along faster than normal, emptying the gut before it can glean sufficient nutrients.

Parasites, like protozoa, can be a leading cause of dumping syndrome. You can tell if a Horsefield has this condition if you find undigested food in its poop.

Shell Rot

Shell rot occurs when bacteria enter the tortoise’s body via lesions and cuts to the shell. If not diagnosed and treated sufficiently early, this condition can lead to blood infections, such as sepsis.

Horsefield tortoises are vulnerable if they dig and burrow into a wet substrate. That’s why you should provide a Horsefield with drier bedding.

The clearest sign of shell rot is pitting, which is the formation of holes on the underside of the shell. Before this happens, check for white patches on the surface of the shell.

Shell Pyramiding

An unbalanced diet (especially too much protein) causes shell pyramiding, and the damage can’t be reversed. This condition affects the carapace, causing it to grow abnormally, like a pyramid.

Shell pyramiding in Horsefield tortoises varies in severity, from acute to chronic. In more severe cases, it can hinder the mobility of a tortoise and impact how it mates.

Soft Shell (Metabolic Bone Disease)

Soft shell (metabolic bone disease) is due to a vitamin D or calcium deficiency. Horsefield tortoises need UV light to synthesize vitamin D3, which is needed to absorb calcium.

Inadequate UV light, particularly in young Horsefield tortoises, can lead to an imbalance in the calcium-phosphorus ratio, leading to soft shell.

The early symptoms of soft shell include the following:

  • Inhibited movement.
  • Poor muscle coordination.
  • Unexpected fractures to the limbs.
  • Increased risk of egg-binding.

Sufficient vitamin D3 and calcium are required to prevent soft shell. Dandelions and cuttlefish are good sources of calcium for Horsefield tortoises, but they shouldn’t consume too much.

Caring for a Horsefield is similar to raising other small tortoise species.

As long as you choose the right substrate, meet their dietary needs, get the temperature and humidity right, clean the enclosure, and entertain them, Horsefield tortoises can thrive in captivity.