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how to take care of a horsefield tortoise

How To Care for A Horsefield Tortoise

Last Updated on September 22, 2023 by Samantha Harris

Horsefield tortoises (also called Russian tortoises, central Asian tortoises, steppe tortoises, four-toed tortoises, and Afghan tortoises) are part of a group called Mediterranean tortoises.

They’re desirable due to their small size, with the average adult measuring just 5-10 inches. It takes a 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 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 animals that learn to tolerate handling when socialized from an early age.

Horsefield Tortoise Table Setup

Despite their diminutive size, Horsefields are a desert species that enjoys exploration, disliking tight and enclosed spaces. Ideally, they want a setup that reminds them of their natural habitat.

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

The ideal tortoise table is a minimum of 6 feet wide and 6 feet long. The height should be 2 feet from the ground, giving them room for digging and exploration. 

Provide twice the space if you want to house more than one pet tortoise. Also, consider adding a divider, especially if you have two breeding-age males.


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 because of their absorbent qualities, keeping the environment comfortable, dry, 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 ideal substrate is at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep.

UV Lighting

Tortoises need UVB lighting to enable their bodies to synthesize the vitamin D3 needed to absorb calcium. This is essential for healthy shells and bones, preventing metabolic bone disease (MBD).

If a pet 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 Horsefield tortoise enclosure with a thermal gradient with a cool and warm side. Also, get an accurate thermometer to ensure the temperature requirements are met.

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

A Russian tortoise requires a basking temperature of 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit and a cooler side that’s 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Basking lights are ideal because the tortoise can self-regulate.

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


Horsefield tortoises need enrichment to keep them active and entertained.

When housing tortoises, put items like rocks, hides, ramps, and logs inside. This will allow them to walk, dig, and explore to keep themselves occupied. 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, unlike other tortoise species, avoid feeding them insects or meat. Even worms can affect their digestive process.

In the category of live plants, Horsefields need a high fiber and calcium diet that’s low in fat and protein. Leafy vegetables and non-poisonous plants are staples.

Horsefields enjoy leafy greens, weeds, flowers, and grasses, like the following:

  • Sunflowers
  • Dandelions
  • Dry hay
  • Grasses
  • Rose petals
  • White dead-nettle
  • Clover
  • Plantain
  • Collard greens
  • Watercress
  • Bell pepper
  • Parsley
  • Carrots

While tortoises enjoy green leaf lettuce, avoid Iceberg lettuce as it’s void of nutritional value.

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

What Not to Feed Tortoises

Flowers that appear harmless but are poisonous to 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 fresh foods, like lettuce and cucumber.

A tortoise’s water should be changed regularly, and any bowls should be 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 pick it up. 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, who 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 months. 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 hibernation box, bathe it in clean, warm water and dry its body before putting it into a hibernation box. The temperature must be controlled.

Find out 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 new and inexperienced owners often confuse the two.

are horsefield tortoise easy to keep?

Horsefield Tortoise Health Problems

Tortoises are vulnerable to illnesses and diseases, so register with a herp vet. 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. 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 this condition 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 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

Soft shell is due to a vitamin D or calcium deficiency. Tortoises need UV light to synthesize vitamin D3, which is needed to absorb calcium.

Inadequate UV light, particularly in younger 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 for a healthy shell. Dandelions and cuttlefish are good sources of calcium for tortoises, but they shouldn’t consume too much.

Caring for Russian tortoises is similar to raising other small tortoise species.

If you choose the right substrate, meet their dietary needs, get the temperature and humidity right, clean the tortoise table, and entertain them, Horsefield tortoises can thrive in captivity.