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Horsfield Tortoise Care Sheet (Agrionemys horsfieldii / Testudo horsfieldii)

posted Jun 29, 2010 16:52:37 by quailpower

Also known as Russian tortoise, Steppe tortoise, Afghanistan tortoise, Four-toed tortoise and Russian box turtle.

Native to Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Northern and Eastern Iran, North Western China and the Soviet territory Kazakhstan.

They are an ideal 'beginner' tortoise because they are very hardy and adaptable and have great personalities.

Size & Sex
Horsfields are a reletively small tortoise, with Adult Females being 8-10" and Adult Males being 6-8". It is very hard to sex a young tortoise, and although the sex of the eggs can be determined by temperature it is not an exact science and can be wrong. As the tortoise matures it is easiest to sex using the tail. A female's tail will be small, only just poking out from under her shell, shaped like a letter V and usually held straight (although it can waggle with walking). A male's tail however is twice the size if not more and is thin at the end and very fat at the base. He will usually carry it tucked to the side, towards one leg.

Tortoise are often bought from pet shops complete with vivariums or tanks. It is possible to create an acceptable environment for the tortoise in these containers however they are not ideal. Horsfield's are surprisingly energetic and walk and wander around much of the day, so a larger enclosure should be provided. Most recommend an outdoor enclosure during the day, and an inside or secure one at night. But before we go outside lets start with the indoor.

Personally I have always used tortoise tables, that is an open topped box with substrate, a few stones and some plants. When not in the outside enclosure this helps them get more exercise - such as in winter when its too cold for them to go out and stretch their legs. For one Horsfield of nearly adult size I have a 4 x 4 foot table - with a second floor and ramp for even more wandering space. But don't panic 4 x 4 isn't a rule its a personal preference, you have to use your judgement for this.

The ideal substrate (or flooring) for a tortoise is a 50/50 mix of soil and play sand. This is perfect for them to dig down into (they are a burrowing breed) and is similar to their natural environment. Sawdust is a no-no, it is too dry and dusty and will irritate their eyes and cause problems if they eat it. Rabbit pellets and alfalfa aren't too good either, with alfalfa being too high in protein (they will eat it all) and pellets can cause dehydration.

Temperature! This is important. If a tortoise gets too cold it cant digest its food and will sleep most of the time, which can cause problems for the wee things. Heat lamps are good for regulating the temperature of an indoor enclosure. Make sure the lamp is high enough so the tort cant burn itself, and yes they will climb on each other's backs to get closer if you have more than one.

You need to have a hot area and a cool area in the tortoise house, one at 20* another at 30* or 70*/90* if you use F. At night its safe to let the temps drop a bit, because the tortoise will be burrowed down and sleeping.

Humidity can also be a problem for tortoises, it can cause respiratory problems and shell rot if it gets too high, but if it gets too low it can cause dehydration. To remedy this; don't let the substrate get to dry, lightly spray with water once a week, or when it looks to be getting dusty. Always have a water bowl available to the tort (although they will probably ignore it) If its a bit on the deep side, add some pebbles to stop them drowning, this is particularly important for hatchlings.

Also it is important to bath your tortoise in lukewarm water. Fill a container with water that will just reach the bottom of the tortoises shell, then pop in your tort and keep and eye on them! gently clean their shell (an old toothbrush works great). Bathing also works well if your tortoise seems sleepy or cold, letting them soak in the warm water for a few minutes gives them a good surge of energy. While your tort is in the bath it will usually poo and wee, this is just the warmth working on the digestive process. For reference tortoise wee should be clear with a white toothpasty substance - this is the urates and completely normal.

Lighting is key to a healthy tortoise, to grow a healthy shell they need UVB light, which comes from sunlight, but which unfortunately is severely weakened if not completely absorbed by the glass in our windows. UVB bulbs are available for when the tortoises are indoors and come in 2.0, 5.0 and 10.0. For tortoises the 10.0 is the recomeneded bulb. An outdoor tortoise will not need a UVB bulb, other than to catch up on a few hours when the days are getting shorter, and to use when they are permanently indoors during the winter.

The outdoor enclosure should be as large as possible and completely protected from predators. A lid is recommended if cats are in the area or foxes. Horsfield tortoises are also natural escape artists, so it is advised to bury some of the enclosure walls, as they will easily tunnel under one similar to a rabbit run. The pen should be at least a foot high as they are impressive climbers. It is also recommended to have a warm dry place for them to retreat to, as well as a small area of cover. I use two small wooden boxes to offer shelter and in the cooler months, I usually fit a ceramic heat element in case they get too chilly. This hopefully will also stop them burrowing down to escape the cold, because they are very hard to find once they have dug in.


The best diet is a variety of weeds (leaves and flowers). Dandelion is a favorite. However for many , the ideal diet is just not available. So what are the alternatives?
Romaine lettuce, Red and green leaf lettuce ,Endive, Escarole, Radicchio, Chicory, Turnip greens, Mustard greens, Kale, Collards, Mixed Spring Greens, Cabbage (on occasion), Rocket, Watercress.

A list of safe weeds will be available soon.

Hibernation is a much debated topic with Horsfield owners. Some claim that hibernation is natural and that the tortoises should be allowed to do it, while other say that their un-hibernated tortoises suffer no ill health, so it remains completely up to the keeper.

Before you hibernate your tortoise you should be sure it is in immaculate health, as a sick tortoise could die if it is hibernated.

Find the Jackson ratio here to see if your tortoise is underweight. Be sure to measure the flat part of the tortoises shell, not the curve as this will give an innacurate reading.

The easiest way to hibernate a tortoise is so acquire an old refrigerator, if you only have one tortoise a mini one will do. Make sure you place the fridge in a room that gets no colder than 10C otherwise the tortoise could freeze to death. Set the fridge to around 5C and place it in a quiet part of the room. Keep and eye on the temp over the next few days and make sure it does not drop below 3C.

A cardboard, plastic or wooden box big enough for the tortoise to turn around in should be drilled with lots of ventilation holes, (a lid is recommended to prevent escapes if the temp rises). Place some substrate in the bottom of the box, for Horsfields a few inches should be acceptable.

Up to a month before hibernation the heat lamps should be turned, off and the tortoise fed significantly less food.

A complete guide to Hibernation is available on the tortoise trust website url=]Here

Although Horsfields mature sexually quite quickly, it is often hard to get a successful clutch out of a male smaller than 5" and a female smaller than 6". Of course both parents have to be in excellent health as well.
Another key part is having a good male to female ratio. One female and male can produce eggs but there is a chance of the male oversexing and exhausting the female. A 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of females to males is best.

Mating will usually commence as soon as the male is introduced to the females. He will initiate this by circling the female, bobbing his head and biting her front claws (sometimes removing scales!). The females rarely seem interested and do their best to escape. Male horsfields make an extremely comical sound during mating.

If the female has been fertilised, within a month she will be ready to lay, however they are able to retain their eggs until conditions are perfect. Females will seem restless and pace and dig if kept inside - this however is the best option because the eggs can be collected swiftly. Tortoises have no maternal instinct and will completely ignore the eggs after they have been laid. Sometimes even trampling them if they are not buried.

They will usually lay between 1 and 5 eggs although more is not impossible. An incubator should be set to between 29 and 35C. 31 degrees is the best temperature to aim for. Take a Tupperware and mix equal weights of vermiculite and water. Gently remove the eggs, being careful not to rotate or flip them. Place them in the vermiculite and cover with some damp paper towel and sphagnum moss. Make sure the humidity in the incubator doesn't get to low and in 8-12 weeks they should be ready to hatch.

It can take up to two days for a hatchling to get out of its shell and they should be kept in the incubator until the yolk sac is completely absorbed. For the first two weeks or more they will be living off the yolk and will not feed. they should be kept in small enclosures with newspaper and similar temperature and water set ups to the adults.
[Last edited Jun 29, 2010 16:58:36]
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1 reply
quailpower said Jul 13, 2010 14:14:43

Here is my indoor enclosure
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