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Housing your Russian Tortoise properly is key for safety, climate control, and ultimately, health management.
One of the biggest habitat mistakes is creating a space that is too small. Avoid physical and emotional stress in your pet by giving them room to exercise and manage their life cycle. A restrictive 1 square yard per adult is the absolute
Ideally, measure the shell of your tortoise in inches and provide a pen that is at least that big in square feet. If you plan to move soon, its current size is fine. If you plan to be in your location long term, plan for a 9” shell and a habitat that is the equivalent of 9’x9’, not necessarily square.
If you anticipate having more than one tortoise at any time in the future, you will want to plan for that additional space now, with a strategy to separate males and females as needed.
Indoor vs Outdoor
Native to central Asia, a sunny outdoor habitat is ideal for your desert dweller.
For the times that the weather is uncooperative, or if you don’t have a suitable yard, a 4’x8’ or larger tortoise table can be built indoors, with as many of the outdoor features as possible. When situating your habitat, factor in traffic patterns, windows, heating and cooling registers, contaminates (smoke, airborne kitchen grease, hobby fumes), air flow, and the loaded weight of the table. Wheels are optional, cleaning is not. A 50+ gallon RubberMaid™ storage container will do if you need a portable pen for a juvenile or short time frame.
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Borders and Security
Tortoises love to dig and climb so habitat walls should begin a foot underground and rise fifteen to eighteen inches above grade. The wall should be opaque. While it seems nice to provide a view, it’s not; they will relentlessly attempt to breach a see-through fence. Remember your pet should live 50-100 years so permanent materials like cinderblock would last longer than fiberglass and need less maintenance than wood. If there are predators (raptors, raccoons, dogs, foxes) around you will also want to build a roof. This can be mesh wire for light and ventilation with a sturdy frame; remember access for maintenance. With automated climate control and lighting, a greenhouse or shed also works.
Outdoors, excavate 12” deep. While the hole is empty, begin the walls. For good drainage fill the bottom 6” with gravel and the top 6” with fine sandy soil. It’s good to get this from a landscaping outlet so you know it is free of toxins and disease from wild animal droppings.
Indoors, a tortoise table will need a 50/50 mix of sand with either loam or coconut coir to 4”, or better.The substrate should be just vaguely moist. It should not be wet, moldy, or dusty.
Unhealthy substrates include:
• paper/newspaper (ink, climate control, flammable)• hay/rabbit pellets ( dusty, molds quickly, protein toxicity, hatchling distress)• peat moss (messy, dusty)• calci-sand (eye irritation, impaction, clumping)• only sand (climate control, eye irritation, impaction)• pine or cedar shavings (toxic fumes, dry, flamable)
As a desert animal your tortoise is very sensitive to humidity. 60% humidity is good. Excess moisture will cause chronic skin or shell problems, and possibly mold. Severe dryness is also harmful, bringing cracked skin and other concerns.
Good ventilation and substrates are powerful prevention tools.
When air flow is poor there’s a high probability of serious respiratory issues. As humidity builds, you can expect skin and shell problems as well.
Your tortoise should never live in a glass fish or reptile tank unless it is custom made and climate controlled to zoo standards.
Get a thermometer and use it. Ideal temperatures activity are 75°-95°, with a range of 32°-105°. It’s not just for comfort, but health.
Your tortoise will stop eating and hibernate below 55°, between 40°-50° is best.
If it’s too hot (or lack of food or water) aestivation brings a long siesta.
Microclimates And Terrain
Since the weather and seasons are always changing, permit your tort to self-regulate by building in microclimates. There should be a cool end around 75° and a basking spot about 95°.
• Plan a sunny pen, with regions of shade plants.
• Provide a small above-ground cave as a hiding place for privacy and protection.
• Your tortoise can dig a burrow or, with maintenance in mind, you can provide an underground box and tunnel.
• A few 3″-8” mounds and rocks with safe slopes for climbing, one nearer a heat lamp for basking. Avoid heating mats or electric rocks.
Balanced UV-A and UV-B lighting is a crucial component of climate, psychology, and nutrition. UV-C lighting is dangerous; causing skin cancer and eye damage.
Herbivores do not get vitamin D3 from foods. Outdoor animals metabolize it from sunlight, but UV-B light is essential indoors. Inadequate D3 quickly spurs Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), the primary killer of captive tortoises and turtles. Oral supplements can help, but too much D3 is toxic.
Mostly UV-B tube fluorescents with local UV-A producing basking bulbs (preferably halogen, alternately mercury vapor or incandescent) is typical. Measurement with a UV meter is simple. Proper spacing of lights, including angle and distance from the surface, is key. Include a minor section of habitat without fixtures. Reflectors behind bulbs increase the output of light, while covers or screens deteriorate the UV quality.
Neodymium “reptile basking lights” and infrared have no benefits. Black lights should be avoided.
Secure your lighting very well; movement by a few inches can freeze or burn your buddy.
Non-toxic plants(link>foods) are wonderful in and adjacent to the habitat. Plants provide food, shade, interest, and privacy. Your tortoise can be hard on tasty plants so include safe herbs and small shrubs.
A shallow dish of water wider than your tortoise serves as a bathroom and skin moisturizer; this can be countersunk in the soil for stablity. Sanitize it regularly. A smaller shallow dish is for drinking water. A food dish keeps meals clean. It’s nice if the dishes can be on a raised platform with a ramp; it keeps out contaminates and provides exercise. Clean dishes daily.