Horsfield tortoises are a popular choice for beginners and are commonly stocked in pet stores. They can withstand the cold better than many other species of tortoise and this makes them a very a smart choice in Northern climates. They live about 50 years, so your pet may well outlive you, unless you plan on living longer than 50 more years. They are a small tortoise (4-10 inches long) and require only modest amounts of space and food. The females are usually slightly larger than the males. A distinctive characteristic of the Horsfield tortoise is that they have four toes on each foot and bumps at the back of the thighs on the hind legs.
When you own a Horsfield’s tortoise, you own the first animal ever to leave the Earth’s orbit. The Soviet Zond 5 mission in September 1968 took two Horsfield’s tortoises around the Moon and returned them safely to Earth.
It is also known as the Russian tortoise, and less commonly as the four-toed tortoise or the Afghan tortoise. Its official Latin name used to be testudo horsfieldii. Now it is now officially called agrionemys horsfieldii, but the old name still more commonly heard.
Many have been captured in the wild for the pet trade and their wild numbers are diminishing. Sadly, many of those captured and sold will end up dying from inappropriate diet and housing. Hopefully, this article can prevent a few of these deaths and make a few reptiles happier.
The Horsfield tortoise is native to Afghanistan and other places around the steppes of central Asia. Think about what it is like there: cold, rocky and dry, with flowers and other plants blooming here and there. Imagine you are a tortoise wandering around these conditions and you will get some sense of the environment your critter evolved to thrive in.
The bulk of your tortoise’s diet will come from vegetables and leafy plants. Tortoises kept outdoors will graze naturally on any patch of grass, finding dandelions and various weeds to nibble on. Take note of what they like to eat in your lawn and feed them that. Favourite foods are dandelions, flowers, timothy hay, stinging nettle, mulberry leaves, plantain (the weed, not the fruit), rose petals and leaves and green vegetables like cucumber and lettuce. Many tortoise keepers are able to supply an excellent diet just by going to local parks and other green areas and harvesting clover, nettles, dandelions and other things.
Overfeeding is one of the most common mistakes tortoise owners make. Because our species eats several times a day, it’s natural for us to feel like we’re depriving our pet by feeding it only a few times a week. But the slow-moving, cold-blooded tortoise requires much less energy than us. Five or six feedings a week is plenty for a Horsfield tortoise. Each feeding should consist of the amount it can eat in twenty or thirty minutes.
In winter months their intake of food may decrease almost to zero. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about. In the wild, there would be no food around for them at this time of year, and they would hibernate. Their appetite will come back when the days get longer. Hibernation is a tricky subject, and it can be dangerous. Full instructions on how to arrange safe hibernation for your Horsfield’s tortoise are given in our new ebook Practical Tortoise Care.
A very widespread mistake is not giving pet tortoises enough space to exercise. If you are keeping a Horsfield tortoise indoors, provide a minimum of 3m2 of space. They need room to exercise and room to just to be a tortoise in. Unfortunately, most tortoises in pet stores are kept in vivaria, often only three or four times the size of the tortoise itself, and when people buy them they get the idea that this is adequate housing.
Their enclosure should be positioned in a place that allows them to get plenty of sunlight. They will need an additional UV light so they can synthesize vitamin D. You have two options; either get a specialist UV light, plus a desk lamp for heat and basking, or else get a mercury-vapor lamp to serve both these purposes. Either way, it is best to put the lamps on a timer.
You will need to lay down a substrate, something to cover the ground of the enclosure. The best thing to use is coconut coir (the fuzz of coconuts, sold in pet stores as ‘Zoo Med’ compressed coconut coir or Bed-a-Beast) mixed with play sand. Coir alone is too damp, and the sand reduces the amount of moisture it can hold to a level more suited for Horsfields. Organic bark chips can also be a fine substrate, provided you can be sure they contain no preservatives or other toxic chemicals. Whatever substrate you use, cover the floor to a depth of about 10cm. It is important to stop the substrate from drying out completely; a water spray-bottle is good for this. If you have a humidity meter, aim for 60-70% humidity in the enclosure. If you don’t have one, get one! Horsfields are so sensitive to damp that it is good to use the meter until you get a sense of how to keep the substrate at the right level.
Aim to keep the enclosure at a temperature of 21°C. This is just ordinary room temperature, so no special heating is usually needed, other than the basking lamp. Under the lamp, the temperature should be about 32-35°. Night-time temperatures should not be allowed to fall below 15°. In the wild, they would protect themselves from temperature this cold by making a burrow to hibernate in.
Because they’re from Afghanistan, they hate humidity and damp. If they are kept in damp conditions, like on wet grass, pneumonia, skin problems and shell conditions are sure to follow. This is perhaps the most common mistake made in arranging the living quarters for these tortoises. Special care must be taken to keep their living area dry and at a reasonable level of humidity. This means making sure the soil outdoors is well-drained and they have places to shelter, and that their substrate indoors is not soggy. Also, the basking lamp will help maintain proper moisture levels.
The best sort of habitat is a tortoise table – illustrated in our new ebook Practical Tortoise Care. The second-best is probably a plastic storage box, like a Rubbermaid or Really Useful Box. These can also be used to build a good habitat. To provide enough room, you will need two or three such boxes connected them together with tunnels; your shelled friend will appreciate the interesting shape and opportunities to move between different parts of the enclosure. The lid should always be removed from the box, and plenty of holes must be drilled in the sides, otherwise the habitat will lack ventilation and probably get too hot or too humid. However, you will need something to cover the top to prevent escape; chicken wire is appropriate.
The enclosure should also include a water tray. As well as providing water for drinking, it should be big enough for your tortoise to get into for a soak, as some of them like to do. The plastic trays sold as saucers for potted plants are good for this purpose, or in-trays from stationery shops can also be used. Needless to say, the water should not be so deep that that is poses a risk of drowning.
As with most tortoises, the ideal set-up is to have both an indoor and outdoor enclosure. If your living circumstances allow it, I would highly recommend this.
When building an outdoor enclosure, the ground must be prepared properly. There are two requirements: the soil must be well-drained (remember that Horsfield tortoises are sensitive to damp) and they must not be able to burrow out. Some people lay down a hard floor, like wood or something, to stop them burrowing, but this is misinformed. They love to burrow, so let them! There is one very good way to prepare the ground for an outdoor tortoise enclosure. It requires an afternoon of sweaty work, but is very rewarding –
Dig a hole about 30-50cm deep, line it with two layers of chicken wire (experience has shown that a single layer is too vulnerable) and fill it back in with a layer of gravel, then with the soil you excavated. The gravel improves drainage, the chicken wire prevents escape, and the layer of soil lets them play around burrowing and building mounds. If you soil has very high water retention, you may want to mix in some sand before putting it back in.
When the night-time temperatures are high enough, you can start to leave them outdoors overnight. They should dig a burrow to keep themselves snug through the night, and emerge in the morning.
You would never think it to look at them, but Horsfield tortoises are incredible climbers. They can sprint up nearly-vertical walls like Spiderman. This means you will have to cover the roof of the pen securely. A double layer of chicken wire held on with metal tacks should do the job.
Hibernation and aestivation
Horsfield tortoises in the wild hibernate eight months of the year. Most pet-owners have decided that that would make for a pretty boring pet, so they keep them active much longer. Hibernation is a survival strategy in a land with inadequate food, water and warmth. Kept in more comfortable conditions, they won’t resort to hibernating.
In the wild, they also aestivate. This is the summer equivalent of hibernating, which they do to escape from hot, dry conditions. They burrow into the sand, where it is cooler, and go to sleep to minimize their energy and water needs. This allows them to survive difficult periods of drought in their native Afghanistan. They won’t do this if they have plenty of water and temperature are kept below 35°C.
Whether or not to let Horsfield tortoises hibernate is an open question. Personally, I think they benefit from a short hibernation of two months or so. There is certainly no need to aestivate pet tortoises. Hibernation puts a considerable strain on their body’s resources – they have to survive with no food for two whole months and profoundly alter their metabolism – so it should not be attempted unless your tort is tip-top. Before hibernating, alway take them to a vet for a check-up. If the beast is underweight or has any symptoms of a parasitic infection or anything, do not hibernate them.
The most important thing to get right for hibernation is the temperature. It must be kept in the range 4-10°C. If it goes too high, the tortoise will probably just wake up, but if it goes too low, neurological damage may result. This requires a serious amount of insulation, so I like to take two wooden boxes, put substrate in the smaller one, pack the bigger one with styrofoam noodles or some other insulating material, and place the small one inside the big one.
During hibernation, weigh the tortoise occasionally to make sure everything is alright. If you move them gently, they will not wake. As a rule, healthy adult tortoises lose 1% of their body weight each month they spend in hibernation. If you see very rapid weight-loss, something is wrong and you should rouse them immediately. If they have urinated during hibernation, this is also cause to terminate the hibernation, as death from dehydration is a big risk.
When the time comes to wake them up, move the box to a warm place, perhaps beside a radiator. The tortoise will come out in its own time. Check it for any signs of disease. It will not eat for several days, but must be given access to water immediately.
Mating and breeding
You know when your tortoises are sexually mature based on size, not age. Once they reach about 11cm long, they are ready to mate. However, if you wait a bit longer, until they are about 15cm, mating is more likely to be successful.
Mating can happen at any time of year. The mating dance is elaborate and kinda aggressive. The male will often bite the female around the head and the front legs. He jerks his head up and down rapidly with his gaze fixed on the female, then mounts her. Mating is accompanied by a noise like those squeaky toys for dogs.
If mating was successful, the female will lay her eggs about a month later. You need to prepare a spot for her to lay her eggs. Indoors, the best way to do this is to provide a box and fill it thickly with substrate for her to burrow into. Outdoors, make a mound of mixed earth and play sand about one foot high, with sloping sides. Each clutch usually contains about 3-4 eggs, though as many as 9 have been reported in the literature. A single female can lay two or three clutches of eggs a year.
Remove the eggs from the nest and half-bury them in moist vermiculite in an artificial incubator. Anything will serve, so long as it can be kept at a constant temperature of 29-31°C and humidity of 80%. A humidistat, which can be bought in any reptile store, is a must. Like many other species, Horsfield’s tortoises form different genders depending on the incubation temperature, with males forming aroun 29°and females around 31°, with a mix in the middle. I find the easiest way to keep the temperature steady is with an aquarium heater placed in a two liter bottle of water. The thermal mass of the water prevents the temperature from changing too much. Alternatively, you can use an off-the-shelf incubator like the Hovabator. Full charts of the humidity, temperatures, and timing needed for incubating eggs are given in Practical Tortoise Care.
Eggs will hatch after 60-75 days in the incubator.
Hatchlings may not start to eat for a week or two after they are born. Do not worry about this; they are sustained by the reserves of egg yolk during this time. They are very prone to dehydration, and should always have access to water. They can be kept in plastic tube with the same substrate as adults, but extra care needs to be taken to keep the moiture content of the substrate right.
Calcium is the other major consideration. Their shell is growing rapidly at this stage, and is mostly made out of calcium .Supplement their food with calcium carbonate powder, and always leave a cuttlebone in their cage.
Hexamita parva is a parasite that infests the kidneys and the urinary system. Infections are unfortunately common in store-bought tortoises. They can be really damaging to the tortoise. Symptoms of a hexamita parva infection include dehydration, sudden weight loss, kidney failure and thick, viscous urine with a strong alkaline smell. The good news is that it responds well to treatment with a drug called Methranidazole given orally. Your vet can prescribe this.
Injuries from fights between males over mating rights are common, but not life-threatening. The wounds should be washed with antiseptic and dressed daily until they heal. Practical Tortoise Care runs through the SIXTEEN most common diseases that threaten these tortoises, and what you can do to beat them.