If you decide to get a Russian tortoise, then one of your immediate and primary concerns is what you are going to need to feed them. What is the best diet for this particular species? Let’s find out.
So, what do you feed a Russian tortoise? Russian tortoises are grazing herbivores, so they should only be fed plants, vegetables, certain leaves, and flowers in their diet with the occasional serving of fruit, on rare occasions. Ideally, organic leafy greens should make up the majority of the diet. They shouldn’t be fed protein-rich foods altogether.
Most tortoise species have similar dietary requirements, but it’s important to know what those differences are.
Otherwise, you might cause your Russian tortoise to become ill.
So, let us now look in much greater detail at what an optimal diet looks like for this species, and perhaps more importantly, those foods you really should not be providing!
Optimal Diet For A Russian Tortoise
Roughly 80% of their diet should consist of high-fibrous foods like hay, leafy greens, and plants. The remaining 20% can be made up of vegetables, rare fruit treats, and supplemental foods to create a well-balanced diet.
Russian tortoises are native to harsh and arid climates, including sandy steppes (grassland plains). And they’re also familiar with rocky and hilly terrain.
These conditions make these tortoises hardy, another factor in their growing popularity.
Because of their native environments, Russian tortoises thrive off plants and weeds, and this should be replicated in their enclosure in your home.
Overall, the aim of the Russian tortoise’s diet is to keep it high in fiber, low in protein, and rich in calcium.
And keep sugary foods or nutritionally low foods (like iceberg lettuce) to a minimum to maintain your tortoise’s healthy disposition.
Basis Of The Diet
The top choices for the bulk of their diet (besides hay) are romaine lettuce, collard greens, the tops of carrots, mustard greens, and kale.
Other good choices to give your Russian tortoise are turnip greens, dandelion greens, spring mix, and parsley.
Foods like spinach and Swiss chard should be fed in limited amounts because of their high oxalic acid content.
Add in weeds, grasses, and flowers such as Strawberry, Daisy, Honeysuckle, and Hibiscus, Chicory, Nettle, and Petunias to liven up your tortoise’s daily meal.
Don’t Forget Hay
Make sure to always have hay (like Timothy or Alfalfa) available to your Russian tortoise as they are grazers.
Hay is high fibrous, which is vital to keep their slow digestive system healthy.
It’s crucial to have variety in a Russian tortoise’s diet, to keep things interesting, and to make sure they are getting a good balance of nutrients.
A nutrient that can be difficult to keep balanced in a Russian Tortoise’s diet is calcium.
Importance of Calcium
Sometimes it can be tricky to get naturally high calcium foods that suit the Russian tortoise’s diet.
Therefore, you can try implementing tortoise-approved calcium-rich feeds to give your tortoise the boost their diet needs.
A lot of owners have helped increase their pet’s calcium intake by sprinkling calcium powder over their pet’s meal, so they are getting the best of both food worlds.
Without calcium, Russian tortoises are extremely vulnerable to weak, brittle bones and limb deformities in the case of growing tortoises.
It can even lead to metabolic bone disease that is common in calcium-deficient tortoises.
Treat With Fruit
Every so often, you might want to treat your tortoise to something different. Fruit can be a tasty treat to mix into your tortoise’s food every so often.
However, it should only be given in very small amounts and very rarely (about once a month).
Fruit is very sugary and will upset the microbiome in your tortoise’s digestive system, resulting in diarrhea.
When it comes to water, Russian tortoises are used to having to wander distances to reach fresh water.
Because they are from arid lands, they don’t need constant access to water.
However, you can choose to leave a shallow bowl of water inside your tortoise’s enclosure for easy access to drink and bathing.
However, tortoises are inclined to poop while bathing, so the water will need to be changed frequently.
To help keep your tortoise hydrated, you can bathe your Russian tortoise outside of its enclosure 2-3 times a week for about 20 minutes.
What Foods Should You Not Feed Your Russian Tortoise?
You shouldn’t feed your Russian tortoise anything that is high in protein, including meats and insects. All grains, dog or cat food, and pellet-type foods should be avoided as well.
As we’ve already established, Russian tortoises are herbivores, so they shouldn’t have protein-rich foods in their diet.
If they have too much protein, they will produce more urates than normal, and this can cause problems with their kidneys.
Dog and cat food tend to be protein-rich, so it is unsuitable for Russian tortoises.
Russian tortoises cannot properly digest grains, and grains negatively affect their ability to process vitamin D. A tortoise diet high in grain results in weakened bones despite having enough sun exposure.
Even though they are promoted to be essential to good health, some pellet foods are detrimental to your tortoise’s health.
A lot tend to include grains, like rice or wheat or are high in omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 acids are bad for tortoise health in general.
Specific Plant Compounds
There are some nutrients that need to be watched when given to your Russian tortoise.
Although your tortoise can digest these nutrients safely, too much of one will impact their health.
This is another reason why variety in their diet is vital.
Some of those nutrients to be mindful of are oxalic acid, phytic acid, and tannins because they bind to important minerals preventing absorption.
Oxalic acid is naturally occurring in plants and gives the bitter taste to some greens, such as mustard greens.
It binds to minerals like calcium and, because it’s eliminated through the kidneys, can lead to kidney stones and damage if ingested in high amounts.
Limit your tortoise’s intake of spinach and other high oxalic acid-containing foods to prevent them from developing these conditions.
Phytic acid also binds to minerals as well as proteins which will negatively affect growth and strength. They are found in high concentrations in beans, peas, and cereals.
Even though tannins are beneficial to tortoises in high amounts, they are detrimental to Russian tortoise’s digestive system as they bind to proteins as well.
You can find high amounts of tannins in food like grapes, strawberries, and apricots.
How Much Should I Feed My Russian Tortoise?
It’s recommended to feed your Russian tortoise as much as what is equivalent to their shell size. How much food they eat without gaining weight will depend on how active they are too.
When it comes to feeding Russian tortoises, there is no hard and fast rule on how much food to give them.
It depends on their age, shell size, and (most importantly) how much exercise they get every day.
It’s important to let them have access to grazing foods throughout the day. What that grazing food is depends on where they are housed.
If they’re outside, they can happily graze on the grass that is there, with some supplemental hay if there isn’t enough grass alone.
If they’re in an inside enclosure, make sure to provide plenty of timothy hay or alfalfa hay to maintain their grazing nature.
Aside from grazing foods, a guideline of their shell size amount should be followed for their main meal.
However, Russian tortoises are famous for being overweight in captivity. It makes sense seeing as they don’t have to move as much as they would in the wild to find food.
If you notice your Russian tortoise becoming chubby, it’s time to scale back the amount of food you give until they shed that weight.
You can tell your tortoise is becoming overweight by monitoring what they look like when they pull back into their shells. If they can’t retract fully, they’re overweight.
If your tortoise is active and you worry you might be underfeeding them, you can figure out if they’re underweight by looking at their shell.
If their shell looks too big for their head and legs, they’re probably too thin and need more food.
How Often Do You Need to Feed Your Russian Tortoise?
A general rule of thumb is to feed your tortoise five days a week, leaving a 2-day ‘starving’ period. This ‘fasting’ period gives the tortoise’s slow metabolism time to catch up and digest the food they have consumed during the five days.
Restricting your tortoise’s food to only five days a week will help replace their normal self-starvation period that would happen over the last month of summer.
In the wild, Russian tortoises would go into hibernation during the winter months (December to March) after gradually reducing their food intake for 2-4 weeks beforehand.
Their stomachs need to be empty before hibernating. Otherwise, that food will rot inside their digestive tracts.
If you choose to prevent your tortoise from hibernating, whether that’s because they are alone or not healthy enough to do so, you can alter their feeding schedule.
Feed them daily but in smaller amounts or in an allocated time as some owners do.
For example, one owner gives their Russian tortoise as much as they can eat within 20 minutes, or as much as they can eat in an hour every other day.
Whatever method you decide to follow when feeding your tortoise, it’s important that you keep within their dietary requirements and monitor their weight as you familiarize yourself with their individual needs.
Understanding what to feed your Russian tortoise can be a bit confusing.
And not only that, it can be a little tricky too, depending on where you live, what you have locally available, and realistically, what you can afford.
Nevertheless, Russian tortoises are herbivores and are very hardy to extreme conditions, but they still need the right food to be healthy.
Once you’ve become accustomed to your tortoise’s needs, you’ll be much more confident in the feeding process.
I am an experienced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets, from traditional pets like dogs and cats, to the more exotic like reptiles and rodents. I currently own a Cockapoo (pictured) called Bailey. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site dedicated to sharing evidence-based insights and guidance, based on my vast pet ownership knowledge, experience, and extensive research.