When considering the options for your Russian tortoise’s housing, your biggest decision will be whether to house him indoors or outdoors. While outdoor housing is preferable, it is not always feasible, usually because of the threat of wild animals or weather. If the problem is seasonal weather, think about housing your tortoise outside for part of the year and inside for the other part.
If indoor housing is your only option, you must decide how big the enclosure will be. The size will be determined mainly by the length of your tortoise. Measure your tortoise across the plastron and multiply his length by a factor of ten. This will equal the suggested appropriate length of an enclosure for a tortoise of his size. For the width of the enclosure, multiply your tortoise’s length by five. For the height of the enclosure, multiply his length by three. This will give you a rough idea of the appropriate size of an enclosure for your tortoise.
Your tortoise’s cage can be made out of glass or plastic. A glass enclosure can be harmful to some tortoises, as they may keep attempting to walk through the glass wall. If this is the case, try running a dark border around the bottom 4 of 5 inches of the enclosure, using colored tape or paint. Glass cages will also retain heat, so temperature must be closely monitored at all times. Plastic cages can be made out of plastic boxes (sweater boxes, shoe boxes, storage boxes). These enclosures tend to be the most popular because they are inexpensive and readily available. Both glass and plastic cages are waterproof, which will make them fairly easy to clean.
The bottom of every cage should include a substrate, which can be made out of newspaper, sand, soil, gravel, pine bark mulch, aspen bedding, or a variety of other things. A Russian tortoise’s habitat should also include rocks, logs, and tunnels for him to climb on, under, or in. Every cage should also contain a water bowl. Change your tortoise’s water often, as it will dirty quickly.
Two additional factors need to be considered when creating an indoor habitat for your Russian tortoise: heating and lighting. Tortoises use the range of temperatures in their habitat to maintain their bodily functions and metabolism, which is why a temperature gradient is required for all tortoises kept in captivity. Heating can be provided through an overhead heat source or an underneath heat source. Either way, place the heat source at one end of the enclosure to ensure a heat gradient throughout the rest of the cage.
Lighting not only provides a means of observing your pet in action, but it also provides cues for his behavior. Some bulbs can also provide ultraviolet light, which is essential for the metabolism of calcium. The lighting in your Russian tortoise’s tank should be on a 12-hour cycle to provide as natural a habitat as possible. It can be mounted over the enclosure using either wooden studs or PVC tubing.
If you decide to house your Russian tortoise outdoors, you will have the basic components of an indoor enclosure, with the added consideration of plants. First of all, you must decide what size your enclosure will be. It should neither be too small nor too big, as if an enclosure is too big, it will be difficult to keep track of your tortoise. An area that is 6 feet by 10 feet is a good size for housing one to six Russian tortoises. Then, decide where to put the enclosure. Choose an area that receives plenty of sunlight, is generally dry, and has good drainage.
To begin constructing the enclosure, you will need to build the barriers. These can be made of a variety of materials, including wood, brick, or chain-link fencing. Whatever material you choose, keep in mind that it must be weather resistant and not hazardous to your pet. The idea is to create a wall that your tortoise will be unable to climb over or to dig under. Russian tortoises are escape artists and their climbing and digging abilities are not to be underestimated. When building the barriers, dig them several inches into the ground and make sure they extend at least 16 inches above ground level.
Outdoor enclosures must include a shelter that will allow your tortoise to hide from the elements when necessary. It should be dry and well drained, as tortoises cannot tolerate cool and damp conditions. The shelter can be just a wooden or plastic box, or something that looks like a small house. In regions where temperatures drop below 50°F, supplemental heating will be necessary in the shelter. You should also line the inside of the shelter with a soft substrate, such as hay.
Whether your tortoise is housed inside or outside, it is important to clean his enclosure on a regular basis. If you are using newspaper as a substrate, you should change the paper every day or so. If you are using a more natural substrate, you can spot-clean every day and do a more thorough cleaning when necessary. In particular, your Russian tortoise’s water supply should be changed as often as possible.