What to feed our Russians?

I have seen many recommendations for diets...Some good ...Some bad. Russian Tortoises are grazers and enjoy broad leaf plants. 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 that can keep our tortoises healthy and happy?

There is a real concern among tortoise lovers about abnormal growth and poor health from improper diets. There are also certain "anti-nutrients" in plants that if given in sufficient quantities , have a negative impact on the health of or animals. These include oxalic acid, phytic acid, goitrogens, purines and tannins. More on these later. The true key to a healthy diet is variety.

Russian Tortoises are "programmed" to eat allot in a short period of time. In the wild they are active only a few months of the year. When they come out of hibernation they feed voraciously in preparation for aestivation (some refer to this as summer hibernation though its not really hibernation, but more like a long siesta) .

In captivity they are active most the year and can easily over eat. Also if kept in an indoor pen they get less exercise than in the wild. These 2 factors can lead to rapid growth and a shortened life span. For this reason their diet should be restricted.

When kept outdoors they can be allowed to graze freely and fed daily small amounts of supplemental food. I am fortunate in that I have enough weeds and flowers growing all summer that I rarely need to feed anything else. I have divided my pen in thirds and keep 1/3 growing a fresh crop of weeds at all times.

Indoors, they receive far less exercise and tend to rely on grocery store green. I prefer to feed them as much as they will eat in twenty minutes....daily. I have also fed them as much as they would eat in an hour... every other day. Both methods work.

Also if you chop up hay (timothy, orchard, Bermuda ...etc) and mix it with the greens you can feed larger volumes. I also leave fresh hay in the pens at all times.

Most grocery stores have a decent selection of greens that Russians readily eat. Ideally the greens should be organic and pesticide free. However this is the real world and not all tortoise keepers have access to "ideal" food. So, I have this section as a starting point for a varied diet. The following greens are easily found in my local stores:
Romaine lettuce
Red and green leaf lettuce
Turnip greens
Mustard greens
cabbage (on occasion)
Spring Mix (mixed salad greens)

With the above greens one can develop a good diet. Once again (and I can't stress this enough) variety is the key!
Don't feed the same food day in and day out. Mix varieties and choose a different green as the basis every few days.

Some other favorites of my tortoises that are available:
Hibiscus (flowers and leaves)
Hibiscus (flowers and leaves)
Mulberry leaves
Hen and Chicks
Ice Plants
Prickly pear flowers, fruit and pads (burn the spines off)
Plantain (not the banana type fruit....the weed plantago major)
Mallow (flowers and leaves)
Rose (flowers and leaves....make sure no systemic pesticides were used)
Chrysanthemum flowers
CornflowersPlagiobothrys ssp
Forsythia (flowers and leaves)
Dayflower  Commelina diffusa (flowers and leaves)
Californian Poppy   escholzia  

Make sure all are pesticide and herbicide free.

The following food items should be avoided for a variety of reasons. there are many books and groups that go into great detail...so I won't repeat them here. At the end of the page are a few links).
All fruit (although fruit is often recommended, its sugar content can lead
to parasite blooms....just not worth it) the exception is apples due to the high quantity of pectin....but still not frequently.
Iceberg lettuce
Bok Choy
All grains (including bread, pasta etc)
Dog and cat food
All human food except what's been listed as "good"
Pellet type foods (An often overlooked factor of pyramiding is grain based diets. These are the pellet food that some claim to be essential to health. They typically contain soy, wheat and or rice. These are high in omega 6 fatty acids which has a negative effect on health. They also have an acidifying effect which causes a leaching of bone. They are high in phytate which binds calcium and other minerals. They also have an unfavorable ca/ph ratio and a low ca/mg ratio which has a negative impact on calcium metabolism. Grains alter Vit D metabolism. Diets high in grains can have a negative impact on bone growth in spite of adequate exposure to sunshine. (http://www.sawellnesscenter.com//nutrition/Diet/Cereal%20article-1.pdf)

A number of food items contain chemicals that interfere with a tortoises ability to absorb nutrients from food. Although most food items have some of these...a varied diet can minimize the harmful effects.
Oxalic Acid:
This is a naturally occurring element in many plants and imparts a bitter taste in greens such as mustard greens. This substance binds minerals...the most important being calcium. It binds with minerals which must be eliminated through the kidneys. In large amounts (or in small quantities with improper hydration) can lead to kidney stones and kidney damage. Avoid rhubarb and beet greens. 
Spinach also contains quite a bit of oxalic acid (USDA Nutrient Data Lab.- Oxalic Acid Content of Selected Vegetables http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/Other/oxalic.html).  However this is offset by the large amount of calcium present in the leaves. There has been some concern over using "spring mix" because it contains spinach. The spinach is only a small portion of the mix and young spinach leaves are much lower in oxalic acid than mature leaves. For additional info visit http://www.chelonia.org/Articles/nutrientanalysis.htm
Phytic Acid:
This is found in high concentration is peas, beans and cereals. This chemical also binds minerals as well as proteins.
Although tannins are beneficial for the most part, in large quantities (as with all anti-nutrients) they bind protein and interfere with digestion.
Purines are well known in humans as being a contributing factor in gout. Russian tortoises fed large amounts can develop kidney disease.
This compound is implicated in the development of enlarged thyroid glands (Goiters). They interfere with the uptake of iodine. Limit (don't eliminate) the quantities of kale, mustard, and other cruciferous plants.


One of the most important supplements is calcium. If there is a good source of UVB as with tortoises kept outdoors, a light dusting of the food with calcium daily is sufficient. Indoors use phosphorous free calcium with D3. Minerall is a great product with trace minerals as well as calcium.

Another supplement I use is the TNT (Total Nutrition for Tortoises) Nutritional Supplement from Carolina Pet Supply ( http://carolinapetsupply.com ). This is a nutritionally balanced formula which provides the vitamins and minerals that or often lacking in the captive diet. Itís formulated from a variety of dehydrated and powdered flowers and weeds.

Also of use are probiotics. Most of our animals come to us with abundance of parasites and disturbed gut flora (the good bacteria that live in the intestines). Supplementing with probiotics goes a long way to restoring normal gut function. iFlora  from Sedona Labs ( http://carolinapetsupply.com ) is one of the best probiotics used for reptiles.


Water is very important for all animals. Russian tortoise are no exception to the rule. Being an arid species , much of the water can be extracted from their food. However they do need a regular source. I keep a shallow bowel of water in the pens. Indoors I prefer to soak them for 20 minutes in chin deep "baby warm" water every 2-3 days. This serves 2 purposes. it allows me to inspect them frequently and (since they usually empty their bowels and bladders while soaking) it keeps the cages much cleaner.

Here are some good links:

USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fric/foodcomp/

Wild Edible Plant Nutrition  http://www.edibleplants.com/wepnut_frames.htm

Chemical Composition of Plants  http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/highchem.html

Plants For A Future - Database Search  http://www.ibiblio/pfaf/D_search.html

CalFlora Database  http://www.elib.cs.berkely.edu/photos/flora

California Wildflowers http://www.calacademy.org/research/botany/wildflow/

WeedAlert.com http://www.weedalert.com

Yahoo! Groups : chelonian_nutrition`http://groups.yahoo.com/group/chelonian_nutrition

Medicinal Plants  http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/medicinal/plants.html

USDA Poisonous Plants http://www.pprl.usu.edu/

More poisonous plants http://cal.nbc.upenn.edu/poison/common.htm

For help with growing plants for your tortoise, join The Veggie Patch  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TheVeggiePatch/

Or visit The Veggie Patch http://www.theveggiepatch.com



For more detailed information, visit the Russian Tortoise Page

For supplies specific to Russian Tortoises visit Carolina Pet Supply



Joe Heinen BS, DC, FIAMA, Dipl. Ac. (IAMA)
Copyright 2000 http://russiantortoise.org, http://www.russiantortoise.net