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Turtles/Russian Tortoise Sniffing?


QUESTION: Hi Jeannie, thanks for taking the time to answer questions. Last Saturday, I got a Russian tortoise (Tourtiere) and the little guy won't stop sniffing.

Background: Tort is about 6" and estimated to be around 2 years old. He's living in a 50 gallon storage bin with coconut foir and sand substrate, about a 60-40 mix with the sand mostly concentrated on the bottom. He has a hiding log, a water dish big enough for him, an Aloe vera plant, mercury self-ballasted heat/UVB lamp, a daylight lamp, and a little food dish. The temperature of his basking area hovers around 93-95, his cool side is around 74, though the substrate there is even cooler. His food so far has been romane lettuce, strawberry leaves, and dandelions (leaves and flower) with a light dusting of calcium + vit d3 on it. Humidity has been a little high, around 70, but it's dropping in his basking area. I do plan to outfit his tank a little more. He's a very active kiddo, but he won't stop making this small sniffing noise. I rushed him to the vet on Monday, worried it was an RI, but the vet said he was all clear. She didn't hear any respiratory abnormalities, though she gave me some vitamin A booster just in case he was developing one. I'm dropping off a fecal sample tomorrow.

When I returned home, though, the sniffing was present again. I'm worried out of my mind. I gave him a gentle, short bath this morning, careful not to get water higher than where his neck starts, and I'm letting him roam my living room right now, but otherwise I've been trying to avoid handling him and stressing him out. I have no idea why he's doing this sniffing whatsoever. Is it stress being in a new place? Do Russian tortoises sometimes just sniff around? Please let me know your thoughts.

Thank you so much!


ANSWER: Hi Livi,

Please excuse any typos; I'm recovering from surgery and on my phone.

It sounds like you have hin set up pretty well. I encourage you to build a secure outdoor pen for the warmer months if possible.  IMO a 50 gallon bin is adequate for winter, but small for all year round. Outdoors they get natural light and can graze a bit on their own.

Raise the lamp a tad and see if you can bring the basking temp down a few degrees. IME they like it closer to 90 and it helps the substrate to not dry out so fast. Make sure you're measuring temp on the substrate directly under the lamp. Cool temps don't matter as much as long as there's a basking spot. Don't worry about what the humidity reads, because what matters is that there's moisture in the substrate. It should always be slightly damp.  Check every few days and water if necessary; a good daily misting is a good idea, too. Being kept too dry is a far greater risk with RTs kept indoors, because dehydration can lead to bladder stones and serious health issues.  Also take out the daylight lamp--it's overkill if the UVB lamp provides heat.

Don't give the vitamin A. Vets often tend to think tortoises have deficiencies, but it's better to feed a good varied diet than to supplement. Same goes for calcium. Put a cuttlebone in and he can supplement for himself if needed. Try more variety if you can, and avoid too much romaine because it's not that nutritious. Turnip greens are great if you can get them, mustard greens, kale, collards, chicory, etc.

OK, now for the sniffing.  Can you describe more what you mean?  Is there wheezing or runny nose?  Frequent gaping/yawning?  It doesn't sound like anything to be concerned about, but I just want to be sure there aren't any other symptoms. Generally a sick tort will not eat and will be lethargic.  If you just got him, though, he's likely to be fairly dehydrated, so try soaking him every other day for a week and see if that helps.  Parasites can also cause some respiratory symptoms, so see what the fecal results are. Newly imported torts are stressed and often have heavy parasite loads.

Finally, there's no way your tortoise is 2 years old (or CB, if they told you that, too). Pet shops all seem to give this same information, and from what I gather it's because the broker/importer gives them a line of BS, but a 6" RT is a mature wild-caught adult and probably 10-20 years old, maybe older. A 2 year old would be a quarter the size of yours, if that.  It doesn't really matter that much, but just so you know you were given inaccurate information (and the vet should have known that as well).  I don't know if anyone sexed him for you, but it's quite easy with russians, so if you want to know, just ask. A RT measuring 6" (straight carapace measurement, not over the curve of the plastron) is likely to be female, though. Males are usualy in the 4-5ish" range. Older males can be bigger, but usualy they would be more beat up, too.

Hope this all helped. Please let me know if I can help you with anything else. I love RTs and always enjoy talking about them! : )

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Jeannie,

I hope your surgery went well and your recovery is as quick and painless as possible. Surgeries ae never fun.

I raised his lamp a few inches and ditched the daylight one. I'll follow your other advice as well. I want the lil guy to beas happy as possible. Unfortunately, I won't be able to get him an outdoor enclosure right away, but I did take him outside Sunday (haven't the past two days because I've been worrying about his health), and plan on taking him out as much as the weather permits.

10-20 years old? Yes, the pet store had said that they force feed them to grow faster, which is horrible, but I thought he was captive from that explanation. Wow. My baby is all grown up! I'll ask the vet about the sex when I see her next, but Tort's got a pretty long tail and a more v shaped curve on his underbelly. Maybe he's a giant among the tiny. :) I'll also remeasure him tomorrow.

Here's a video of his sniffle.

If you can'thear it at 9 seconds, it's a very short, soft sound, as if a baby tried to squeeze a rubber duck. It lasts less than a ssecond regardless of if I'm in the room and he sees me or not. I thought it might be I was scaring him, but even the vet said he was pretty friendly and he was eating from my hand by Sunday afternoon. He lets me pet his legs, though I'm leaving his head alone right now.

Goodness talking to you is making me feel so much better, I've been really concerned. Little buddy needs to be the happiest tortoise in the tri county area. He's so adorable, I just love him already.

Thank you!

Thanks, it's going very well actualy, but recovery takes a while since it was foot surgery.  Feeling good, though!

The pet store was totally talking out their hind end.  The only way to force-feed a tortoise is by tube feeding, and they're not going to do that--and a 2 year old grown to 6" would be grossly deformed. They're just not meant to grow that fast. In the wild, a 2 year old might only have grown a cm or two in all that time.

I listened to the video. I don't hear anything abnormal, so I think you're fine in that regard.

I forgot to mention that the sand should be mixed thoroughly in with the coir, and substrate should be deep enough for him to bury himself (4-6"). RTs are burrowers, and being able to burrow reduces stress and helps them to stay hydrated.

To measure, put a ruler on the floor perpendicular to a wall, set him on the ruler facing the wall and gently press him up to the wall so he retracts his head. Then read the measurement at the other end. Long tail means male, though (and definitely mature, because they all look female until maturity).

If you want, reply to this message and set it to *private*, and I'll give you my email so you can get in touch whenever you have questions.  


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Questions regarding husbandry of Russian tortoises and other Mediterranean species, sulcata, and redfoot tortoises; general tortoise and turtle care; box turtle care. If I can't answer a specific question, I can provide sources for further research. Disclaimer: My advice is not a substitute for vet care. If I think your tortoise/turtle has a specific medical condition or injury that warrants a vet visit, I'll tell you so, and if possible I'll help you locate a vet. It is neither legal nor ethical for me to provide veterinary advice.


I have kept and bred Russian tortoises for over ten years and have other Mediterranean species plus redfoots and box turtles. I've worked with other tortoise and turtle species while doing volunteer rescue work; mostly sulcata but some leopards, California desert tortoises, yellowfoots, all box turtle species, red-eared sliders, etc. I don't personally keep aquatic species, but have access to a wealth of information and research to help you with any questions you might have.

My knowledge is based on hands-on experience keeping, breeding, and working with tortoises and turtles.

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