An aquarium might seem like the perfect enclosure for your Russian tortoise. It can keep him out of trouble when you're not there to supervise him and it can hold all of his essentials, like a water dish, substrate and dark, cozy hiding places. But aquariums come with a host of dangers for Russian tortoises, from air flow problems to the glass walls that keep him closed in.
Aquariums might be big and beautiful, but those thick and tall glass walls don't provide a lot of airflow for your tortoise. When your shelled friend urinates, ammonia builds up within the tank. Proper airflow can reduce the stench of ammonia, but in a tank the smell can become overwhelming in quick order. The abundance of ammonia not only makes for a smelly room, it can also irritate your tortoise. Spot cleaning daily helps lessen the stench, but it's inevitable that an aquarium will lead to smellier conditions than other enclosures.
Russian tortoises might come from fairly dry climates, but they don't do well in enclosures that fail to keep the humidity between 50 and 60 percent. Too much more and the little shelled guy can suffer from shell rot, and too much less leads to respiratory problems. Too little humidity can also cause dehydration. Aquariums are notorious for making it difficult to maintain around 60 percent humidity. Standard aquarium lids trap the air inside and create a greenhouse effect when you mist your tortoise's substrate and fill his water dish. Screens can sometimes rectify the problem, but an aquarium's inherent airflow problems can still cause humidity trouble.
Many pets understand that they can't climb through glass, but Russian tortoises don't realize this important fact. Transparent walls will have your green friend trying to cross over into the outside world, causing him to constantly scratch at and hit the glass. He might also see his reflection, which can cause him to react to his mirrored image aggressively. His incessant attempts to escape are met with extreme stress, which make him unhappy and prone to health issues.
The simplest alternative to a glass aquarium will not only make your Russian tortoise happy and healthy, it will keep your wallet a bit heavier. A 50-gallon or larger plastic storage tote makes for a safe enclosure that affords your tortoise the benefits of space and good air circulation. Glass terrariums are a big no-no, since they cause the same trouble as aquariums. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, wooden enclosures or a combination of wood and wire mesh enclosures are good options. If you build the enclosure yourself, opt for a minimum width of 2 feet, a minimum length of 4 feet and a height of 1 to 2 feet.