When you’re new to the turtle world, putting your turtle in a large enclosure full of water may make you worry about whether your pet may end up drowning and die if you’re not around to save him. But can turtles drown in water?
Your pet turtle can easily drown in water if they get trapped and are unable to get to the tank surface to breathe. Unlike fish, turtles lack gills and can’t breathe underwater. They have lungs just like land animals, which they use to breathe and they must come to the surface occasionally to catch a breath.
Our guide below discusses everything you need to know about your turtle drowning. You’ll learn how your turtle is likely to drown, tell-tale signs of a drowning turtle, how to save your drowning turtle, and so much more.
Can turtles drown?
As we’ve just stated in our intro above, turtles can drown. However, you should keep in mind that this mostly happens if the turtle gets stuck under the water, say under the tank décor or accessories, and is unable to come up to the surface to get some air.
Aquatic turtles are generally good swimmers and love swimming in a large tank space.
However, certain factors influence how easily your turtle drowns as discussed below:
Your turtle drowns when it gets stuck underwater
An obstacle may stop your turtle from surfacing to gasp some air. If your turtle gets stuck underwater or something, e.g. tank decors, accessories, or aquatic plants, prevent it from reaching the surface. In this case, the turtle will easily drown.
This factor is based on the fact that turtles don’t have gills like fish. Instead, they have lungs and can hold their breaths for an extended period of time.
But they can’t stay underwater forever. They need to come to the surface to breathe and then go back.
If your turtle becomes stuck, he/she may start panicking or get agitated, causing it to use up the stored oxygen. Then, it will be forced to breathe in excess water to get more oxygen.
This will trigger anaerobic respiration which causes your turtle to produce lactic acid an alternative to oxygen. Since lactic acid is toxic in turtles, it will result in asphyxiation which can kill your turtle in minutes.
Accidental flip over
Your turtle may also accidentally flip over near the water. And if it is unable to get back up on its own, it’ll end up drowning.
The animal may try hard to flip and this will lead to quick depletion of the stored oxygen, triggering anaerobic respiration.
If your turtle gets into deep waters and can’t get out, it may also end up drowning. Your turtle may have dived deep to find a basking spot to rest and it got tired out.
The exhaustion means it lacks the energy to go back to the surface, risking drowning.
Also, if the water is too deep and your turtle can’t get back to the surface in time, it ends up drowning.
Drowning in turtles also depends on the turtle species in question. For instance, red-eared sliders which are one of the most popular pet turtles live in the water most of the time where they swim, eat, and sleep.
This means they’re adapted to living in water and swimming chances are pretty low.
Box turtles, on the other hand, are bad swimmers. They don’t have webbed feet and usually inhabit shallow waters. It gets even worse when it comes to tortoises.
They aren’t used to water and lack any special features to enable them to stay in the water, thus they’ll quickly drown if put in a deep pond or water body.
Do sea turtles drown?
Unfortunately, sea turtles can also drown if they don’t get to the surface in time to catch a breath. Sea turtles too have lungs and can’t stay submerged in water forever.
They’ll need to come to the surface from time to time to take in some air. If they don’t catch air at the right time, drowning becomes inevitable.
That said, one special capability of sea turtles not present in other turtle species is their ability to hold their breath for a little bit longer.
They can do it for around 4-7 hours when resting. But after this period is over, the turtle must come to the surface to breathe!
It’s worth noting that sea turtles have biologically evolved to this kind of breathing system, so their drowning cases are not frequent. They know exactly what time to surface to replenish their lungs.
Human-made traps are to blame for sea turtles drowning. These include fishnets, ghost nets, crab-catching devices, etc.
When the sea turtle gets trapped in any of these, it panics and tries hard to escape. This increases its stress level, quickly draining its stored oxygen and leading to drowning and possible death in a matter of minutes.
Signs of turtle drowning
Now that we have answered can a turtle drown question, the next thing you need to know is signs that your turtle is drowning.
A drowned turtle will die just a few moments after due to lack of oxygen and it usually floats lifelessly on the surface. However, you should be careful not to mistake your pet floating for fun as being dead.
The first thing to do if you find your turtle floating is to push it into the water. If it sinks and goes under the water, then it’s alive.
On the other hand, a dead turtle will bounce back on the surface.
You should also check if your turtle is simply sleeping underwater or is just dead. Poke him with your finger or anything else softly and see how it reacts.
If it shows movement, e.g. tucking its head inside the shell, then it’s alive and just resting underwater. If it doesn’t move its head, hands, or legs, then it’s probably dead.
Does your turtle have other tank mates such as fish? If yes, they may gather near the presumably drowned turtle. And you should take this as a sign that something isn’t right with your pet.
If your pet turtle doesn’t show any movements, simply place it on its basking spot and look out for additional signs of life.
Closely inspect the area between its frontal limbs and neck (this is where the lungs are situated). If your turtle is alive, you should be able to see some inhaling and exhaling movement taking place in this area.
How do you save a turtle from drowning?
The last you want to picture is your turtle floating lifeless in the enclosure due to drowning.
So, if you can, you should jump in time and save your drowning turtle. But how exactly to do it?
Below are the key steps to follow to save your pet from looming death:
Step #1. Get the turtle out of the water
When you find your turtle drowning, you should take it out of the water immediately and then tilt its body forward such that the head stays lower than the tail. Whatever you do, DO NOT turn your pet turtle upside down!
Step #2. Get the water out of its body
Place the second finger of one hand such that it rests behind the skull/jaw on the side of the head while the thumb rests behind the skull/jaw on the other side.
Now use your other hand, from above, such that its thumb pushes down gently on the turtle’s lower jaw.
The jaw should open easily if your animal is limp and water will likely run out of the turtle’s mouth. If the jaw doesn’t open, don’t force it.
Step 3. Time for the turtle CPR
With your turtle still in its tilted forward position, move its front legs forward and then back into the shell gently—i.e., make a pumping action.
By doing this, you’re essentially mimicking the turtle’s natural breathing pattern, by forcing its lungs to compress by reducing the space inside its shell. If possible, get two people to help with this turtle resuscitation process.
Assuming your turtle has drowned, you should see water being forced out of your turtle’s mouth and lungs. Commune with the exercise until no more water is coming out.
Note that some turtles may take a breath immediately after this step while others may take hours!
Helpful tips to keep in mind during the resuscitating process:
- Only try this revival process on your turtle if it’s in a limp state. Otherwise, it may end up biting you
- Don’t give your turtle mouth-to-mouth when trying to resuscitate it. Turtles carry Arizona and Salmonella bacteria, which can make you seriously ill. Plus, their lungs are too delicate for this process
- Don’t attempt forcing a straw into the mouth of your turtle and then breathe into it. If your turtle seems to resist opening its mouth, that’s a sign it may be still alive.
- Forcing your pet’s jaws open or forcing a straw in its mouth will only cause damage to its mouth and jaw.
- After the revival process, place your turtle in a warm, dry box with paper towels and maintain the temperature at 77 to 79 degrees F. This will help with your turtle’s thermoregulation.
Here’s a helpful video showing you how to bring a drowned turtle back to life
Step 4. Take your pet to a vet!
Assuming your turtle survived in step 3, then the final step is to take him to the vet ASAP! This is because pneumonia will likely catch up with the animal after the drowning incident, so you should have a vet look at it.
Also, be sure to give your pet up to 24 hours out of the water and resolve any husbandry issues that may have caused it to drown so it doesn’t happen again in the future.
Can turtles drown while sleeping?
When sleeping, turtles have reduced activity and don’t require as much oxygen as when they’re swimming around the tank.
This means they don’t easily run out of oxygen supply and can survive under the water for extended periods without drowning.
In other words, they don’t need to come to the water surface every few minutes to catch a breath.
The only thing that may cause your turtle to drown is if after they wake up, they get stuck and are unable to get to the surface to replenish their lungs.
Can baby turtles drown?
Baby turtles can also drown. Baby turtles are at an even higher risk of drowning owing to their weaker bodies and inexperience in the waters.
One way your baby turtle may end up drowning is when it can’t easily climb up the ramp to its basking dock and it eventually gets exhausted.
This happens in cases where the ramp is steep or challenging for the turtle to climb. Or if the basking spot is too slippery.
A basking dock placed too high out of the turtle tank water level can also contribute to this drowning scenario.
Other reasons that may cause your baby turtle to drown include getting stuck underwater in various parts of the tank or placing it in a large tank with deep water levels where they get tired of swimming to the surface.
Overall, you can minimize the chances of your baby turtle drowning by correctly setting up your tank so that your cute little baby can easily access the basking area without drowning.
How long can a turtle stay underwater?
The length of time a turtle stays underwater mostly depends on the species of turtle you have.
Some turtles can spend long hours in the water without drowning while others need to surface every now and then to replenish their lungs.
Most land turtles, including box turtles and desert tortoises, can only survive underwater for a few minutes without drowning.
Aquatic turtles can stay for approx. 30 minutes before surfacing, though some species can stay submerged for hours.
As for sea turtles, they can stay underwater for 7-10 hours without any drowning issues.
Some species feature gill-like structures that enable them to still take in little oxygen quantities while still underwater, enabling them to stay in the water for longer without the danger of drowning.
Moreover, the length of time a turtle spends in the water depends on its body temperature as well as its metabolism rate.
If the turtle is placed in cold water, the metabolism rate significantly lowers, and your turtle can survive underwater for longer periods of time.
Case in point, during winter, your turtle enters hibernation mode and can go for months underwater
Frequently Asked Questions:
Turtles can’t drown during hibernation. During this phase, the turtle metabolism rate has significantly decreased and it uses pretty little oxygen. This enables the aquatic animal to survive for months without breathing. If need be, the turtle will breathe through its butt during the hibernation process.
Red-eared sliders can drown if they don’t get to the surface in time to catch a breath. However, these aquatic turtles are used to living in water and it’s very rare for them to drown. The only time this is likely to happen is when your pet gets trapped or tangled by something that keeps it from reaching the surface.
Turtles drowning isn’t something new, despite these aquatic being good swimmers. The chances of drowning usually increase if your pet gets stuck by an obstacle in its tank. Deep waters and accidental flip overs are additional risk factors for drowning in turtles. The species of turtle you have also influence its possibility of drowning.
This guide has discussed eve thing you need to know about turtles drowning including how they drown and the signs of a drowning turtle to look out for. We’re now hopeful that you can easily tell when your turtle is in danger and the steps you can take to help save your pet turtle from death.