Can a turtle drown? I know it sounds like a silly question – but sadly turtles can drown!
When watching our Chelonian friends swimming around gracefully, perfectly controlling their buoyancy and speed, it can be hard to imagine the risk that drowning poses to them.
The truth of the matter though is that drowning is one of the main causes of premature death in captive and wild turtles alike.
Sometimes, it is caused by natural incidents, a prime example being when female Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) drown during mating. This is due to being too exhausted to carry both themselves and a male to the surface to breathe.
Generally, however, the cause is man-made (no surprise there…). Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin), for example, were so severely impacted by drowning in crab traps that these must now be fitted with “BRD” s (Bycatch Reduction Devices) in some US states.
In captivity, drowning is usually down to an error in husbandry, such as a loose rock that becomes a trap. In this article, I’m going to explain how to tell if your aquatic turtle has died and what to do if you find it drowning.
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Can a turtle drown?
Before we get into if it, let’s get the main turtle breathing myth out of the way: just because some turtles absorb oxygen through their skin whilst hibernating, it does not mean they can breathe underwater the rest of the time!
This is because the amount of oxygen a turtle requires for metabolic function – so everything from digestion to the basic brain activity that regulates their heartbeat – depends on the metabolism.
A higher metabolic rate equals higher oxygen requirements and vice-versa. During winter, the metabolic rate of hibernating species reduces to such a low level that just the oxygen they absorb through their skin and cloaca (see turtles breathe with their butts) is enough to keep them alive – albeit in a state of torpor.
When active, turtles respire through their lungs, which can absorb much more oxygen than their skin. During the spring and summer months, they take advantage of higher temperatures to raise their metabolic rate to a level where they can hunt, mate, and move fast enough to escape predators.
This of course means that they consume much more oxygen, and a turtle such as a Painted Turtle (Chrysemmys picta) can only go 20-30 minutes without breathing air. In a nutshell, any turtle that is not hibernating can drown if unable to breathe air.
Signs of a Drowning Turtle
As a turtle parent, it’s vital to know the telltale signs of a drowning turtle. While these may vary, several consistent symptoms can tip you off to potential trouble brewing beneath the water’s surface.
This is usually the first sign of a problem. Freshwater turtles are generally quite active, and if your turtle is lying still at the bottom of the turtle tank or pond for an extended period, it could be a warning sign. Remember, turtles can sleep underwater, but they don’t stay in the same place for hours on end.
2. Difficulty swimming
If your freshwater turtle is struggling to swim or can’t maintain its usual grace in the water, it might be having trouble breathing. You might notice it frantically paddling or even tipping onto its back, which can be a serious concern.
3. Frequent surfacing
Turtles naturally come to the surface to breathe, but if you notice your turtle is surfacing more frequently than usual or seems to be gasping for air when it does, this may indicate it’s not getting enough oxygen underwater.
If your turtle appears exhausted, unresponsive, or unusually weak, it may have experienced a near-drowning incident. This can be a result of oxygen deprivation and requires immediate attention.
5. Visible water in mouth or nose
If you notice water in your turtle’s mouth or nostrils after it surfaces, this can be a sign that it has been struggling underwater.
If you suspect your turtle has drowned or is in the process of drowning, take immediate action. Remove it from the water, provide warmth, attempt the water-expelling method described in the previous article, and contact your vet right away. Remember, time is of the essence – swift action can save your chelonian buddy’s life!
How to tell if your turtle is dead
So, you’ve found your favourite turtle at the bottom of its tank, completely immobile. Could he/she be dead? Let’s not give-up hope straight away!
These animals are tough, seriously tough. I’ve read accounts of veterinarians nursing turtles back to full health after they suffered severe neurological damage from drowning.
This shows a biological resilience and healing capacity far beyond that of most humans. Let’s have a look at the steps you can take to determine if you turtle has indeed passed away from drowning:
1. If the turtle isn’t visibly trapped under something – check if it is sleeping.
Most pet turtles are diurnal and sleep at night, with many species doing so underwater. This is another time when their metabolic rate is lowered, but not to the extent of a hibernating animal.
A sleeping turtle can remain submerged for several hours with no harm done. Sometimes they even let their head slump down, making them appear dead.
If you are concerned, give the turtle a gentle tap or two on top of their shell with a pencil or stick. If the turtle moves, then it was only sleeping. If the turtle was visibly trapped, go straight to step 2.
2. Check if the turtle has the “tuck” reflex.
The most important reflex for a turtle is to tuck their head and legs in. This is because it protects their vulnerable body cavity from attack by predators.
So deeply instinctive is this reflex that even turtles on the brink of death will still make the effort to tuck in, or at least hold their head/legs up to some extent.
Your turtle may appear limp, but a light poke with a pencil eraser behind the ear or a back leg can stimulate this reflex in all but the most critical cases.
3. Record how long it remains immobile, once removed from the water
If your turtle is making no movement whatsoever, and its head/legs are hanging down limp for several hours then chances are it has passed.
Given how tough they are though, I would always give a turtle a minimum of 12 hrs in the warm and out of water before calling it.
If you have followed steps 1 and 2, and the answer to both questions is no, then your turtle may indeed be dead.
But what should you do after step 2, Just give up? Not at all. Before step 3, you should attempt to revive your friend, no matter how unlikely it may seem!
Take a look at the next segment to find out how.
How to save a drowning turtle
There’s a lot of advice floating around the internet on this topic, some of it excellent – some of it dangerous.
So, let’s clear things up once and for all! What I’m going to tell you now is the only method that has been proven to be successful, thanks to the fact that it uses turtle anatomy as a basis for getting water out of the lungs.
1. Remove your turtle from the water
When you find a turtle that is presumably drowned – remove it from water immediately and tilt its body forwards so that the head is lower than the tail, never turn it upside down.
2. Open your turtles mouth
With one hand, place your second finger behind the jaw/skull on one side of the head and your thumb behind the jaw/skull on the other side. With your other hand, from above, use your thumb to push down gently on the lower jaw.
If the animal is limp, the jaw should open easily, if not don’t force it! If the jaw opens, then some water may run out of the turtle’s mouth – this is a good start.
3. Pump your turtles legs
Now, with the turtle still tilted forwards release its head, take both front legs and move them forwards, then gently backwards into the shell to make a pumping action.
You may need two people to do this. What you’re doing here is mimicking the animals natural breathing pattern, forcing the lungs to compress by reducing space inside the shell.
At this point – if the animal had drowned – water should be forced out of the lungs and out of its mouth. If this works for you then continue the exercise until water no longer comes out.
Some turtles will take a breath immediately after this treatment, whereas others will take several hours.
During this time, please remember the following:
Never try this method unless the turtle is completely limp, otherwise chances are you will get bit!
Never ever try to give a turtle mouth to mouth. Turtles can carry Salmonella and Arizona bacteria, both of which make you incredibly ill.
Furthermore, their lungs are delicate, and you risk severely damaging them. If a vet wants to do it, then that is their decision, but it’s not for us to attempt.
Never try to force a straw into a turtle’s mouth to breath into. If the turtle resists opening its mouth, chances are it’s still alive.
Forcing a straw in or forcing the jaws open will likely result in damage to the inside of its mouth or jaw muscles.
In its weakened state, this could cause necrotising stomatitis to set in. if the animal begins to breathe, it will do so through the nostrils – a straw in the mouth will only cause more distress.
When you’ve done all that you can resuscitation-wise, move the turtle to a warm, dry box with some paper towels.
You want to aim for a temperature of 77-79F (25-26C). In its condition, the animal will not be able to thermoregulate, so this is important.
It also makes putting it under a basking light out of the question. Now on to the next step that I mentioned earlier: waiting to see if the turtle moves.
My turtle survived! Now What?
If the turtle survives, it is important to make an appointment with your vet, as pneumonia is common following drowning and antibiotics will be necessary to make sure it pulls through.
Even if your turtle appears to make a full recovery within minutes or hours – you must give it 24hrs out of water, book the vet appointment, and address any husbandry issue that caused it to drown in the first place. See our turtle species page to find the relevant care sheet for your turtle.
How to prevent a turtle from drowning
Prevention is always better than a cure, and unless it is obvious how the turtle drowned, now is the time to do your detective work.
- Was the water too cold?
- Was it difficult for the turtle to climb out and rest? Was the water at least twice as deep as the width of the turtle’s shell, in case the animal fell onto its back?
- Or, for a hatchling, was the water so deep that it made coming to the surface tiring? Was the turtle bullied or attacked by others?
- Did the turtle get tangled in plants or pump equipment?
Other common questions about drowing turtles
How long can a turtle stay underwater?
A turtle’s duration underwater depends on its activity and metabolic rate. However, an active turtle such as Painted turtles can only stay underwater for 20-30 minutes without breathing air, unless it’s hibernating.
Can small turtles drown?
Yes, small turtles, including hatchlings (baby turtles), can drown if they cannot reach the surface of the water easily or if they become too tired from swimming in water that’s too deep. It’s important to make sure they have easy access to a basking spot and to make sure they can’t get near the filter where they could be sucked up or get stuck underwater.
Can turtles survive underwater?
While turtles can stay underwater for extended periods, they cannot permanently live underwater as they need to breathe air to survive. They can only stay submerged for 20-30 minutes when active, and while some can absorb oxygen through their skin during hibernation, they cannot breathe underwater the rest of the time.
Why did my pet turtle drown?
Your turtle may have drowned due to various reasons, including an inability to reach the surface, exhaustion, or getting trapped under something in its environment. Other factors could include water that’s too cold, difficulty climbing out, water too deep for its size, or being bullied or attacked by other turtles. If a turtle is kept in captivity, improper care or husbandry can also contribute to accidental drowning.
Before assuming your turtle is dead, try the steps in this article about how to save your turtle, there may still be a chance they make it.
Can sea turtles drown?
Yes, a sea turtle can drown. Despite being well-adapted to marine life, they need to surface for air. Drowning risks often increase when they are caught in fishing nets and shrimp nets and are unable to reach the surface.
This threat has significantly contributed to their listing under the Endangered Species Act. On nesting beaches, female sea turtles can also face the risk of drowning if they become overly exhausted carrying both themselves and a male during mating.
Unfortunately, a dead turtle washed ashore can sometimes be an indication of such a tragic event. Conservation efforts are vital to mitigating these risks and ensuring the survival of these incredible creatures.
Can tortoises drown?
Yes, both baby tortoises and adult tortoises, including gopher tortoises, can drown. Unlike turtles, tortoises are not adapted for life in water and are poor swimmers. If a tortoise, such as a baby or gopher tortoise, falls into water and cannot quickly get out, it may become exhausted and unfortunately can drown.
Can box turtles drown?
Yes, box turtles can drown. While they are semi-aquatic and enjoy wading in shallow waters, they are not strong swimmers. If a box turtle, especially a baby turtle, is placed in deep water beyond its depth, it may struggle to reach the surface to breathe, potentially leading to a drowned turtle. Therefore, it’s important to create a safe and shallow water environment for box turtles to prevent such unfortunate incidents.
Understanding that turtles can drown and knowing how to prevent it is crucial for any turtle owner.
These are the main questions that you need to answer to prevent this stressful occurrence from happening again.
I hope this article has helped understand why turtles drown and how to help them.
Thanks for reading and good luck!
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