Can a turtle drown?
Can a turtle drown? I know it sounds like a silly question – but sadly the answer is yes!
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 turtle has died and what to do if you find it drowning.
Quick Reference Section
Before we get into 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 their metabolic rate.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Step 3 that I mentioned earlier: waiting to see if the turtle moves.
3. 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.
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?
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!