Skip to Content

Can Red-Eared Sliders Drown?

Red-eared sliders, one of the most popular pet turtles, thrive in aquatic habitats, requiring environments like ponds, aquariums, or specialized turtle tanks. While they respire underwater, this respiration is limited and only occurs when they brumate (the reptile equivalent of hibernation).

This necessity for surface breathing underscores their need for a suitable habitat with clean water and easy access to the water surface, ensuring they can perform their day-to-day activities without the risk of drowning.

The short answer is yes, however, this is a rare occurrence! Red-eared sliders can hold their breath for extended periods – usually up to 30 to 35 minutes at a time. When temperatures are very low and they go into brumation, they can even spend days, weeks, or even months underwater!

This is because brumation slows their metabolism rate drastically so they don’t need much oxygen to live.

Today we’re going to tell you a little more about how a red-eared slider might drown, as well as what you can do to help minimize the chances. We’ll also talk further about how long they can actually stay underwater and tell you a little more about brumation and what you need to know about it.

If you’re ready, then let’s get started!

A wild red-eared slider spotted in swimming in a Singapore pond
A wild red-eared slider spotted swimming in a Singapore pond

How a red-eared slider can drown

Understanding the natural habitat of red-eared slider turtles helps pet owners create a safe environment that mimics the turtle’s native freshwater ecosystems. These semi-aquatic turtles require both a basking area to regulate their body temperature and sufficient water depth to allow for natural swimming behavior, reducing the chances of a drowned turtle.

A red-eared slider may be an aquatic creature but like any turtle, they can still drown. Hatchlings and juveniles are much more susceptible to drowning, as they are smaller and can easily get trapped underwater –incidentally, the main cause of drowning for any age of aquatic turtle.

While they can hold their breath for long periods of time, they still need to surface for air to refresh their oxygen reservoirs, so it’s important to keep this in mind when you are designing their enclosures.

Pet sliders have been known to get stuck on fncy, but impractical tank decor, accessories, and even aquatic plants. When this happens, if you don’t notice in time, then the trapped turtle could drown.

Turtles are reptiles and as such, they do not have gills like fish and some amphibians do. Instead, they have lungs just like we do, so you’ll need to make sure that their tank doesn’t have anything inside that the slider might get caught in or which might fall upon it.

Preventing drowning

To foster a safe environment for red-eared sliders and other freshwater turtles, pet owners must consider the water temperature and quality critically. Semi-aquatic turtles, like box turtles and red-eared sliders, benefit from environments that balance both aquatic and terrestrial needs. A suitable basking spot, clean water, and a controlled water temperature prevent the risk of turtle drowning, ensuring these great swimmers have the conditions they need for a healthy life.

It takes a little getting used to, the whole idea that they are aquatic creatures without gills, but now that you know you can get proactive with this information. Let’s look at some things you can do to ensure your slider stays happy and safe in the home that you’ve made for them.


Regularly observing your turtle can help you spot any signs of a drowning turtle or other health issues early. Recognizing the following symptoms of distress or discomfort ensures timely intervention, fostering a long and healthy life for your semi-aquatic companion.

Keep hatchlings and juveniles in adequately sized tanks

It’s fun to watch hatchlings swimming but you need to remember that they don’t swim anywhere near as well as adults or even subadults. If you notice that they seem to have difficulties swimming, then the best thing to do is to simply move them to a tank that isn’t overly large.

The depth of the new tank will be very important. The turtle’s tank should contain 1 gallon of water per every inch of the turtle’s carapace. So, keep a 3-inch turtle in 30 gallons of water.

Baby red-eared sliders are quite tiny, so you’ll need at least 15 gallons of water.

By keeping the water in the tank to the very minimum, hatchlings that are still getting their ‘swimming legs’ should be relatively safe. Ideally, the water depth should be about 1.5 times the height of the turtle.

This should effectively prevent them from flipping over and drowning and in time, a healthy diet and lots of swimming practice will make them strong swimmers and you can upgrade the tank to normal, recommended water levels!

Hometanks has an interesting article on minimizing drowning hazards with a section included for their environment that you can read here when you’re done if you’d like more tank tips. For toys, however, be sure to check out our Top 15 best red-eared slider toys list!

An underwater treasure chest
Aquarium treasure chests are cute, but you wouldn’t want your turtle to get caught in one

Remove objects that can trap the turtle underwater

Do not have objects that can trap the turtle underwater. This should include underwater caves and any meshing or nets that they might get tangled up in.

While underwater decorations like caves and other objects that aquatic animals can swim into are quite popular, these work best for fish. Fish can respire underwater, so if they become trapped they have plenty of time to wiggle their way out.

With young turtles, this can be disastrous, so it’s best to avoid these aquarium additions for now. If you are raising multiple turtles, however, then hiding places are a good idea to keep the peace. In such cases, you’ll just have to be very careful selecting them.

How long can a red-eared slider stay underwater before drowning?

As aquatic species, sliders can definitely hold their breath longer than you or I could, but not for as long as you might think. Adult sliders will usually come up for air every 5 to 7 minutes, but they can hold their breath for approximately half an hour.

Young red-eared sliders have smaller lungs, so they’ll need to come up for air more frequently than adults. A slider’s activity level will also influence how long they can stay underwater.

If the turtle is actively chasing prey or very frightened, then it might only be able to stay underwater for 7 – 10 minutes!

When brumating, they can stay underwater for weeks and even months, but specific conditions have to be met before the red-eared slider can brumate.

As it is a survival technique for the cold, brumation requires the stimulus of near-freezing temperatures to trigger a sharp drop in the turtle’s metabolism.

We’ll take a closer look at brumation next and explain why you likely won’t want to induce this with your turtles at home.

 How red-eared sliders can spend months at the bottom of a pond without drowning

Brumation is dangerous for turtles, but it’s an effective tool for survival. They are usually forced to brumate during the winter when temperatures are freezing and food becomes scarce.

Winter isn’t a conducive time to be active for turtles, as they don’t regulate their own body temperatures. Therefore, to survive the winter, red-eared sliders brumate. To save energy, the turtle finds a comfy spot and becomes very still.

To avoid drowning, the metabolism rate of the turtle drops to almost zero, and in this state, they use almost no energy.

This allows them to go for weeks and months without breathing but not by virtue of brumation alone — the turtle still needs at least a trickle of oxygen and energy to pull off this amazing feat.

They get these in two ways — anaerobic respiration and cloacal respiration.

Anaerobic respiration doesn’t require oxygen and it’s something that humans also use from time to time. With this, energy is produced without oxygen — but there’s a caveat. Anaerobic respiration causes a build-up of lactic acid which is harmful and can even be fatal.

Two red-eared sliders in a Japanese pond
Two red-eared sliders seen in a Japanese pond

Red-eared sliders are anoxia-tolerant, which simply means that they are more resistant to the effects of low oxygen levels.

As such, they can rely on anaerobic respirations when their metabolic rates are extremely low and require very little energy to sustain their state of brumation.

Red-eared turtles have another adaptation that allows them to respire underwater. This adaptation is called cloacal respiration and you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as ‘butt breathing’.

The cloaca serves several purposes for the turtle. They can excrete waste through it and females lay eggs through the cloaca. the cloaca. The cloaca is also used during mating and as it turns out, it can be used for limited respiration.

The turtle respires cloacally by passing water through their cloaca and absorbing a small amount of oxygen from the water through gaseous exchange. The oxygen they receive through cloacal respiration is minuscule, so it’s only really good for brumation, rather than day-to-day activities when it’s warm.

Between anaerobic and cloacal respiration, their low metabolism, and the halted activity, the turtle can stay for weeks or months underwater to wait out the winter quite effectively. It’s not like mammal hibernation in one way, however.

If the water warms up for long enough, the turtle can resume their normal metabolism and get a snack if they really need one, and return to brumation when the temperature drops once more.

It’s just one of Nature’s many impressive gifts and it works – after winter’s gone, you’ll see living proof in your local pond in the form of the turtles that survived the cold.

While pet turtles can brumate, we do not recommend inducing this unless you intend to breed them. Brumation will increase the chances of a higher egg clutch volume in females, but it is dangerous to turtles, so if you don’t intend to breed them be sure to keep the enclosure warm and cozy year-round!

Still curious about brumation? We’ve got you covered! Find out all about it when you’re done here in ‘Do Red-eared Sliders Hibernate‘!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can red-eared sliders sleep underwater?

Red-eared sliders can and do sleep underwater. While they COULD rest on land, as aquatic reptiles it’s much safer and healthier for them to remain underwater.

Some red-eared sliders will sleep on the bottom of the tank, slowing their metabolism to stay under longer, while others will puff up their throats to use like a flotation device so that most of their body is underwater but their beaks can poke out to get air when they need it!

What happens if a red-eared slider is on its back underwater?

Turtles are very good at flipping themselves over and don’t like to have their plastron (lower shell) exposed, so if your turtle is upside-down then something is wrong!

Get a closer look and try to determine if they are caught in something so that you can help to get them free and out of the water for inspection.

Do this IMMEDIATELY – a turtle in this state will be panicked and can easily drown, so time is of the essence!

Can a red ear slider drown?

On average, sliders can remain underwater for 30 to 35 minutes before coming up for air, although they prefer to come up for a breath every 5 to 7 minutes. If they are trapped, then they can definitely drown, so it’s important to be very careful about what you put in their enclosure.

Sliders, especially hatchlings, can become entangled in aquatic plants or man-made objects such as nets and plastics. When stuck, they can drown in a few minutes, so be very careful about what you put in the tank.

Decor isn’t really required, but if you want to use it, just be sure a turtle can’t get caught in it and that it is securely in place and cannot fall or otherwise pin the reptile.

Can red-eared sliders be in water all the time?

While red-eared sliders are excellent swimmers and spend a significant amount of time in water, they also require dry areas to bask. A well-designed basking dock allows them to dry off and absorb essential UV rays, mimicking their natural basking behavior in the wild.

If a red-eared slider is in water all the time, then it may be sick, or the water temperature may be too high and discouraging them from basking.

Check the temperature and if you believe your turtle is ill, then get them to the vet for an immediate checkup!

How long can turtles stay underwater?

The species of the turtle determines how long the turtle can stay underwater. Red-eared sliders can usually stay underwater for up to 30 to 35 minutes, although when active, they like to resurface every 5 to 7 minutes.

Sea turtles, by contrast, can remain underwater longer. When resting, some sea turtles can stay underwater for 2 hours before they need to resurface!

Wrapping up

While red-eared slider turtles are adaptable and resilient, understanding the specific needs of your turtle species, including the temperature of the water, depth of the water, and the size of the basking area, can significantly enhance their well-being.

Red-eared sliders are aquatic creatures that spend most of their lives in and around water, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t drown! Like humans, they need to breathe oxygen, although they can hold their breath for about 30 minutes in ideal conditions.

When fairly active, however, they need to breathe every 5 to 7 minutes, with an exception being made for when they sleep (and reduce their metabolism) They can even stay at the bottom of ponds for several months at a time when they brumating, but this is a specialized winter survival trait.

While they are capable of generating energy from anaerobic respiration and absorbing some oxygen in the water from cloacal respiration, these methods are only really used with brumation to help the turtle survive.

Now that you know how long a red-eared slider can hold its breath before drowning, you can take advantage of this information to help ensure that there is nothing in the enclosure that might trap or impede them in any way.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s article and we hope to see you again soon!

Click to rate this post!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]

Sharing is caring!