Can Your Turtle Drown and What to Do About It


If you own a turtle or perhaps you might just be curious about whether turtles can drown. Here you can find out if turtles can drown and what you might be able to help make sure it does not happen. Also if the unthinkable takes place what you can do to try to help make sure the turtle survives.

Turtles have lungs like you and me, they don’t have gills like fish so they can’t breathe underwater. So while rare turtles can indeed drown if they can’t come up in time for a breath. If you come across a turtle who has drowned then there is a form of turtle CPR that you can perform to increase their odds for survival.

Turtles can hold their breaths for incredibly long periods of time but if they get stuck or trapped on something and they cant surface, then they will run out of oxygen and die.

How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath

Common pet turtles such as Red-eared sliders and Painted turtles can hold their breath for about 20-30 minutes, the numbers are similar for snapping turtles as well. When hibernating this number can increase to potentially months of time underwater without having to surface for air.

The reason turtles can do this lies with their amazing lung capacity and their body’s ability to efficiently use the oxygen available to them. The amount of time they can hold their breath varies greatly depending upon the temperature. Because turtles are cold-blooded creatures meaning that unlike warm-blooded animals they don’t have an internal base temperature instead the temperature inside their bodies is determined by the temperature of their environment.

When temperatures get very cold, often below 50 degrees Fahrenheit their metabolism slows down decreasing the amount of oxygen they consume. When it gets cold enough their body shuts down almost completely and they go into hibernation.

In this state of hibernation, the breath times can stretch out into the months. While they do not breath normally during this state they can, however, absorb small amounts of oxygen through their cloacas and skin. This allows them to stay underwater for much longer. this only happens when they hibernate however and does not occur during normal turtle activity.

While research on exact turtle breath retention is scarce more studies are being done all the time. In a scientific study reported by the Los Angeles Times. Scientists discovered that western painted turtles could hold their breath for an incredible 30 hours while not hibernating. This is longer than that of the loggerhead sea turtle, which can hold its breath for up to ten hours and was thought to be the record holder.

They also found that western painted turtles could hold their breath while hibernating for about four months or so. So our scientific understanding of turtles is still expanding and has a long way to go before we fully understand the capabilities of these remarkable creatures.

It should be noted however that while aquatic species of turtles can stay underwater for a long time without surfacing the same can not be said of terrestrial land turtles such as the box turtle. Box turtles are land lovers and do not even have webbed feet, box turtles can only hold their breath for a few minutes comparable to the length of time of a human.

This also goes for tortoises who are not turtles and are largely land-bound. Lacking in any powerful aquatic faculties.

What Causes a Turtle to Drown

Being that turtles are not fish and with the exception of hibernation can not breathe underwater, if they get trapped or tired and can not surface then they will drown.

The two main factors causing pet turtles to drown would most likely be either severe illness or a poorly designed enclosure. A turtle keeper should try to make sure that the turtle can not get trapped or stuck on any rocks or plants in its enclose. As well as ensuring that the turtles basking area is quickly accessible in case the turtle needs a break from swimming.

Having water that is too shallow can be a cause as well, as a turtle could get flipped on its back with its head stuck in the water and may not be able to right itself. So try to make sure that your turtle’s tank has the proper amount of water to enable safe swimming.

Disease can also be a major risk factor. If a turtle lacks sufficient calcium then this can cause them to have trouble swimming which could increase their chances of getting stuck and drowning. So if you have a pet turtle try to make sure they get enough calcium through dark leafy greens like kale or some calcium blocks from the pet store.

Another disease that can greatly increase their chances of drowning is turtle respiratory infection, or as some vets like to call it, turtle pneumonia. A turtle can be infected with this from having too cold of a tank, insufficient lighting, or a basking area where they can not completely dry off. When a turtle has a respiratory infection like this they will often make a wheezing sound while breathing and bubbles may sometimes come out of their mouth.

A turtle with such an infection will have a tough time maintaining their center of balance in the water which can cause them to flip over and get there head stuck underwater.

Baby Turtles as a Drowning Risk

The pet turtles probably most at risk would be the babies. They haven’t fully developed their lung capacity nor their swimming strength. Because of their small size, they can also easily get stuck on something. In fact, if you have a baby turtle you should even be careful about their water filters as a poorly designed water filter could actually suck in a small baby turtle thus drowning them.

To help keep a baby turtle from drowning make sure their water filter is safe and that there aren’t any plants or rocks that they can get stuck on. Also try to make sure their basking areas ramp is easily accessible, as they could get tired of swimming and need a break, so make sure they can take one when they need it.

How to Help a Drowned Turtle

If you find a recently drowned turtle all hope is not yet lost, there is a series of simple steps that you can take to try to revive them.

  • Gently take them out of the water and turn them vertically so that their head is facing towards the ground. Then very carefully pull on their head from behind the ears until their neck is straight. Hopefully, this should cause some water to come spilling out of their mouth.
  • Then put them on their stomach on a nice dry stable surface (never put a drowning turtle on its back as this will only make things much worse), after you have done this then gently pull their front legs out straight and then push them back in. With a bit of luck, this should cause some more water to come out of their mouths. Then repeat this procedure with there back legs.
  • Alternate this gentle leg pumping action between their front legs and backs legs until water is no longer coming out of their mouths. This could take several minutes.
  • Hopefully, at this point, you will begin to see some little signs of life. Small movements and activity. At this point still take them to a vet asap as there are other dangers that could be possible that you are not equipped to deal with. The vet has experience and skills that can ensure that the turtle makes a full recovery if brought quickly enough.

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