How Long Can Pet Turtles Stay Under Water?


Anyone who has owned a pet turtle, or just someone curious has probably wondered how long can their turtle stay under water?

Turtles don’t have gills like fish do. This means that unfortunately, they can drown if their underwater for too long. This amount can vary for different species of turtles. The temperature of the water and surrounding air, as well as their own health, can be important factors affecting their ability to stay underwater.

Turtles can not stay underwater indefinitely but they can hold their breath for extraordinary long amounts of time. Red-eared sliders and painted turtles, both common pet turtles, can potentially hold their breath for as long as 20-30 minutes. If they are hibernating then this amount of time could increase to as long as several months in very cold temperatures.

However, breath retention can vary depending upon species and new scientific studies constantly come out often providing new understanding about turtles’ ability to stay underwater.

The science has been sparse. No one, of course, wants to drown turtles to test breath-holding times but a new study reported by the Los Angeles Times suggests that an adult western painted turtle can actually hold its breath for much longer than 30 minutes. In fact, they can hold their breath up to 30 hours at simple room temperature and if the temperature drops to near freezing then they can hold their breath for as long as 4 months.

Surprising the study also suggests that we humans contain some of the same genomes that allow western painted turtles to have this incredible ability.

The Affect of Temperature and Hibernation Upon a Turtles Breath

Temperature and species type will be the biggest factors. Turtles are ectothermic creatures, meaning that they are cold-blooded. So the temperature surrounding them determines the speed of their metabolism. And of course, their metabolic speed determines how much oxygen their body uses. So while many turtles may only be able to hold their breath for several to 30 minutes(Science keeps pushing the limits of this though) in warmer temperatures.

When the temperature falls, especially when it gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, their metabolism can slow down by a lot. So they use much less oxygen which then leads to freakish lengths of time measured in the months.

This happens only when their hibernating. When a turtle hibernates its entire body shuts down temporarily which causes them to burn oxygen extremely slowly. Also, it is believed that some species of turtles when hibernating can absorb small amounts of oxygen molecules through the pores of their skin.

Different Breath Holding Abilities by Species

Besides temperature the other big factor involved is of course the type of turtle.

  • Mata Mata turtles: These are tropical turtles that live in murky muddy water. Their preferred form of hunting involves laying their flat heads still on river bottoms waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. Then they launch their attack upon their prey. Doing this requires that they have extraordinary lung capacity. It wouldn’t do if they kept having to interrupt their ambush for a gulp of air. For this reason, they can hold their breath for a whopping full hour before having to take another one.
  • Loggerhead sea turtles: These turtle kings and queens of the sea probably hold the record for the longest periods without oxygen when not hibernating. Loggerheads hold the underwater diving record for turtles, at an amazing 10 full hours. Living in the ocean requires such a long breath retention for their successful survival. Despite this loggerheads do sometimes drown but humans are the main cause. They can easily get snagged and stuck in fishing nets or plastic which can lead to their unfortunate drowning.
  • Snapping turtles: While research on snapping turtles is sparse(especially on the elusive alligator snapping turtle) It is believed that these special reptiles can hold their breath for hours at a time when not hibernating.
  • Red-eared slider: This the probably one of the most common type of pet turtle, can hold their breath for an estimated 20-30 minutes, though this is not yet backed with serious scientific research.
  • Painted turtles: generally their breath-holding capabilities were similar to that of the red-eared slider but new scientific research suggests that at least in the case of the western painted turtle that this length of time could be 10 times that number up to a whopping 30 hours. No one yet knows if this is true for other subtypes of painted turtles as well.
  • Musk and Mud turtles: These turtles like to live in shallow streams and creeks. Because of this, their breath-holding abilities are not as great as their cousins. if you have a pet musk or mud turtle then if their tank is not set up right they can be a drowning risk. They should be kept only in shallow water for their own safety. They are not strong swimmers and can only hold their breath for a few minutes.
  • Box turtles: These fellows are a land species of turtle. In fact, their feet aren’t even webbed so needless to say they don’t do too well in water. They just want to drink water not swim in it. They can hold their breath for probably about a couple of minutes or so and if placed at the bottom of a pond or pool might very well drown. So don’t put these landlubbers in the water for their safety.
  • Tortoises: Tortoises are not turtles and so, therefore, do not share their propensity for water. Many species of Tortoises live in deserts about as far away from major sources of water that you can imagine. Like the box turtle, their feet aren’t webbed and they can not swim well or even at all in some species.

Can My Pet Turtle Drown While Sleeping

No, unless there is a serious underlying health problem your pet turtle will not drown while sleeping. Most pet turtles like red-eared sliders and painted turtles will automatically wake up for a few seconds and take a quick gulp of air before quickly settling back down to the bottom of the water to continue their sleeping session.

Baby Turtles Can Be a Drowning Risk

While pet turtles like red-eared sliders and painted turtles could rival Olympic swimming champions when mature, as babies they are much more fragile. Baby turtles of all species can not hold their breath as long nor are they very strong swimmers until their older and more mature.

For this reason, it’s important to keep an eye on these little tykes and make sure you set up their enclosure to account for their weaker swimming abilities.

Make sure their basking area is not too hard for them to get to. Otherwise, they could get too tired and not be able to reach land and drown. Also, make sure there aren’t any rocks or plants that they could get stuck underwater on. Depending up their size even their water filter could be a danger. I have personally seen baby turtles almost get sucked into a water filter that wasn’t well designed for their incredibly small size.

So keep all of these things in mind for your baby turtles enclosure in order to cut down as much as possible their risk of drowning.

Turtle Respiratory Anatomy

Turtles have two small nostrils located just above their mouths. Air travels into them and down through their trachea, which is made of flexible rings of cartilage which allows the trachea to be able to lengthen and contract with the neck. This is what allows turtles to pull their heads into the protection of their shells without collapsing their trachea.

From the trachea, it splits into two bronchi that take the oxygen into the turtle’s lungs located in their body.

Inside a turtles shell, they have special muscles that act somewhat like a humans diaphragm, which through expansion and contraction brings air into the turtle’s lungs and helps deliver the oxygen to all the necessary parts of the turtle’s body. In the case of some turtles such as the loggerhead sea turtles moving their flipper can alter the air pressure in their lungs allowing them to dive and hold their breath longer.

Some Turtles Can Breath Through Their Cloaca

Turtles possess an exterior orifice called the cloaca which serves for their reproduction, digestive tract, and their urinary tract all combined into one opening. Some species of turtles such as the Fitzroy river turtle as an example can actually use their cloaca as small gills mainly in the wintertime.

When they use their cloaca in this manner, which usually happens when their hibernating in cold temperatures, they can absorb oxygen molecules in the water through special membranes in their cloaca. Thus allowing them to breathe underwater, this only works when their hibernating as far as I know though.

Emergency Turtle Cpr

A turtle drowning is a rarity but it does happen from time to time, sometimes due to the enclosure and other times due to an underlying illness. So if you keep pet turtles of your own there are some basic things which could be good to know in case your turtle drowns.

  • Take the turtle gently out of the water, and hold it in such a way that its head is pointed towards the floor. Then very gently pull its head down and out until its extended. Hopefully at this point water will begin leaking out of its mouth.
  • Next, put the turtle on a nice dry surface on its stomach( do not put it on its back, that will only make things worse) then gently pull its front legs out till their fully extended. Then push them gently back in and repeat. Alternate between doing this with the front legs and the back legs. If it is working properly then more water will be squirted out of the turtle’s mouth.
  • Continue this procedure until no more water is coming out of their mouth. This may take a few minutes and then hopefully you may start to see some signs of life. When you do then you need to take it to the vet asap, as there are things that still need to be done to save the turtle that only the vet can do.

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