Why is Your Turtle Upside Down? How Bad is it?

Slider Turtle Flipped On It's Back

Seeing a turtle upside down can be an upsetting experience, especially if its yours. It’s important to know why it happens, what you can do to prevent it, and how bad it is for the turtle that experiences it.

Turtles get turned upside down for a variety of reasons. If the turtle’s health is strong it will be able to get back on its feet quickly. If it doesn’t flip itself back over swiftly then it could be wedged stuck in a way it can’t get any leverage to right itself. Alternatively it could also be weakened from sickness or malnutrition sapping away its strength to right itself. By itself a turtle being on its back for a short time is nothing to worry about, but if its a long time or takes place with its head underwater it can become deadly.

How does a healthy turtle right itself and what kind of illness or environment could prevent a turtle from succeeding at it? Read on to learn more including what you can do as a keeper to prevent it.

Why Does a Turtle Get Stuck On it’s Back?

There are three primary reasons a turtle can find itself upside down laying on its back:

  • Poor health like a respiratory issues or nutrition deficiency resulting from things like too little vitamins
  • The environment, if the turtles habitat has poor placement of things like rocks or bridges the turtle could get flipped and wedged somewhere with no leverage. Too little water can cause issues, the most dangerous is getting stuck on their back in water where the head can’t surface, risking the potential to drown.
  • Two turtles in one space may become aggressive with the stronger turtle flipping the weaker one, causing a potentially dangerous upside down issue.

By understanding the potential risks, turtle owners can work to prevent these issues or correct them when they occur.

Health and Illness as the Cause

Turtles are hardy creatures, but a sick turtle will experience issues that may cause them to get stuck upside down. A respiratory illness caused by a Vitamin A deficiency could be the culprit.

If a respiratory infection reaches the turtles lungs this can negatively affect their internal ballast, which operates as the turtles personal submarine. Maintaining buoyancy could become nearly impossible, making them tilt to the side while swimming, such a situation would make it more likely for the turtle to get flipped and stuck on its back.

To monitor your turtle’s health, check them over from time to time, as they will have a loss of appetite and develop a mucus discharge on their nose or eyelids and their ears and eyelids will experience swelling. If you see any bubbles coming from their mouth and hear a raspy sound when they’re breathing then that should serve as a dead give away that your turtle probably has a respiratory infection.

A respiratory infection starts in the turtles nasal and throat passages, then later advances to a worse stage where it’s infecting the lungs. It is at this stage that tilting over usually occurs. If this is what is happening to your turtle than an immediate trip to your vet or more ideally your Herp Vet (a vet that specializes in reptiles and amphibians) is definitely in order or else your turtle could die a very sad death.

Turtles get flipped over all the time so as long as their able to right themselves eventually, there should be nothing to be concerned about unless it’s also experiencing the signs of a respiratory infection.

Preventing a Turtle Respiratory Infection

Vitamin A deficiencies are caused by a poor diet, so the first step is to make sure you are following a appropriate diet plan for your turtle, providing recommended foods and avoiding too many ‘treats’. Most commercial name brand turtle pellets or sticks will offer balanced nutrients, including vitamin A. Cod liver oil is high in vitamin A, as well as dark leafy vegetables and small prey such as earthworms or small fish.

Additionally, make sure they have a nice warm area to bask and depending on the species, that the water is warm enough. The water in their tank should range from the mid 70°– 80°F. If it is below that then the water is probably too cold and could cause them to get sick overtime if not corrected.

The Turtles Habitat as Cause

Serious illness is not the only reason a turtle may become stuck on their backside. Another way is through their environment or habitat.

Too shallow of water could make it difficult for them to right themselves and is also potentially the most fatal as their head could get stuck under the water and they could drown. Turtles do not have gills but lungs just like you and me. They can hold their breath for an extremely long time, but not forever. Make sure your turtles habitat has an amount of water that is at least as deep as their shell is wide, which should allow them to right themselves in no time.

Alternatively rocks and other objects could be placed in such a way that it hinders your turtles navigation especially if the tank is too small. Generally, a turtle between 6-8 inches will do just fine in a 55 gallon tank. For turtles over 8 inches tanks in the 75-125 gallon range are best.

If you are concerned with a part of your tank that the turtle might not be able to right itself, then very gently put the turtle on its back in the area for a quick health check. If it can’t right itself on its own then put the turtle back on its stomach and you might need to make changes to their environment.

Turtles Flipping Each Other Over

While some turtles can get along fine in the same tank, sometimes due to size constraints or changes in temperament, fights can start flaring up. While it is more common with tortoises and land turtles, some times their fighting may lead to one flipping the other over. Male tortoises especially will fight each other by trying to flip the other onto their backs.

If you notice any biting or chasing by one turtle to another then you will probably have to separate them and put them each in their own tank.

How Do Turtles Unflip Themselves?

Some turtle keepers, especially less experienced ones, can become understandably concerned or anxious about their turtle getting stuck on its back. As long as the problems of illness, fighting, and a poor habitat are not present, then there is no reason to worry as turtles are very capable creatures at righting themselves. Mother nature has provided them with all the necessary skills to do so.

A healthy turtle will use its legs and sometimes even it’s head to push against the ground or the side of something to slowly roll themselves back over on to their stomach. As long as the turtle is healthy it is quite natural for them to do so.

Is it Bad to Turn a Turtle Upside Down While Handling Them?

While they might not like it much and may be unhappy at you doing it to them, it should be fine. It is however absolutely important that when turning them over in your hand that you do so very slowly and never shake them while holding them. That can potentially cause injury to their internal organs and be very painful for them.

So while you should avoid turning them over if possible if theirs a good reason and its done gently and for a small amount of time.

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