Can You Drown a Turtle The Startling Truth. main picture

Just about everyone knows that turtles can hold their breath for a really, really long time. But can you drown a turtle? Here’s the startling answer. 

Can You Drown A Turtle?

Yes, absolutely. Although turtles can remain under water for long periods of time, they cannot breathe underwater. Under the right circumstances, turtles can drown. 

There’s a little bit more to this though.

  • What are the right circumstances?
  • And just how long can they stay underneath the water?
  • What if they do drown, is there anything you can do?

You probably know that fish can breathe underneath the water. They can do this because they have these special organs called gills.

Turtles, on the other hand, are a lot like us. They lack gills and instead have lungs. And although their lungs are exponentially smaller than ours, they are still powerful enough to let them stay submerged for long periods of time.

However, they do need to surface every now and again.

How Can A Turtle Drown?

How easily a turtle can drown will depend on several factors, but one of the most important ones is what species it is.

Red-eared sliders for instance, typically spend around most of their lives in the water, swimming around, sleeping and eating. They are super comfortable in the water. Most box turtles, however, are terrible swimmers, lack webbed feet and prefer to stay in very shallow water areas.

Tortoises are even worse, as not only do they lack webbed feet, they are not used to the water at all, and would quickly drown if placed in a deep lake or pond.

Some people may get confused and think turtles can breathe underwater because they will often blow bubbles out of their mouths when submerged.

This, however, is simply air escaping from their bodies. It certainly doesn’t mean they are breathing! (Note: if you ever see a turtle blow bubbles outside of the water, it’s a common sign of a respiratory infection!) 

How Long Can Turtles Stay Underwater?

All of this kinda begs the question, doesn’t it?

Just how long can turtles stay beneath the water?

The truth is, I wish there was an easy answer to this.

Unfortunately, it depends on things such as:

  • The species.
  • Location.
  • Temperature of the water.

However, based on my research and personal experience, it seems that most common pet species of turtle can remain submerged for between 15 to 30 minutes. 

Can some species go longer? Shorter? Can some individual turtles go longer or shorter?

Yes, so bear in mind this is just a general rule of thumb and nothing more.

Can Sea Turtles Drown?

Loggerhead turtles, for instance, can stay underneath the water for hours. In fact, the longest a loggerhead has been observed is a stunning 10 hours beneath the water!

However, although sea turtles spend 99% of their lives in the water, they do sometimes drown.

You probably have an idea why, and yep, it involves us, humans.

Fishing nets. Sometimes sea turtles will get caught in fishing nets, tire out from frantically trying to get out and drown. It, unfortunately, does happen from time to time.

Can Aquatic Turtles Drown?

Painted turtles and red-eared sliders, being aquatic turtles, have often been seen staying underneath the water for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Similar to sea turtles, aquatic turtles spend most of their lives in the water, and like sea turtles, they can still drown under the right circumstances.

In my experience, this happening is quite rare and has been in every case that I know of, due to the owner’s negligence.

As I noted above, it’s almost always a case of the turtle getting trapped underneath the water, underneath a rock or tangled up, and being trapped there.

Can Baby Turtles Drown? 

Baby turtles are often at risk of drowning due to their inexperience and weaker bodies.

I would say that the most likely cause of a baby turtle drowning in your tank is going to be related to your basking dock, ie; the baby turtle cannot climb up the ramp and eventually tires out.

This can happen if the ramp or entry area of your basking dock is too slippery, too steep or just too difficult for a baby turtle to climb up.

It’s definitely not common, but it can happen.

Can Box Turtles Drown?

Certain other species, usually box turtles, are sometimes labeled as drowning risks depending on what kind of environment they are in. Reeves turtles, as well as mud turtles, are 2 common examples.

Box turtles tend to tire out much, much faster in deep water compared to aquatic species, so you will need to be extra cautious when constructing your tank. Avoid putting too much water into it.

Can a Sleeping Turtle Drown? 

I have to admit, this question has certainly crossed my mind.

My red-eared slider is able to sleep underwater for what seems to be an incredibly long time.

But does that mean a sleeping turtle could actually drown?

The answer is no.

For turtles that sleep underwater (usually aquatic species like sliders and painted turtles), this is totally normal. What often happens is that they will naturally make their way to the surface (usually just drifting there) and take a breath or two.

If they start to stay down too long, they will wake up and consciously swim to the surface to get air.

Do Turtles Breathe During Hibernation?

I wanted to make a quick note regarding a turtle’s ability to breathe underwater. What about when they hibernate/brumate? 

There are certain species of turtles that are able to absorb oxygen on certain parts of their body, but this ability is really just limited to hibernation. This occurs in the wild during the cold winter months, when wild turtles will often submerge themselves in mud or water (or both!).

So no, turtles cannot breathe underwater, and they most certainly can drown.

What are the most common reasons for a turtle drowning?

There are 2 main causes:

  • The turtle doesn’t have a basking spot or a way to get out of deep water, so it eventually tires out and drowns.
  • The turtle accidentally flips over and/or gets stuck underneath the water, trapping it.

Both of these causes are extremely rare.

Turtles just don’t usually drown. They are fairly intelligent creatures and most of the time, they can get themselves out of any predicament they may be in. It will take a long time to tire out a turtle.

That being said, if the water in your tank is too low, and your turtle flips over and is unable to right him or herself, it could drown. Thus, it’s imperative that you fill your tank with the correct amount of water.

Can You Revive a Drowned Turtle? 

Note: If this situation ever happens to you, please be careful and gentle! I am not a licensed vet, so if your turtle does drown, it is super important that you take it to your local vet ASAP! 

I’ve got good news and bad news when it comes to resuscitating drowned turtles.

The good news is that your turtle may still have a fighting chance. 

The bad news is that you will need to take your turtle to the vet ASAP, no matter what.

Whatever you do, here is the ONE cardinal rule that you may NEVER break when it comes to a drowned turtle.

Never, ever turn a drowned turtle on its back!  Secondly, don’t try to do something silly like fit a straw into its mouth and give it mouth-to-mouth. 

That is incredibly dangerous and your strong breath is likely to damage its internal organs.

If you do do this, any remaining air left in the turtle may be forced out unintentionally.

The first thing to do is to remain calm. Turtles are unlike humans. If a human is lifeless due to drowning, you need to act fast. As in, within minutes.

With turtles, you at least have a little bit more leeway in terms of time. That is because they don’t need quite as much oxygen as humans do in order to keep everything more or less functional inside of them.

How to Revive a Drowned Turtle

Here’s some common, good old-fashioned advice when dealing with a drowned turtle:

  1. Take the turtle out of the water, and hold it vertically, so that its head is pointed down.
  2. Very gently, grab the turtle’s head right behind its ears and pull its neck out until it is extended, as you do this water will probably leak out of its mouth.
  3. Next, put the turtle on a stable, dry surface upright (NOT on its back).
  4. Grab the front legs, and pull them gently until they are fully extended, and then push them in again, watch as water will probably drip out of its mouth again.
  5. Do this with the hind legs as well.
  6. Alternate pulling its front and hind legs until no more water drips out of the turtle’s mouth, this will probably take a few minutes.
  7. If the turtle is showing any signs of life, such as movement, good! Take it to the vet ASAP!
  8. If the turtle is still lifeless, try one more thing.
  9. Gently place the turtle in your palm and gently grab its head, then swing your arm from side to side, so that any remaining water might be thrown out from inside its body (be careful!).
  10. No matter what, you’ll need to take it to the vet at this point (even if it revives).

Even if your turtle is able to be resuscitated, you will still need to take it to the vet.

Here’s why.

Pneumonia! 

Pneumonia can be fatal to turtles and often develops in turtles that have drowned.

Your vet will probably administer antibiotics in order to stave it off.

The other threat is lack of oxygen, so many vets will hook up a small tube that fits into the turtle’s mouth in order to deliver pure oxygen. Other antibiotics will also likely be given to stimulate the turtle and force it to get rid of the remaining water in its system.

When it comes to resuscitating drowned turtles, baby turtles often do not fare very well, so the younger the turtle, the quicker you will need to act.

Summary

  • Turtles can and do unfortunately drown (although it is rare).
  • If your turtle drowns, never ever place it on its back or give it mouth to mouth.
  • Be gentle, follow the steps outlined above and take it to the vet ASAP.
  • Most pet turtle species are able to remain submerged beneath the water for 15 to 30 minutes.

About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

Leave a Reply 4 comments