Turtles are supposed to bask daily and often, but what if your turtle is always basking? Here’s likely what’s wrong, and how to fix it.
Both aquatic species of turtles such as red-eared sliders, as well as terrestrial species like box turtles need to bask every day in sunshine or under a UV light-bulb.
Basking simply refers to the act of a turtle laying on a rock, dock or other surface in order to completely dry off and soak up some healthy UV-rays.
Every turtle needs to bask.
But….what if your turtle is always basking? What’s likely the problem?
The quick and short answer is that the most likely cause of your turtle always basking is probably illness, particularly a respiratory infection. Other possible causes are the water temperature being too cold or another problem with the water quality, different illnesses or possibly a gravid (pregnant) turtle.
Before I get into these reasons in a little bit more detail, it’s probably a good idea to define how much is too much when it comes to basking, as you may think your turtle is basking too much when in actuality it isn’t.
How Long Should Turtles Bask in the Sun?
All turtles generally need to bask in sunshine or under a UV light-bulb every day, at least for a few hours.
Turtles need to bask because they need:
- UV-A light for their metabolism, mood regulation as well as for breeding.
- UV-B light in order to produce vitamin D3, which helps with their bones and other organs.
Without UV-A and B, their health will continually get progressively worse over time, and they will ultimately die.
The real question here however is:
- How many hours of basking is too much? What’s too little?
I wish there was a good, solid figure I could give you, but unfortunately, there is not. Some days your turtle may bask for 2 or 3 hours, and the next, 8 or 9. Your turtle will know how much is just the right amount in general.
Aquatic species like sliders and painted turtles will generally stay in the water most of the day. They will usually bask for at least a few hours every day, but they often times will bask for a lot longer than that.
For instance, one of my red-eared sliders LOVES to bask. I would estimate that she basks for at least 5-6 hours every day and has done so for years and years.
However, I also own a painted turtle that seems to bask for far less often. Now, I can’t be sure as I’m not around her 24/7 but I would guess that she seems to bask for maybe 2 or 3 hours a day.
Every now and again though I will see them bask for nearly the entire day.
A Good Guideline to Follow
The best guideline I can give you is this:
- If your turtle is always basking, place it in the water. Does it immediately get out? Can it swim OK? Is it able to submerge itself? If it does any of these things, this is evidence of a problem.
- If you NEVER see your turtle in the water, this would also suggest a problem. Aquatic species in particular should spend most of their lives in the water.
- For terrestrial species like box turtles, it’s more or less the same, just replace the water with substrate. If you seemingly NEVER see your turtle anywhere BUT under the UV-light, it suggests a problem.
Turtles will usually go into the water to take a dip or swim when their body temperature goes beyond 105 degrees, so you may want to check your basking temperature just to be safe.
As far as how long to keep your light on, I would suggest that you try to mimic the day and night patterns of your location. When the sun rises, turn the UV light on and when it goes down, turn it off.
Why is My Turtle Always Basking?
If you think your turtle is basking too much, here is what I would suggest.
Check for a Respiratory Infection
In my experience the most common illness associated with this behavior is a respiratory infection. They tend to occur in the late fall and winter as temperatures drop, and many pet owners don’t know how cold their turtle tank actually gets.
Here is what you should look for:
- Discharge or any kind of mucus coming from their eyes, mouth or nose.
- Swollen eyelids. Their eyelids will also often be covered over as well as red in color.
- Yawning or making wheezing sounds when they cough or breathe.
- Place your turtle in the water and watch how it swims. Is it lop-sided? Is it having trouble diving?
These are all symptoms of a respiratory infection.
If your turtle has more than one of these symptoms, in particular the discharge, the respiratory infection is in a more advanced stage and your best course of action is to go see a vet.
Now, if you think a respiratory infection is just coming on, or your turtle has been basking more than usual just recently, keep an eye on it. Sometimes, turtles can “cook” their infections off naturally.
Check the Water Temperatures & pH Level
If you don’t think it’s a respiratory infection, there may be something wrong with the water temperature.
Check the water temperature first. It should be somewhere in the 70’s. Closer to 80 for babies and juveniles and closer to 70 for mature turtles.
I know a lot of pet turtle owners skimp over having a water heater, but for those living in colder regions during the winter, I really believe they are essential.
- I wrote a really helpful guide on my favorite good quality, but inexpensive water heaters here.
If it’s too cold or too hot, that is probably why your turtle has been avoiding the water and staying underneath the light.
If your water temperature checks out just fine, I would next recommend testing your water’s pH levels. This will require a kit, but it’s a good idea to check every now and again just to be safe.
Ideally, your water quality should:
- Have a pH level of 6 to 9
- A chlorine and ammonia level of 0
- A nitrite level of less than .5 ppm
- A nitrate level of less than 40 ppm
If the level of chlorine or ammonia is too high in your tank, it could be causing your turtle discomfort when in it, and that could be the cause of your problem.
Check for Signs of a Different Illness or Problem
If it’s not a respiratory infection or a problem with the water temperature or quality, it still might be a different type of illness.
The first course of action I would recommend here would be to pick the turtle up and check it physically:
- Are there any visible signs of infection or injury?
- Is the turtle able to move OK?
If your aquarium has small pieces of gravel, rock or even sand, I would recommend also checking to see if it has pooped recently, particularly if your turtle has not been eating.
Perhaps your turtle is suffering from some type of intestinal blockage. If it’s not eating, defecating and looks puffy around its head, this could be the culprit.
If this is the case, you will need to take the animal to the vet to get it fixed.
Other possible culprits could be:
- Being bullied in the water by another turtle.
- Being gravid (pregnant).
- Your turtle may have septicemia.
Turtle is Being Bullied
If you have another animal inside your tank, that could be why your turtle is always basking. Often times multiple turtles in the same tank will sometimes bully, bite and attack each other. This can be the case even if you have 2 turtles of the same species and same sex.
The best way to reduce or prevent bullying is by ensuring that your tank is large enough.
If you have 2 or more turtles, make sure your tank is AT LEAST 100 gallons. The bigger, the better.
The more room you have in your tank, the fewer the opportunities there are for fighting and bullying.
Turtle May Be Gravid
A gravid turtle is a pregnant turtle.
Sometimes females will stay underneath the basking light when they are getting ready to lay eggs. You can usually tell a gravid turtle by picking it up and feeling underneath its hind-legs. You will be able to feel multiple, hard small eggs.
With regular turtles it will just be soft skin.
Turtle May Have Septicemia
Septicemia just means “blood poisoning” and is extremely serious.
Basically, your turtle probably ate something really bad, and now your turtle is producing toxins in its bloodstream. Bad news for its health.
The most obvious sign of septicemia is a turtle that is constantly basking underneath your UV light-bulb BUT is also withdrawn into its shell. You should be able to tell the difference between a respiratory infection and this, as they are both serious, but have very different symptoms.
Other symptoms are:
- Sitting retracted inside their shell at the bottom of your tank.
- Skin turning red, including its shell.
- Swollen eyes.
There is no cure for this, so if you suspect septicemia as the culprit you will need to take your animal to the vet ASAP.
Turtle May Have Parasites
When a turtle is always basking yet shows no signs or symptoms of having a respiratory infection or having septicemia, it may be stricken by parasites.
These are quite hard to identify, but this could occur if you have given your turtle something new to eat recently, especially some type of seafood or uncooked meat.
Sometimes you can put 2 and 2 together here and figure it out, but generally it will take a trip to the vet, who will need a fecal sample to make sure.
In my experience, the most common culprit for a turtle always basking is a respiratory infection or the water temperature being too low. Check for both of these first, and then try to whittle down the other possible reasons.
It’s also possible that there is absolutely nothing wrong with your turtle, and it’s simply basking a lot because that is what it feels it needs to do!
Be prudent and watch for signs of illness.
To sum up:
- The most common causes of a turtle always basking are respiratory infections and a problem with the water temperature.
- Other possible reasons include a problem with the water quality, bullying, parasites or another illness, septicemia or a pregnant turtle.
- It’s also possible that your turtle has been basking a lot recently because that’s what it wants to do. Generally, this phase does not last long so if it’s been longer than a week, there could be a problem.