If you have a turtle floating at the surface of your tank’s water, it may be from gas, but its most likely something far, far more dangerous.
If your turtle is floating at the top of your aquarium, there is a high degree of likelihood that it’s probably very, very sick.
However, you have to make sure that it’s actually floating, and you aren’t mistaking it for normal swimming or something else. The easiest method to check this is to push your turtle a bit under the water. If it bobs right back up, like a balloon, you’ve got a problem.
Before I scare you off, I have to tell you that although a floating turtle is a tell-tale sign of serious illness, there is a chance it could merely be from gas build-up in your turtle.
Gas build-up can occur after your turtle starts eating a new type of food or even from using certain medications. You’ll know your turtle’s buoyancy problem stems from a gas build-up if you see it tilting up and down, from its head to its tail, as opposed to side to side.
Gas build-up often fixes itself quite quickly and rarely poses a serious health problem.
That being said.
Why Is My Turtle Floating Sideways?
The short and sweet of it is that if your turtle is listing, which means it is bobbing from side to side or tilted towards one side, and more importantly, is unable to submerge, the most likely culprit is a respiratory infection that is in the later, more serious stages of development.
If, on the other hand, your turtle is flipping over, then that suggests not a problem with the turtle itself, but rather a problem with your enclosure. Usually, turtles will flip over because they fell off something, or because the water is too shallow.
In this article, I will quickly teach you why turtles get respiratory infections, their symptoms, what you can do to treat them and how to prevent them.
Let’s get started!
The Sad Story Of When My Turtle Got A Respiratory Infection
Many, many years ago three red-eared sliders were passed on down to me. At the time, I was delighted because I had never owned pet turtles before, and was excited by the prospect of raising them.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know the first thing about properly taking care of a turtle. I put all three of them into a small, plastic box, filled it with a few inches of water and attached a small fish filter to the side.
I fabricated up a ramp and formed a small area where they could get out of the water, but I gave them no UV light, and more importantly, no heat.
As you may or may not know, turtles are fairly hardy, resilient creatures and it takes quite a bit for them to get sick. And despite the poor conditions in which they lived, two of the three turtles seemed to thrive.
But not the smallest.
One day, I walked into the room which housed them and noticed that the smallest of the turtles was having trouble swimming. He kept floating at the top of the water, like a cork being bounced around by waves.
I did some research on the Internet and discovered that he probably had a respiratory disease, probably because of the poor conditions of his enclosure coupled with the lack of heat.
It was clear he was really sick.
So, I immediately bought a UV-light, pointed it at his basking spot and placed him there. I figured the heat would eliminate his infection.
But it wasn’t enough.
Within a few days, my turtle passed away and I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of good husbandry.
Why Turtles Get Respiratory Disease
Typically, captive turtles get respiratory infections because of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites (see this study here). What happens is there is generally something wrong with your habitat, and that gets compounded with one of these four things, which leads to an RI:
- A lack of heat.
- Poor diet and nutrition.
- A lack of UV light.
- Poor enclosure sanitation.
Perhaps the most common reason turtles contract respiratory diseases is because of a lack of heat. This happens in two ways. Either because the water temperature is too cold, or because the air is too brisk and chilly. A drafty, chilly room is not a great place for a turtle. Make sure to keep your water temperature from 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, room temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and basking temperature in the 80s.
Another reason turtles get respiratory infections is because of poor diet and nutrition, specifically, a lack of the vitamin A. This vitamin helps turtles stop and fight off germ growth, so when there is not enough of it in their system, the chances of them getting sick increase. Foods such as carrots, sweet potato and dark leafy greens are full of vitamin A.
Turtles can also contract respiratory diseases from a lack of UV light. Turtles need UV-A and UV-B light to regulate their mood, to help with their vision, to help with bone growth and much, much more. Without it, they are at risk of disease and illness. Using a good UV-light bulb combined with 1 or 2 30-to-60 minutes sessions in natural sunlight are excellent ways to make sure your turtle gets all the UV it needs.
Lastly, if your enclosure’s sanitation is quite poor, this could also potentially lead to respiratory disease. This usually happens when germs build-up due to left-over turtle food or turtle poop. That usually occurs when you don’t have a proper filter. Turtles are messy creatures that emit a ton of waste. Using a strong, capable filter, along with weekly spot checks and cleanings, are the best ways to reduce germ build-up.
What Exactly Is A Respiratory Disease?
Now that you know why turtles get respiratory infections, you might as well know exactly what they are, right?
Turtles, just like humans, have a pair of lungs that breathe air. And just like humans, nasty bacteria, viruses, and fungi can make their way into their lungs and make them sick.
What happens is that fluid starts to collect in the turtle’s lungs, and as this happens, it starts to affect their buoyancy. As their condition worsens, they are unable to submerge beneath the water at all and become very lethargic.
The initial symptoms of a respiratory infection are:
- An occasional bubble or a bit of mucus coming from your turtle’s mouth or nose.
- Not eating as much.
- Staying in its basking spot longer than usual.
As a respiratory disease becomes more serious, the signs become much more obvious:
- The turtle lists in the water, meaning it bobs from side to side.
- It becomes extremely lethargic.
- Its eyes may become swollen.
- It starts to gasp for air. This happens when more and more fluid collects in its lungs.
Once you know your turtle has probably got a respiratory infection, the real challenge begins.
I’ll be honest with you. Respiratory infection treatments don’t always work. But they are better than nothing, and at least the turtle will have a fighting chance.
The most important thing you can do is increase your turtle’s body temperature. Unlike humans, turtles are cold-blooded. This means they rely on the outside environment to regulate their body temperature.
When humans get sick, our body temperature naturally increases as a means to fight off the sickness. Turtles can’t do this themselves, so they need a bit of help.
Steps To Take
If you start to notice warning signs of an RI, do this:
- Get a small plastic box or tub. You will want something smaller than your aquarium, both for hygiene purposes and because it’s easier to control the temperature.
- Add a few inches of distilled or treated water to the tub. You’ll want enough water that covers almost its entire shell, but also allows the turtle to stay nearly submerged without needing to swim up to get air.
- Increase the water temperature to as close to 85 degrees Fahrenheit as you can get. Increase the basking light temperature from 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure there are no cold drafts entering the room.
- Cover the top of your tub with a towel or something else to increase the humidity. The closer you can get to around 75% humidity, the better.
If it’s still in the early stages of development, this treatment often works well. You should see signs of improvement within a week or two, at the most.
If you don’t see any signs of improvement, you may need to consider dry-docking it. You may need to dry-dock it because your turtle will, at this point, be extremely lethargic and unable to swim at all.
To learn how to dry-dock a sick turtle, click here for an article I wrote.
How Can I Prevent A Respiratory Disease?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the old saying goes.
The best way to fight a respiratory disease is to prevent it from ever happening!
How can you prevent a respiratory infection from occurring?
- Make sure there are no drafts of air coming in and blowing into or onto your turtle’s aquarium or enclosure.
- Check to ensure that your turtle’s basking temperature, water temperature, and air temperature are warm enough. Respiratory infections often develop when the temperature dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
- As well as the temperature, low humidity can also contribute to an RI. Many popular species of pet turtle require a humidity of 60% to 75%. Make sure it’s appropriate for your particular species.
- Get a UV-light, and keep it on for 8 to 12 hours a day. A 30-to-60 minute sunbathing session outdoors, once or twice a week, also helps.
- Make sure your turtle(s) gets enough vitamin A in their diet. Usually, this comes from dark, leafy green vegetables, or cooked carrots or sweet potato.