Aquatic turtle species such as red-eared sliders spend the bulk of their lives in the water. When a slider (or other aquatic species) doesn’t, that signals a problem. Here’s how to fix it.
Let’s get straight to it.
The Quick Answer
Why is your turtle staying out of the water?
The two most common reasons an aquatic turtle species such as a red-eared slider or painted turtle doesn’t actually go into the water is because the water temperature is too low, or it is sick. Other possible culprits are tank water that is somehow irritating it, being bullied by other turtles and tank water that is too warm instead of too cold.
First things first, not all turtles spend the same amount of time in the water. If you have a 75-gallon tank with a basking dock and you are wondering why your box turtle never seems to be in the water, it’s because it’s a box turtle!
Aquatic and Terrestrial Species are Very Different
Certain species are more terrestrial, and certain species are what we call aquatic, meaning they spend the bulk of their lives in the water.
Generally, the only time they aren’t in the water is when they are basking.
Here are some common pet turtle species that are aquatic:
- Red-eared sliders
- Painted turtles
- Map turtles
Now that that is out of the way, next we need to determine how little is too little when it comes to how little time your turtle isn’t spending in the water.
If you were to say, check up on your turtle every two hours or so throughout the day, I would estimate that a healthy turtle should be found in the water about half the time.
Mind you, I am totally basing this off my own experience. But, I am constantly checking up on my slider and painted turtle multiple times per day, and most of the time, one of them is in the water.
Take a day and do just that. Check up on your turtle every 2 hours. Where is it? Is it in the water, or is it basking or outside of the water?
If just about every single time you checked on the little guy or gal and it wasn’t in the water, that’s a surefire sign of a problem.
Now, how do you solve this problem?
By first figuring out the reason why your turtle isn’t going into the water.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.
First Check the Water Temperature
A good water temperature range for the majority of aquatic turtle species is going to be from 75 to 85 degrees or so, give or take. Dropping below 70 is going to make the temperature too cold, and above 90, too hot. 75 to 85 is usually a good sweet spot.
Because turtles are endothermic and their body temperature increases or decreases based on their outside environment, a turtle swimming around in water that is at a cold 55 degrees is going to be one very sluggish, slow, lethargic turtle.
If your tank water is too cold, your turtle will likely not enter it. Water that is too cold can lead to respiratory illnesses and more.
Likewise, if your tank water is too hot, this could also be uncomfortable for your turtle.
In my experience, if an owner has a problem with the temperature, it’s usually the water being too cold rather than hot.
Whatever the case may be, I would recommend this be the first action that you take.
- Check the water temperature and ensure that is between 75 and 85 or so degrees, give or take.
- Observe your turtle over the next few days and see if correcting the water temperature changes its behavior.
Check for Signs of Illness
If your water temperature isn’t too hot or too cold, and your turtle refuses to enter the water, the next most likely culprit is illness.
When sick, turtles bask a lot more. They do this to raise their body temperature and “cook” away any illness that they have.
Now, this is usually a little easier said than done, but how can you tell your turtle is sick?
Turtle Illness Symptoms
Look for these symptoms:
- Your turtle isn’t entering the water and is instead basking all the time.
- Your turtle is always found retracted into its shell.
- When it is not retracted, it’s movement seems very sluggish and lethargic. It is also slow to respond.
If your turtle exhibits any of these symptoms, illness is likely.
Logically, the next question then becomes, which illness?
In my experience, a turtle that is constantly basking and retracted into its shell is probably experiencing a respiratory infection. This becomes even more likely if your water temperature has been found to be too cold.
Respiratory infections tend to occur in turtles during the colder months but they aren’t limited to them. They can also crop up if the temperature of the room that houses them is set too low as well.
What I would recommend is to have a brief look at a much-more comprehensive article I wrote regarding the respective symptoms and treatments of 6 common diseases in turtles, especially the part concerning respiratory infections, and see if any of that applies to your turtle.
Follow the advice and treatments given, and hopefully, you will have found the reason your turtle doesn’t go into the water.
Other Possible Reasons
Now, what if your water temperature is on point and your turtle isn’t exhibiting any signs of illness?
What should you do now?
In a small minority of cases, there can be other possible culprits.
Of the myriad of other possible causes, the 2 that are next most likely are, in my opinion:
- Something is wrong with your water quality
- Your turtle is getting bullied out of the water or something is scaring it out
Water Quality Issues
Let’s first discuss possible issues with water quality.
Here’s the thing.
Turtles, relative to a lot of other water animals such as fish, are much more resilient towards poor water quality. A turtle can sometimes live in extremely filthy, very bad water for quite some time before its health starts to decline, whereas fish in general will not last very long in those same conditions.
That being said, poor water quality can still affect the health and well-being of your turtles, and if something is off, it could lead to your turtle wanting to stay outside of it rather than in.
Now, there can quite a few possible issues with your water quality, but the 2 most likely issues are:
- There is too much chlorine in the water.
- The ammonia level is too high.
If you are using tap water, there is a possibility that it contains a bit of chlorine. For humans this can be beneficial, but for turtles, it can irritate their eyes.
Now, I want to be clear here that tap water that contains chlorine is not going to kill or injure your turtle. It’s possible however that the chlorine is simply irritating your turtles’ eyes to an extent that is too uncomfortable to enter the water.
How to Fix Water Quality Issues
You can completely remove this possibility by doing 1 of 2 things:
- Only using distilled water in your tank (which can be expensive depending on where you live).
- Using a water-conditioner.
Personally, I would just recommend using a water-conditioner, as this will not only eliminate chlorine, but also eliminate the other most likely possibility; a high ammonia level.
Basically, if your tank does not have a healthy bacteria culture, ammonia can slowly build up and make the water toxic to your turtle.
Why Your Tank Needs Healthy Bacteria
Here’s usually what happens:
Your turtle poops, and that poo breaks down into ammonia. If you have a healthy bacteria culture established in your tank (through good maintenance as well as biological filtration), it will break down that ammonia into nitrites, which will then break down into nitrates, which are much less harmful to turtles and can be controlled by regular water changes.
A tank without good bacteria is a tank that does not produce a healthy nitrogen cycle.
If you suspect your water’s ammonia level is too high, here’s what you can do:
- Make sure that your water filter is strong enough for your tank, and make sure that it has some kind of biological filtration system.
- Use a water-conditioner to treat your tank’s water. Just about any generic water-conditioner from your local pet store or Amazon will do here, as most of them treat both ammonia and chlorine.
- Change out 25% of your tank’s water weekly or biweekly in order to keep the water clean, but without destroying any beneficial bacteria that has been building up.
Your Turtle May Be Scared to Enter the Water
The other possibility is that one or a few or your turtles are being bullied when they are in the water by another turtle that you have. This often happens when you house multiple turtles together.
If you have multiple turtles in the same tank, and one of them is refusing to enter the water, try separating them and see if this changes its behavior.
If after any of these actions your turtle begins to go into the water more frequently, you have just solved your problem.
In my experience, these are usually the most likely reasons.
What if None of These Apply To Your Turtle?
If none of these actions are applicable to you, then I would suggest something drastic:
Try completely changing your turtle’s habitat.
Put your turtle into something else, give it a basking spot as well as water and see what it does. Does it still stay out of the water, or does it swim? If it still refuses to enter the water, this suggests something else entirely, something else serious. If that is the case, the best course of action is to simply see a vet (particularly a vet that specializes in reptiles) for study and possible medication and treatment options.
Hopefully, it doesn’t come down to this.
To summarize everything:
- The 2 most likely reasons a turtle refuses to enter the water are due to the water temperature either being too cold or too hot, or due to illness.
- Other likely reasons include water ammonia or chlorine levels that are too high.