Sea and pet turtles can drown since they have lungs instead of gills. Drowning occurs due to delayed resurfacing to breathe in air. Although turtles hold their breath underwater for long periods, stressful situations such as being entangled in a net or underwater plants cause drowning. Also, turtles that swallow debris while inside water find it hard to breathe. This causes panic which leads to quick oxygen loss and death.
In other cases, turtles flip over and struggle to get back up. Though accidental, a turtle being upside down has a serious impact because it could easily drown due to lack of oxygen. Once turtles use up stored oxygen, it leads to anaerobic respiration, producing lactic acid. Lactic acid is toxic and causes death within a short time. So, if you find a turtle drowning, take it out of the water and perform turtle CPR.
Can regular turtles drown?
Regular turtles can drown because they have lungs. Turtles cannot breathe underwater. Yes, they hold their breath for a long time but need to resurface occasionally for air. While sleeping or resting, some turtles remain submerged for up to seven hours. However, drowning results from trapping by fish nets, choking on debris and the inability to reach basking docks in time.
Although all turtles can drown, baby turtles are at greater risk due to weaker bodies and inexperience. Their ability to assess their need for oxygen also places baby turtles at a higher risk of drowning. Most drowning incidents for baby turtles also involve exhaustion while they head to basking spots outside the water. Other reasons for drowning include:
- Suffocation due to deep water mating (mostly female turtles)
- Trapping by fish nets
- Choking caused by debris
- Turtles turning upside down
- Loose rocks
- Lack of basking docks
Signs and how to tell your turtle is drowning
Although rare, drowning does occur. So, be vigilant in case you see your turtle behaving unusually. Also, some species, such as red-eared slider turtles, spend more time inside the water because they also breathe through the cloaca. So, their chances of survival are much higher. On the other hand, box turtles are not such great swimmers, so if you have one, check on it more often.
Hibernating or sleeping turtles spend more than 30 minutes underwater. Some species go up to seven hours before resurfacing for air. Since their bodies are resting, their oxygen reserves go for longer. If your pet turtle is idle for a long period, yet it isn’t hibernating, there is a cause for concern. Other signs of drowning include:
Floating to the surface
If you find your turtle floating in its tank, it indicates drowning and possibly death, depending on how long it’s been in the water. Drowning causes gas buildup, which results in floating. Some turtles choose to float on the water surface, but they show movement, meaning they are doing alright. However, an immobile floating turtle should worry pet owners.
One of the major causes of drowning is trapping by rocks or tank decorations for pet turtles. Sea turtles are also at risk of trapping by fish nets. So, if you notice that the turtle is not moving yet trapped, it is most likely drowning. Also, the head and legs hang down limp for a long time.
Baby turtles are more likely to get trapped due to inexperience. In addition, bigger turtles can wriggle their way out of some situations, but baby turtles have weaker bodies.
Appearing upside down
Some turtle species prefer to swim upside down. If they can’t flip over in time, it could have a devastating impact on the turtles. A turtle cannot swim to the water surface to breathe in air while upside down. So, it panics, using up all the oxygen and taking water into its lungs. Keep checking if your turtle flipped over because staying in that position for long leads to drowning.
A lack of response to touch
Unlike most other pets, turtles prefer staying alone and dislike being touched. So, any slight touch by a human will elicit a reaction. So, if you doubt your pet turtle is alive and well, try touching its body. A healthy turtle will draw its legs and body into its shell as a defence mechanism. If it doesn’t, you might need to do CPR.
How to help a drowning turtle
Once you find your turtle unconscious, it’s best to act fast. Remove the turtle from the water and start CPR. The turtle might still be alive if rigor mortis has not set in. Since turtles can go for long without oxygen, there is enough time to help your pet before the situation gets out of control. Here’s how:
Step 1 – Keep the turtle belly down
If you suspect your turtle is drowning and is unresponsive to your touch, remove it from the water but avoid flipping it over. Turning the turtle’s belly up puts pressure on the lungs, expelling any oxygen left. It can cause the turtle to die, so keep it upright.
Step 2 – Start CPR
Turtle CPR involves grasping the turtle’s head from the back and fully extending the neck. Turtles retract their heads and legs into their shells when they sense danger. So, extending the neck allows the water to leave the body through the nose or mouth. Hold the turtle in this position until water stops leaking out.
Afterwards, place the turtle upright on a dry flat surface. Keep the neck extended with its front legs lying straight towards you. Without allowing bending at the elbows, pump the legs in and out of the turtle’s body. Doing so forces the lungs to force out any remaining water. Turtle CPR should continue until water stops coming out.
Step 3 – Take the turtle to the vet
Once the turtle starts moving or showing signs of life, such as breathing, rush it to the vet. CPR takes a few minutes to work, so don’t give up until the turtle responds. Pet owners are warned against using a straw to breathe into the turtle’s mouth. Giving large breaths could damage the lungs, and there’s not much evidence that it helps the turtle more by breathing into its mouth.
If the turtle lies lifeless after CPR, carefully hold it in your palm and rock the turtle from side to side, expelling any remaining water. Rushing the turtle to the vet is mandatory, even after successful resuscitation.
How long would it take for a turtle to drown?
The time it takes for a turtle to drown varies from one species to another. Species like the red-eared slider turtle last long underwater. Others, like the box turtle, spend less time underwater and thus would take a shorter period to drown. The age and health of a turtle also determine how long it can stay without oxygen while underwater. Thus, baby turtles can drown much faster than grown turtles because of their weak bodies.
Most turtle species go up to 30 minutes without breathing in oxygen. While hibernating, they go for long since their bodies are not physically active. Still, it is difficult to say how long it would take a turtle to drown, but here is the average time turtle species can spend underwater:
- Leatherback sea turtle – 10 hours
- Red-eared slider turtle – 30 minutes
- Box turtle – 2 minutes
- Kemps ridley – 10 hours
Turtles don’t automatically drown because of spending more time than recommended underwater. Certain conditions, such as being trapped or choked by debris, make it difficult to swim to the surface for oxygen.
Should you submerge your turtle?
Your turtle spends most of its time in the tank or the basking dock. So, you’re allowed to take it out once in a while to bathe or play. Although turtles prefer to swim alone and are not as social as other pets, they enjoy interactions with their humans. Moreover, healthy turtles can stay outside water for up to eight hours, depending on the environment. However, submerging allows all body processes to occur normally.
Turtles do not need to bathe often. Wash your turtle if you notice the formation of algae on the shell or dirt and debris buildup. When bathing your turtle, prepare a lukewarm bath and use a toothbrush to scrub the shell and clean the rest of the body. The water should be enough to submerge the turtle but allow the head to rise above the water.
If the turtle is fully submerged while playing, ensure it comes to the surface every few minutes to get some oxygen. When the water temperature is right, and the turtle can come to the surface when needed, it should be comfortable for about 30 minutes of play.
- Stacey Safarik, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: What are the Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Sea Turtles and How Can We Prevent Them?
- UCSB ScienceLine: Why are sea turtles almost extincted?
- Carleton College Cowling Arboretum: How Do Turtles Survive the Winter?