Have you noticed anything weird about your turtle? Do you think your turtle may be suffering from an illness? Read on to find out how to tell if your turtle may be dying.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • 6 Signs Your Turtle Is Dying
  • 4 Common Turlte Illnesses
  • How Can Yoy Help A Dying Turtle?
Red Eared Slider Turtle

Six Signs That Your Turtle Is Dying

1. Increased Basking

One of the earliest signs that something is wrong is a turtle basking more often than normal. This is often a sign of an underlying issue. Turtles bask more frequently and longer when they are sick. They do this in order to increase their body temperature and trigger a fever to fight off whatever is ailing them. 

Increased basking alone is not a sign that there is something wrong with your turtle or that it is dying. Your water may simply be too cold or something in the water is irritating them, or your turtle simply enjoys basking more. Turtles have personalities, and some individuals bask more often than others of the same species. Some species also are known to bask more than others. 

Regardless, if your turtle is basking more frequently and for longer periods of time, coupled with other symptoms, this is a sign that your animal is dying from some form of illness. Whether or not the illness is treatable is dependent on what it is, so look out for more symptoms and head to a qualified vet. 

2. Lack of Appetite 

One of the first changes you may notice in a pet turtle that has an underlying condition that may lead to death is a lack of appetite. They may be eating significantly less or not eating at all. Losing their appetite is one of the early signs of a multitude of conditions. 

Important

In order to understand exactly what ailment is affecting your turtle, look out for other symptoms and try to be aware of any other changes in behavior. There may be a variety of reasons for a turtle to lose their appetite, so do not think that all hope is lost!  Usually, despite many symptoms, most turtles can recover from an ailment with veterinary assistance.

Antibiotics may need to be administered or other medical attention required, however, there is one positive thing that comes from a turtle that has lost its appetite. Gravid females looking to lay their eggs will often have noticeable changes in behavior, including lack of appetite. Regardless, this is often not the case, so be aware of other symptoms such as open wounds, lesions, or unusual behavior. 

3. Foaming/Bubbles At The Mouth and/or Nose

If your turtle is basking, you may notice some discharge coming from its nose or mouth. The mucus will be clear and slightly viscous, and when your turtle is breathing in and out it may turn to foam and become frothy. This is a sign that something is wrong with your turtle. Coupled with other symptoms, such as a lack of appetite or increased basking, this is a sign of a respiratory infection. 

A respiratory infection, if left untreated, will cause your turtle to die. There are no home remedies to fight off a respiratory infection, however increasing the water temperature is a good start to trigger an immune response in your turtle. Ultimately, a veterinary professional will need to prescribe antibiotics in order to fight off the infection. Without any medicine, the turtle will eventually succumb to their fate. 

I have not heard of a turtle able to naturally fight off a respiratory disease. Sometimes, they are able to live with a low-grade illness for their lives, but eventually, it will take over them. 

4. Lethargy

A more severe sign that your turtle is dying is lethargy. A turtle acting lethargic is a guaranteed way to know something is wrong. Again, many of these symptoms may be signs of a gravid female, however, unless your turtle is above 4 years old and female, odds are these symptoms are signs of an underlying illness. 

A lethargic turtle may seem lifeless, less inclined to swim to you to beg for food, not basking as often, sleeping for most of the day, and generally having decreased mobility. Lethargy is a more dire symptom of turtle illness, so you must act quickly. Increasing temperatures to around 85 ˚F until you are able to visit a vet is a good start. 

5. Whistling, Coughing, or Sneezing

A turtle that is coughing or sneezing when either underwater or on its basking dock is a sign of illness. This symptom is fairly common every once in a while and is nothing to worry about unless the turtle is constantly sneezing and looks irritated. You may notice while your turtle is basking that they quickly shake their head, or their entire body retracts at once as they shake their head. This may be your turtle sneezing or coughing from an underlying disease. 

Also, if you hear your turtle whistling while its head is above water, this may also be a sign that your turtle has an infection of some kind. If you can verbally hear strained breathing or wheezing in your turtle, this is definitely a sign that something is wrong. These symptoms are not usually present in healthy turtles.

6. Lopsided Swimming

A turtle that is swimming lopsided is a sign that something is very wrong with your animal. Swimming lopsided or not in a straight manner means that your turtle has a buoyancy problem. This problem can be caused by a variety of different reasons, but usually, it implies fluid either in the lungs or air improperly balanced in the cavity of your turtle. 

In severe cases of pneumonia or a respiratory infection, fluid can build in the lungs and your turtle will no longer swim properly. At this point, the animal needs intensive care but it may be too far gone, unfortunately. Imbalanced swimming may be from a gas buildup due to impaction or a gastrointestinal obstruction in the digestive tract, which means your turtle ate something it was not supposed to and cannot pass the object in its feces. This can eventually be deadly for your turtle if they do not defecate the object, so laxatives or some form of stimulant may be required. 

Four Common Turtle Diseases

1. Respiratory Infection

One of the most common diseases in a turtle is respiratory infection. This is a blanket term for a turtle with some type of bacterial or viral internal infection, usually affecting the lungs and respiratory system. Because turtles breathe air as we do, they are prone to these types of infections just like how humans get colds. 

They can get a respiratory infection from cold water, poor water quality, or difficulty brumating. In hatchlings, respiratory infections are lethal and unfortunately, most turtles are too small to treat with a vet. I have taken a hatchling with a respiratory infection to the vet twice and have been told the same thing, they are untreatable, only to be left with an animal that eventually passed. 

It is the unfortunate reality of owning and caring for hatchlings, and the best thing you can do is take preventative measures to avoid a respiratory infection in the first place. An infection is treatable with injectable antibiotics in turtles larger than 3 inches or so (oral antibiotics are not as common or effective as injectable). 

2. Shell Rot

Shell rot is extremely common in pet turtles and is caused by poor water quality. Bacteria will eat away at the shell of your turtle, exposing the bone underneath and in severe cases infecting past the bone. A turtle with untreated shell rot will eventually die. 

📚 Read More >> How To Fix Shell Rot

A turtle with shell rot will have discolored areas of the shell that are soft and smell rancid, with a soft texture. If you keep your turtle in an enclosure with clean water and heavy filtration, it is unlikely that your turtle has shell rot. Also, small spots of shell rot are not deadly to your turtle, but over time it will spread, turn into lesions, and negatively affect your animal. 

Pro-tip

Shell rot is hard and tedious to treat but quite easy to prevent by keeping your aquarium spick and span. Sticking to a good cleaning schedule to maintain good water quality and fishing out excess food after mealtimes are good practices. This also helps prevent other common illnesses.

Treating shell rot is fairly simple if caught early, but if you are not experienced you may want to take your turtle to the veterinarian. Dig out the rot with a sterile tool, apply silvadene cream, and dry dock your turtle for 24hrs or more. Reapply the cream as needed and dry dock until the rot clears up. Advanced stages of shell rot may require surgery.

Antibiotic injections may help fight off secondary infection as well. In small cases of shell rot, this can usually be fixed in a day or two. Severe cases may require extra assistance.

3. Metabolic Bone Disease

If a turtle is improperly housed and not given access to proper calcium supplements and especially UVB lighting, it can suffer from metabolic bone disease (MBD). UVB radiation is a wavelength of light that emanates from the sun. Turtles naturally have access to UVB radiation from the sun in the wild, but unless your turtle is kept outdoors, they need synthetic access to UVB lighting. Light bulbs are available that will produce this light wavelength, and they are required throughout a turtle’s life in order to thrive. 

Without UVB lighting, a turtle cannot properly synthesize vitamin D3 and calcium. Therefore, animals without UVB lighting fall ill to MBD, which they can live with but drastically reduces their life span. X-rays may tell if your turtle is truly suffering from MBD. Turtles suffering from metabolic bone disease cannot properly thrive, and eventually will succumb to the illness. This is why it is extremely important to provide the right kind of lighting for your turtle. 

4. Ear Abscess

An ear abscess is a growth protruding from the ear canal of a turtle. It usually looks like an overgrown pimple and your turtle will show signs of irritation from it. An ear abscess is an infection of the ear canal where a buildup of pus-like discharge or material accumulates and the skin heals over it, creating the abscess. 

An ear abscess will be deadly if not treated properly and does not heal over time. It must be lanced and drained by a veterinary professional and should NOT be attempted on one’s own. The ear canal can be very delicate and the procedure must be done with assistance from someone with plenty of experience. 

Dry docking for a few days after treatment and a round of antibiotics will be the most likely after care for your turtle. An ear abscess is caused usually by poor water quality or improper brumation, and water that is not clean enough. It can be prevented with frequent water changes of your turtle tank and heavy filtration. 

How To Help A Dying Turtle

There is no cure-all for assisting a dying turtle, therefore it is extremely important that you figure out what ailment is affecting your turtle. If you cannot find out what is wrong with your turtle, you should take them to an exotic reptile vet specialist. A normal vet is usually not fitted to deal with turtles and tortoises. 

If you can figure out what is wrong with your turtle before going to the vet, you can take preventative measures in the future to prevent another outbreak, and also judge how much time you have to get them help, and gauge what to do in the meantime before a vet visit. 

Pro-tip

Usually, a good way to help any turtle with a disease is by increasing temperatures and ensuring they stay warm. This can be done by raising the water temperature to 85 ˚F or placing them in a dry habitat (plastic bin) with a towel and a heat lamp to keep them warm. This will trigger an immune response from the turtle’s internal system and help fight off and bide time for your animal.

What To Do With A Dead Turtle?

Depending on how the turtle died, there are a few different things you can do with it. A recently deceased female turtle on the side of the road may have been looking for a spot to lay her eggs, and if her body cavity is opened you may be able to collect and incubate the eggs she was looking to lay. 

A dead pet turtle should most likely be buried in order to return the nutrients the animal holds back to the earth. Some pet funeral services may be able to cremate your turtle if you wish. I personally choose to bury the turtle without any restriction so their body may naturally decompose and be returned to the earth. Planting a small tree or plant on top of the grave so your pet can feed the new life is a good way to remember your turtle.

FAQs

How can I tell if my turtle is sick?

There are many ways to tell if your turtle is sick, but mostly, a combination of symptoms are tell-tale signs that something is wrong. Loss of appetite, increased basking, coughing or wheezing, or heavy breathing, foaming at the nose or mouth, and lopsided swimming are all signs of a sick turtle. A bad odor from its shell or the surrounding water can also be a sign.

Generally, if you have kept your turtle for long, you will be able to tell when something is “off” in their behavior. Diarrhea, puffy eyelids, scratching or clawing at the face while basking, and other behavioral changes are all signs that something is wrong. 

Do turtles float when they die?

Due to the gases that build inside of a turtle when they die, they do usually float. Turtles are very resilient though, and you should make sure a turtle is dead before disposing of its body. I have revived a turtle that drowned underwater for over 4 hours successfully, despite showing no signs of life originally. 

Can a turtle’s shell be kept after it dies?

Yes, if the proper steps are taken to preserve the shell. Otherwise, the scutes will naturally begin to fall off over time, and you will be left with the bone of the turtle. There are plenty of natural ways to strip away everything but the shell if you choose to keep it. I do not recommend this though, as the process can be fairly hazardous and the shell will not keep its color for long.

Is it okay to bury a dead turtle?

Yes, the most natural way to dispose of a dead turtle is to bury it. Burying the dead body will help plants and other organisms grow by consuming the nutrients your turtle has. This is a good way to continue the cycle of life despite the hardship of losing a beloved pet. 

Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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