Ask a Vet

Why Do Turtles Float? Why Do They Float Sideways Or On Their Back?

Photo of author
Updated on

Turtles are known for their ability to float on water. They also seem to enjoy floating around in circles.

Turtles float on the lake

Why do they do these things?

The turtle is a reptile belonging to the order Testudines (turtles). There are over 300 species of turtles worldwide.

Most live in freshwater habitats, although some species inhabit brackish or saltwater environments.

Turtles are aquatic animals and spend most of their time in the water. But have you ever wondered why your turtle sometimes floats and why they sometimes float on their back or sideways?

We have written this article to tell you that if you ever notice this, your turtle needs immediate attention. If you ignore it, it could be fatal. But why?

A Bit About The Turtle

Turtles spend much of their time swimming through water. Their shells protect them from predators, and their tails act as propellers.

They have no limbs except for webbed feet, which allow them to walk on land.

Turtle shells are made up of two halves: an upper shell called a carapace, and a lower shell called a plastron.

The carapace usually has a smooth surface with ridges along its edges and a hard outer layer called the exoskeleton. This protects the soft internal organs and muscles.

The plastron is attached to the underside of the carapace and provides support for the animal’s body weight. It may be covered by small scales or hardened into plates.

There are three types of turtles: sea turtles, freshwater turtles, and terrestrial turtles. Sea turtles can breathe air and lay eggs directly on the ocean floor.

Freshwater turtles cannot breathe air; instead, they absorb oxygen through pores in their skin.

Terrestrial turtles are found only in North America and South America.

These turtles have four legs and must crawl on land to find food and shelter.

A lot of people often keep turtles as pets, and they are very popular among children. They make great family pet and are a friendly animal that is not too difficult to care for.

However, you might be wondering why your turtle sometimes floats and why it floats on its back and sideways sometimes. We hope the rest of this article will clear up the confusion.

Why Do Turtles Float?

Turtles float in the water a lot of the time as a result of gastrointestinal problems. The accumulated gas in a turtle is not a severe issue, as it can recover quickly.

However, if they are floating as a result of respiratory problems and you neglect to give your turtle proper attention, this can end in pneumonia and can make turtles float above the water.

A close up shot of turtle floating

This means whenever a turtle is floating in the water, this is not something to be taken lightly.

It can be a result of gas which is slightly less serious, but it can also be due to a more severe respiratory infection.

Sometimes you might notice that your pet turtles will float on the tank’s surface when they are sleeping, and it looks like they are using their throat that has been self-inflated as a flotation device.

If you see your turtle floating, however, you need to do your best to work out why. The only way to confirm the reason is by pushing the turtle down slightly in the water.

If the turtle floats right back up, it signifies suffering and needs immediate attention.

Turtles Floating Due To Gas

The most common cause of a turtles floating is gas buildup inside the digestive tract.

When there is a buildup of gasses in the intestine, the turtle will float because the buoyancy of the gas keeps it afloat.

If your turtle is floating upside down, it could mean that he/she is experiencing a build-up of gas in his or her stomach. Often, however, due to a build-up of gas, your turtle will be floating on its side.

Turtles float because they have lots of gas in their bodies. Their gas builds up often when they eat new foods or if they have been put on certain medications.

In this case, it should not be a serious problem and should clear up on its own.

Floating is not a dangerous problem for a pet turtle, but it could be fatal for a turtle in the wild.

Marine debris blocks their digestive tract when they are finding and eating a variety of food in the water, causing them to float.

The turtle will then find it hard to dive for food that is deep in the water, and lack of food intake can lead to starvation and can be catastrophic to the health of a turtle.

Turtles need to eat constantly to stay healthy. To do this, they must be submerged in the water.

Moreover, a floating turtle is more likely to get caught by predators and will become easy prey for animals such as whales and sharks.

Turtles Floating Due To Respiratory Infections

If you notice your turtle floating and it’s not due to gas, it could be due to respiratory infections.

It is important to note that if your turtle has been exposed to cold temperatures or wet conditions, this can increase the risk of respiratory problems.

If your turtle is floating near the top of the tank, this could be the case, and your pet will need immediate care and attention.

Tortoise floating

When a turtle has an upper respiratory infection, it causes him/her to breathe harder than usual.

This makes the turtle feel full and bloated, and it will try to move around to release the pressure from the air in its body. As a result, the turtle will float on the surface.

It is important to note that a turtle with respiratory issues may not always float.

Sometimes, they will sink to the bottom of the tank or even die before you have had a chance to realize there was a problem.

Turtles are amphibious reptiles that breathe air through their lungs using gills.

If the turtle does not have access to fresh air, it will continue to breathe through its mouth instead of its nose. This is called “mouth breathing,” and it can be very harmful to the turtle’s lungs.

As turtles use their lungs to breathe, a respiratory infection can arise from viruses, bacteria, or fungi that enter the turtle’s lungs.

This causes mucus to build up in their mouths and noses. Bubbles often come out of their mouth and nostrils when they’re sick, and this can be an initial sign.

Turtles can get respiratory infections if they’re living in an unhealthy environment.

Their health can deteriorate quickly if left untreated. They need to be eating a balanced diet, with heat sources, UV light, and good enclosure hygiene.

If you give your turtle proper care and the right medication, as soon as you notice the signs, you can prevent the issue from developing into pneumonia.

Respiratory infections can affect turtles’ ability to breathe properly, and if left untreated, they will float on the water and be unable to submerge themselves in water.

Turtles who are floating in the water won’t be able to swim or dive because of the infection.

Your turtle will then appear to be lethargic and might develop very swollen eyes.

It will struggle to gasp for breath as the fluid builds up in the turtle’s lungs, which can be extremely uncomfortable for your pet.

How Can I Prevent Respiratory Infections In My Turtle?

Respiratory infections can be deadly, especially in their later stages of development.

To prevent them, you should make sure that your turtle is healthy right from the start, as prevention wins over cure any day!

Turtles need good nutrition, heat sources, and UV light, so what do we mean by this?

  • Ensure your turtle gets enough vitamin A. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and other foods rich in vitamin A are great sources of this nutrient. Getting enough can be key to preventing respiratory infections and should be part of their everyday diet.
  • Maintain optimal tank temperature. Keeping them in an aquarium is important because they need warmth and moisture, and they should not be experiencing any drafts of air entering their enclosure. The water should be warm and should not fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, as cold weather can mean your turtle might develop respiratory conditions.
  • Humidity should be kept at 75%, and UV rays should be used. Covering the top with a towel helps increase the humidity, and you need to keep the UV light on in their enclosure for about 10-12 hours every day.
  • Basking outdoors once or twice a week is also helpful. Turtles need to stay warm and dry when they’re out of the water, and this should be kept to about 30-60 minutes of basking at a time. When they’re wet, they get cold easily.

Although this is great advice, if you have followed these prevention tips and your turtle starts to float for a long period, it’s time to act.

If you see your turtle acting strangely or having trouble breathing, contact your vet right away.

Turtles Floating On Their Back

Turtles do not normally swim on their backs. If your turtle floats on its back for extended periods, it may need medical attention as this is not normal behavior, and it should be seen by a vet.

If your turtle’s behavior and appetite are normal but it keeps floating on its back, it could be an issue with the water quality or other aquarium issues.

They can get sick easily if they don’t eat enough vitamin A. However, in this case, they will start to swim sideways and then might tip over onto their back.

If you are dealing with respiratory infections, your turtle will struggle to remain buoyant and will flip onto its back because of this.

Aquarium setups must be correct to avoid turtles floating on their backs too.

A turtle usually needs enough space in their aquarium to swim around comfortably, meaning you will need a rather large aquarium.

Moreover, the water depth needs to be taken care of properly.

The water level of your aquarium needs to be deeper than the width of the turtle, as otherwise, it could increase the chances of your turtle flipping over, and they will find it trickier to right themselves again.

If you keep your turtle with aggressive tankmates, this could also be another reason for your turtle turning on its back.

If you have more than one turtle in one tank, you may discover one of your turtles flipping over a lot.

This might happen when you have a few male turtles grouped with one female turtle in your tank too.

During breeding, male turtles will start to fight over the female, and the stronger alpha male turtle will usually end up flipping over the smaller and weaker turtle, sometimes flipping the female turtle in the process.

Turtles Floating Sideways

If your turtle is floating sideways, this could also be a warning sign that your turtle is in danger. This is often due to gastrointestinal problems.

This, however, is not a huge concern, and as the turtle releases gas, it will usually resolve itself.

However, if you are concerned, you can seek medical advice and give your turtle antibiotics prescribed by a vet.

If your turtle continues to bob sideways, it could prove to be lethal, especially if it is unable to submerge itself in the water.

This can be a sign of a respiratory infection that is in its advanced stages.

It could be a sign your turtle is suffering from pneumonia, especially if your turtle has been exposed to cold water or has a vitamin A deficiency that hasn’t been treated.

Floating When Turtles Die

When your turtle dies, it will float on top of the water’s surface. This is a natural phenomenon, and it happens after death to allow the body to decompose naturally.

Gasses in the body emit a foul-smelling odor when they die, and they usually do not float immediately.

Only when gasses form does this begin, and their buoyancy increases. It normally takes about 16-32 hours for the turtle to begin floating. It will begin to rot at this point too.

Usually, the body will sink into the bottom of the aquarium within 24 hours, but some species of turtles take longer to decompose.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, we hope these answers helped you understand why turtles float and how to prevent them from doing so.

We hope you found our answers helpful and now know the signs of either a gas issue or a more serious respiratory issue.

If you use our preventative measures, your turtle should hopefully avoid these issues and stay healthy their whole life!

Photo of author
About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.