How to Tell if Your Turtle Is Dying: Typical Signs

Updated October 13, 2021
small red-eared turtle

Turtles can be fascinating and fun pets, but they do have many specific care requirements that potential turtle owners must be aware of. One of their most important needs is in the area of health care. You should know from the start how to tell if your turtle is dying to keep your pet safe and understand when to get help.

How Can You Tell If Your Turtle Is Dying?

Turtles, both aquatic and semi-aquatic, can suffer from some common health conditions such as respiratory illnesses, parasites, and dietary deficiencies, many of which share similar symptoms. Like other small pets and reptiles, turtles can tend to "hide" their symptoms, which means by the time you notice something is wrong, the turtle can be very ill and close to dying. Remaining vigilant by watching your turtle's diet, habits, and everyday routine is a critical part of turtle ownership so you can recognize a problem as soon as possible.

Lack of Appetite

If your turtle is not hibernating, refuses to eat, and begins to lose weight, this is a cause for immediate concern. This could be a sign of an internal infection or an obstruction in their gastrointestinal tract. With female turtles, lack of eating can also be a sign of dystocia, which means she has eggs that are unable to pass normally from her body. If not addressed, dystocia can be fatal.


It's common for hibernating turtles to be lethargic, but a normal, healthy, and active turtle should move around their tank and respond to stimuli like food, interaction with you, and their cage habitat. If your turtle is not eating, barely moving, and also has trouble swimming, contact your veterinarian right away.

Brazilian turtle looking about

Skin Problems

Swelling in any area, particularly the eyes, ears, or shell, are all signs of an abscess or internal infection. Open wounds, lesions, holes in the shell, and red irritations are additional signs of an infection. Some infections of the shell are very treatable, while others can be life threatening. Another skin abnormality that indicates a medical problem is visible tumors on any area of their body. If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian right away, especially if any lesions or tumors are accompanied by a foul odor.

Discharge and Bubbling

If a turtle is very sick or dying, you may see a runny fluid or discharge coming from their nose or eyes. Discharge from the eyes or ears that has a thick, pus-like appearance, accompanied by swollen eyelids or ears, is often a sign of vitamin A deficiency. Another common sign of serious illness is "bubbling" coming from the turtle's mouth. This is actually caused by mucus in their mouth brought on by a respiratory infection.

Breathing Problems

Respiratory problems are common in turtles and can range from mild to very serious. If a respiratory infection is not treated, it can progress into life-threatening pneumonia. Some common respiratory signs indicating your turtle is in trouble are sneezing, wheezing, and gasping. They may also gape, which is breathing with their mouth wide open, and yawn frequently. In some cases, you may see the turtle moving their neck forward to try to bring more air into their bodies.

Swimming Problems

If you notice your turtle having problems swimming correctly, such as tilting too much to one side, trouble floating, or disorientation, this is a sign of a number of serious illnesses. Infections within the lungs, in particular, can affect a turtle's buoyancy, which can cause them to have difficulty when swimming. Parasites or infections within the brain could also lead to disorientation.

Unusual Feces

Any sign that something is amiss with a turtle's feces can be a sign they need critical medical care. Some signs you should monitor closely for are diarrhea, bloody stool, and the presence of parasites. A parasitic infection can lead to severe organ damage and failure if not treated immediately.

Blood in a turtle's droppings could indicate the presence of bladder stones, a common problem in turtles. Your turtle may also show blood in their stool, or no feces at all, if they have an obstruction or blockage in their digestive tract. If an obstruction is present, surgery will most likely be necessary to remove it and prevent your turtle from dying.

Box turtle walking over gravel

Dying or Brumation?

Many of the signs of a turtle dying discussed above are for turtles that are not in brumation, or hibernation. During hibernation, a turtle's normal metabolism slows significantly so they can sleep through the cold winter months. A turtle that is properly set up to brumate, or hibernate, will naturally stop eating and become very lethargic.

In fact, if you're not familiar with a turtle in hibernation, it can easily appear to you that they're dead. Any time you're concerned, however, it's worthwhile to have your turtle examined to confirm that they're not dying. And if you haven't done so, be sure to consult with your veterinarian to find out if your turtle will brumate and learn about their specific needs during these months.

Know the Signs of a Dying Turtle

To be a responsible turtle owner, it's important to have a good idea of all the common diseases that could affect them during their lifetime. With turtles, recognizing a problem right away is often the difference between life and death, as they may not show symptoms until they are in serious medical distress. Make sure you have a veterinarian experienced with turtle care who you can call to alleviate your turtle's illness and prevent them from dying.

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How to Tell if Your Turtle Is Dying: Typical Signs