7 Signs Your Turtle Is Dying & When They're Just Hibernating

It's easy to mistake a turtle in brumation for a turtle that is sick, but these key differences can help you distinguish one from the other.

Updated June 28, 2023
Eastern Box Turtle in the Grass

Turtles are 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. Signs you should watch for include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargic behavior
  • Skin problems
  • Discharge and bubbling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swimming
  • Unusual feces
Need to Know

During the colder parts of the year, most turtles and tortoises go into brumation - a state similar to hibernation. If you see your turtle begin to act sluggish and start to burrow in somewhere, this is probably what's going on.

Is My Turtle Dying or In Brumation?

Distinguishing between a sick, potentially dying turtle and a turtle going into brumation can be challenging, but there are certain signs to look for that can help you figure out what's going on. Many of the signs of a turtle dying are for turtles that are not in brumation, or hibernation. Brumation typically occurs in response to dropping temperatures and decreased daylight hours.

During brumation, 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 appear lethargic, particularly in the colder months.

If you're not familiar with how a turtle looks when they're in brumation, it can definitely look like they're dead or dying. Any time you're concerned, however, it's worthwhile to have your turtle examined to confirm that they're in good health.

Quick Tip

Consult with your veterinarian to find out if your turtle will or should brumate and learn about their specific needs during these months.

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.


Brazilian turtle looking about

It's common for brumating 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.

Quick Tip

Lethargy is particularly concerning if it occurs during the warmer months of the year.

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.

Quick Tip

A sick turtle may also become less responsive to stimuli. Watch for signs your turtle isn't acting normal and doesn't react the way you are used to.

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

Red eared slider aquatic turtle

If you notice your aquatic 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 indicate 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.

How to Tell Your Turtle Is In Brumation Versus Dying

It's a lot of information to take in, so getting to the key points is important. Here are a few ways to distinguish between signs your turtle is dying and brumation:

  • Time of year: Brumation happens during the cold months, so if your turtle appears sick during warm months, they're likely not brumating.
  • Your turtle's breathing: Breathing rate may slow down during brumation, but should not appear labored or difficult.
  • Overall appearance: A brumating turtle will still appear healthy in appearance, whereas a turtle that is dying may have a less than appealing color and shell.
  • Eyes: A brumating turtle's eyes will appear healthy, whereas a sick turtle's eyes may be excreting fluids.
  • Weight: A brumating turtle will still retain most of their weight, whereas a sick turtle may lose significant weight.

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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7 Signs Your Turtle Is Dying & When They're Just Hibernating