How to Tell If a Turtle Is Dying: Typical Signs

Mychelle Blake
Turtle stares into camera

Turtles can be fascinating and fun pets, but they do have many specific care requirements that potential turtle owners should be aware of. One of their most important needs is in the area of health care, and you should know from the start what are the signs of a dying turtle to keep your pet safe.

How Can You Tell If a Turtle Is Dying?

Turtles, both aquatic and semi-aquatic, can suffer from some common health conditions such as respiratory illnesses, parasites, and diet deficiencies, many of which share similar symptoms. Like other small pets and reptiles, turtles can tend to "hide" their symptoms and by the time you notice something is wrong, the turtle can be very ill and close to dying. Remaining vigilant and 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 and 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 that she has eggs unable to pass normally from her body.


It's normal 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 his 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 their shell are all signs of an abscess and internal infection. Other skin indications of a medical problem are visible tumors on any area of their body. Open wounds, lesions, holes in the shell and red irritations are all signs of an infection. Some infections of the shell are very treatable while others can be life threatening. 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

You may see a runny discharge coming from their nose and/or eyes if a turtle is very sick. Discharges from the eyes or ears that have 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 with turtles and they can range from mild to very serious, particularly pneumonia. Some common respiratory signs 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 will 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.


Any sign that something is amiss with a turtle's feces can be a sign they need critical medical care. Some signs you should be looking for are diarrhea, bloody stool or diarrhea, and/or the presence of parasites. A parasitic infection can lead to severe organ damage and failure if not treated immediately. Your turtle may also show blood in their stool, or no feces at all, if they have an obstruction in their digestive tract. If an obstruction is present, surgery will most likely be necessary to remove it to keep the turtle from dying.

Box turtle walking over gravel

Dying or Brumation?

The signs of a turtle dying discussed above are for turtles that are not in brumation. During hibernation, a turtle's normal metabolism slows significantly so that he or she 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 it's dead. It's best to consult with your veterinarian if your turtle will brumate to learn about the 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 who is experienced with caring for turtles that you can call to alleviate your turtle's illness and prevent him from dying.

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How to Tell If a Turtle Is Dying: Typical Signs