Sink or Swim: Can Turtles Swim?


PetMD Editorial

Updated Aug. 16, 2022

By Joe Cortez

One of the first challenges a new turtle owner will face is setting up a proper environment for their pet to thrive. Creating the right space requires more than a heating element and the right diet, as turtles also need an aquatic space. In many cases, having a swimming area is an important part of a habitat to keep turtles happy and healthy throughout their lives. Here, we answer four common questions turtle owners often have about turtles and their ability to swim.

Can All Turtles Swim?

One of the major differences between turtles and tortoises is their environmental differences. Turtles require an ample amount of water to live in, but are not entirely aquatic reptiles. Because of their aquatic nature, many pet turtles are excellent swimmers. “Turtles imply water,” said Dr. Laurie Hess, owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics in Westchester County, N.Y. “Most turtles live in water and tortoises live on land.”

However, not all turtles require the same amount of water. Red-eared sliders, one of the most common types of pet turtle, will enjoy swimming in a large aquarium while other turtles (like the Eastern box turtle) only require a shallow swimming area. In addition to turtles and tortoises, there is another subset called terrapins. They are a semi-aquatic set that usually lives in brackish or muddy waters can also spend time outside on land.  Before deciding which type of turtle to get, be sure to understand their particular habits and swimming needs.

How Do Turtles Swim?

Because many turtles are aquatic reptiles, swimming is a part of their everyday activity. The red-eared slider is very fond of water, and enjoys both swimming and diving in its aquatic home. In order to swim, turtles utilize all four of their legs, extending them to propel themselves through the water.

“Turtles have webbed feet, and they use them to paddle,” Hess said. “They will dive and paddle around then come back up to the surface to breathe.”

When a turtle is done swimming, they will seek refuge at their basking spot. Stopping at a basking spot is more than an exercise break, instead, basking allows turtles to raise their internal temperature and absorb nutrients from a full-spectrum light source. That is why red-eared sliders should have a platform or base to climb out of the water to bask and recharge.

Can Turtles Breathe Under Water?

Although turtles are aquatic reptiles, they cannot breathe underwater in the same way fish can. Instead, turtles need to surface in order to take in oxygen while swimming, Hess said.

“[Turtles] do need to breathe outside of the water,” she said. “You will see them blow bubbles in the water, but they need to be above water to breathe.” It is important to differentiate this from an upper respiratory infection in turtles, which will be blowing bubbles when on land as well.

Some common pet turtles, however, may be able to absorb oxygen through special skin in their cloacal cavities (a cavity into which the intestinal, urinary and genital canals empty in reptiles). This method is primarily used during brumation, a hibernation-like state that wild turtles go into during cold weather conditions. Many experts recommend avoiding brumation in pet turtles, as it can cause long-term health problems, including inducing egg-laying, depleting the body of energy reserves, and can lead to infection if food or stool is left in the gastro-intestinal tract.

Can Turtles Drown?

Because turtles cannot breathe under water, it is entirely plausible that they could drown. However, adult turtles are also very smart around the water and can maintain their own oxygen levels by floating at the water’s edge or surfacing to breathe. In her years of practice as a veterinarian, Hess said that she has not experienced a case of a turtle drowning.

However, that does not mean that a turtle cannot get sick from being overexposed to the water. Without a proper basking spot, turtles cannot dry themselves appropriately or shed their old shells. As a result, turtles can develop shell and skin problems, such as shell pyramiding. Shell pyramiding is when the top of the shell (carapace) grows abnormally and is likely caused by too much protein in the diet when the turtle was young.

Because turtles’ health is strongly influenced by water quality, one must maintain a good filtration system and change a portion of the water in their turtle’s environment weekly. “If you are going to have water, you need to be prepared for water care,” Hess said.

Although some turtles enjoy swimming, others may not need as much exposure to the water. By understanding your turtle type and its unique needs, pet owners can make sure their turtles stay happy and healthy throughout their long lives.

Image:  / Shutterstock

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health