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Can Turtles Breathe Upside Down?

Have you ever walked in on your turtle laying or floating on its back? Something like this can happen for several reasons, whether they are sick, unhappy with their environment, or even fighting with another turtle over territory. 

Regardless, you are most likely wondering if your pet will be okay. Contrary to popular belief, turtles can breathe upside down, but it certainly makes it harder for them to get the air they need. 

An upside-down turtle can mean many different things, ranging from a minor inconvenience to a severe health issue. Keep reading to find out what you can do if you see this issue re-occurring.

Does the Depth of your Turtle Tank Matter? 

The depth of your turtle tank does matter. There is a significant difference between shallow and deep tanks and their environmental role in your turtle’s everyday life. 

It also depends on the species of your turtle. As a rule of thumb, the water within your turtle tank should be 2-3 times as deep as the length of your turtle’s shell. This is so that they can turn themselves back underwater.

Most pond turtles love to swim while other species, like the Alligator Snapper, don’t and would prefer to roam along the bottom of the tank. 

You must research your specific turtle’s needs and requirements so that you can create an environment that is enjoyable and safe for them.

Shallow Water Tanks

Are Shallow Water Tanks More Dangerous Than Deep Water Ones?

Can Turtles Breathe Upside Down in Shallow Waters

A shallow tank can potentially be dangerous for your turtle compared to a deep-water tank. You would be surprised how many people, especially first-time turtle owners, accidentally create a hazardous environment for their turtles without even knowing it. 

Why Shallow Water Tanks Are Dangerous?

Shallow water tanks are risky because a turtle can accidentally get flipped over. Without the lack of gravity that deepwater provides, your turtle could get stuck with its head underwater. 

This would be bad news for your pet.  In this scenario, your turtle would have nothing to grab onto or use as leverage to right itself. Turtles do not have gills and are air-breathing creatures. They must surface to be able to breathe. 

As a turtle owner, it is your responsibility to ensure that things like this don’t happen! There are a lot of great resources out there that can teach you how to be a better owner to your turtle.

Online forums are an immensely helpful and insightful place to find answers to questions you may have from turtle owners just like you!

Deep Water Tanks 

Can A Turtle Still Drown in Deep Water?

If a turtle gets flipped over deep underwater, it will have a much easier time flipping itself back over than it would if it were in a puddle of a shallow water tank. 

It is still possible for a turtle to drown in a deep-water tank, but it is much less likely. These kinds of tanks are usually ideal because most turtles love to swim. 

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How Deep Should My Deep-Water Tank Be?

Deep water tanks are great, but you do not want them to be too deep. Ideally, you would want to make it easy for your turtle to reach the surface of the tank. 

Like the rule of thumb mentioned above, the water should be 2-3 times as deep as the length of your turtle’s shell. This is a fantastic method because it gives your turtle the exact amount of depth it would need to flip itself back over if it found itself upside down.

Land Tanks

Can Turtles Get Flipped Over in Land Tanks?

With land tanks, you may run into similar problems that the shallow water tank has. Although it is much more dangerous for a turtle to be flipped upside down in shallow water than on land, you should still be aware of the risks. 

Due to gravity, turtles have a much more likely chance of being flipped over and not being able to right themselves. 

What You Should Look Out For:

Your main concern should be ensuring that your friendly reptile can drink from its water-filled dish or pan without it being a struggle for your turtle to climb in and out of it. 

Your turtle’s water dish should be no deeper than a quarter to a third of your turtles’ shell height.

For those new or soon-to-be turtle owners, you should know that turtles often defecate in their water containers, so you should always wash and refill them! Once a day should be satisfactory. Turtles don’t primarily release their bowels underwater, but it has been known to happen from time to time. 

How Long Can a Turtle Breathe Upside Down? 

How Long Can Turtle Breathe Upside Down

How Long Before It Turns Deadly?

It is dangerous for your turtle to be upside down for more than 5 minutes. A turtle laying on its back can have anywhere from minor to fatal injuries within an hour of flipping over.

What Should I do If I see My Turtle Upside Down? 

If you see your turtle flipped upside down, you should definitely lend it a helping hand. Usually, a healthy turtle can right itself without any issues. 

If you observe that it is flipped upside down and cannot right itself, then that may signify some health problems with your turtle.

Is An Upside-Down Turtle Always a Serious Problem?

A turtle flipped upside down occasionally is not going to be the end of the world or pose a threat to its health. 

On the other hand, if it becomes a common occurrence, then it is advised that you take your turtle to the vet for some extra care.

How Does This Usually Happen?

The most common instances where this can occur are when a turtle accidentally flips itself over in a puddle or flips itself over in front of a basking light and cannot right itself on its own. 

Why do Turtles Get Flipped Upside Down? 

Is My Turtle Sick? 

Turtles floating upside down can potentially have a respiratory infection. There are many potential reasons why this can happen, but healthy turtles do not usually have this problem, so it can certainly be a sign that your turtle needs some extra help. 

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How Respiratory Illness Can Cause Your Turtle to Flip Upside Down

A respiratory illness in turtles doesn’t happen all at once. It starts at the nostrils or mouth cavity and moves to the lungs. Once there, the infection adversely affects its inner ballast. 

This part of their body is responsible for keeping the turtle buoyant, so it will inevitably affect the way it swims, making it go sideways or even upside down. 

How An Improperly Tank Interior Can Also Be a Contributing Factor

This can also occur due to poorly placed decorations in your turtle tank that can trap it or cause it to tip over. 

Turtles are quite the poor climbers, and any attempt to climb a vertical obstacle will most likely end up with them on their backs or even injured.

Turtles Fighting Over Territory

Although not as common, two male turtles in the same tank can end up competing over territory. This can transpire as turtles grow older and reach sexual maturity. They are known to become very aggressive around this time. 

If you see this happening, know that it is a severe issue and that they should be separated immediately. 

How You Can Prevent your Turtle from Flipping Over 

proper turtle tank setup to prevent turtles from flipping over
proper turtle tank setup to prevent turtles from flipping over

What Can I Do? 

If you happen to catch your turtle floating upside down, then you must take some time to see what your turtle is trying to tell you. In most cases, it’s recommended that you seek help from a higher party to make sure that everything is okay.

You should always check on your turtle and ensure that its tank is appropriately set up for it. Make sure you do not get too carried away with decorations and plants that could tip your turtle over. 

Should I Separate Aggressive Turtles?

If possible, you should try and keep males apart during the mating season because a female turtle’s scent can and will drive a male crazy. 

This can usually lead to them aggressively pushing the other competition around, resulting in a flipped turtle. If this issue isn’t properly addressed, you could potentially end up with a dead turtle on your hands, and we don’t want that! 

Turtles don’t need friends and generally don’t like to share their aquarium space with others, although some turtle species are exceptions to this kind of behavior.


An upside-down turtle can mean a lot of different things, from serious to minor inconveniences, but as long as you are vigilant and attentive to your little friend, then you can prevent a lot of problems from occurring. 

It is also important that you prioritize cleaning your turtle’s tank and making sure that their environment is safe and free of hazards. At the end of the day, all that hard work and effort is always worth it because a happy turtle is a beautiful sight to behold!