Why Is My Turtle Staying in the Water?

Even though aquatic turtles, like Red-eared Sliders, absolutely love the water and will spend most of their time swimming, they also need to bask. Basking is as vital to a turtle’s health as a good diet. So what does it mean if your turtle never leaves the water for the warmth of his basking lamp?

Why is my turtle staying in the water? Your turtle is probably staying in the water because his basking area is not appealing to him. If this area isn’t warm, dry, and accessible enough, he won’t want to use it. It is also possible that your turtle isn’t basking because he is stressed or sick. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to make your turtle’s basking area more attractive to him. If your turtle is stressed, scared, or sick, there are steps you can take to determine the cause and remedy the situation.

An Attractive Basking Area

Every aquatic turtle must have a dry, flat area outside of the water that he can use to warm himself. This area can be a platform, an island, a float, or even a sturdy, secure pile of rocks built up above the water line from the bottom of your turtle’s tank.

Your turtle should have easy access to his basking site, and should be able to climb onto it easily from the water. Your turtle’s basking site should not take up too much of his aquatic space. In fact, ⅔ to ¾ of your turtle’s tank should be available for swimming.

Be sure that your turtle’s basking site is not made up of materials with sharp edges that could scrape or scratch his shell. A scratch in a turtle’s shell can quickly lead to fungal and bacterial infections. 

The water temperature for aquatic turtles, such as Red-eared Sliders, should be kept between 75-85℉. The temperature of their basking area should be kept between 85-95℉. You should monitor the temperatures of both these areas with reliable thermometers. 

Your turtle needs exposure to a light that produces ultraviolet (UV)B light. This type of light is essential for their health and helps them to maintain calcium balance, which is crucial for their bones and shell.

Never use a plastic or glass cover on top of your turtle’s tank, as these types of covers can actually filter out the UV light your turtle needs. Position your turtle’s light above his basking area, but be sure it isn’t so close to the area that it will overheat or burn your turtle. Leave this UV light on for at least 12 hours per day.

Your turtle will not be motivated to leave the water to bask if the temperature of the basking area is too high, or if the basking area is not easily accessible to him. The basking area also needs to be completely dry at all times, so be sure it isn’t made from a material that holds water. 

Never force your turtle onto his basking area if he isn’t using it on his own, as this could be quite stressful for him.

Is My Turtle Stressed or Scared?

So you’ve got the perfect basking area set up for your turtle, and he still isn’t using it. What gives? Another possibility is that your turtle is feeling frightened or stressed, and this is preventing him from basking.

If your turtle is new to his tank, he may be feeling apprehensive about his new home. This can prevent him from utilizing the basking area. If this is the case, give your turtle time to feel comfortable in his new habitat. Refrain from touching or handling him, as this will just cause him to be more fearful of his new surroundings. 

You can also try placing treats on your turtle’s unfamiliar basking area to tempt him into exploring it. Red-eared sliders, for example, love leafy greens, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Try placing some kale, collards, sweet potato, pumpkin, or apple on top of your turtle’s basking area to entice him.

Turtles also get stressed quite easily. Causes of stress can include a change in environment, illness, injury, excessive noise, the presence of other pets, and improper handling. If a turtle is stressed they will typically cease all regular behavior, including eating and basking, until their stress levels decrease.

You can help your turtle out by removing all sources of stress from his environment. Don’t play loud music in the room that your turtle is housed in. Don’t allow other pets in your turtle’s space (imagine if a giant cat was trying to paw his way into your house).

Refrain from touching and handling your turtle as much as possible, especially if he is not used to being handled. Not only does improper handling cause tension for your turtle, it could also lead to biting. A turtle bite is not exactly pleasant and can lead to an infection on your part.

Pregnancy in Turtles

There is also the chance that your turtle is pregnant. Pregnant turtles will drastically change their behavior and may not eat or bask. They will also attempt to dig whenever possible in an attempt to create a nesting site. 

If you’re unsure as to whether your turtle is male or female, this is of course the first thing you need to verify. Depending on the type of turtle you have, you can typically use his or her shell size, claw length, tail length, or the position of his or her cloaca to determine sex.

If you discover that your turtle is female, you will likely be unable to tell whether or not she is pregnant by sight alone. Instead, gently touch the lower part of her carapace to see if you feel any small bumps (eggs).

Again, I must stress that this needs to be done as gently as humanly possible. These eggs are extremely fragile. If they break, it can be quite dangerous for your mama turtle. If you’re not sure that you’ll be able to perform this pregnancy test without breaking your turtle’s eggs, make an appointment with your veterinarian instead.

One thing to note is that female turtles can get pregnant even without the presence of a male turtle. The difference in this situation is that your female turtle’s eggs are not fertilized and therefore will not hatch once she lays them.

If your turtle is pregnant, there isn’t much you can do to get her to bask. She will resume her regular behavior after she lays her eggs. You can help your turtle by talking to your veterinarian and doing some solid research about how to make her comfortable enough to lay her eggs.

Illness in Turtles

If your basking area is as ideal as possible and everything else has been ruled out, it is also possible that your turtle isn’t feeling well. Signs of illness can include lack of appetite and lethargy, which may also cause your turtle to feel a lack of motivation to leave the water to bask. 

There are several conditions that are common in turtles, including:

  • Aural Abscess: This is an abscess in the ear that is typically caused by a bacterial infection. Most often, this type of infection begins in your turtle’s mouth and then travels into his ear canal through the Eustachian tube. Turtles do not have open ear canals, so when an infection reaches their ear, it cannot drain and forms an abscess. If you notice any sign of swelling behind your turtle’s eyes, contact your veterinarian immediately.

 

  • Vitamin A Deficiency: This disorder most commonly affects aquatic turtles who do not receive enough vitamin A through both their diet and proper supplementation. The most common symptoms of vitamin A deficiency are swollen eyes, nasal discharge, lack of appetite, and poor growth.

 

  • Parasites: Internal parasites are fairly common in turtles and don’t cause many outward symptoms. If your turtle has deviated from any of his normal habits, contact your vet so they can perform a fecal examination

 

  • Metabolic Bone Disease: Turtles who do not get enough calcium in their diet (when they are fed a diet that is too high in protein, for example) and do not receive enough exposure to UVB light can develop this disease. Symptoms include stunted growth, deformed shells, lethargy, and fatigue.

If your turtle is displaying symptoms of any of the above conditions, or if she has changed her usual habits, you should call your veterinarian immediately. 

Conclusion

There may be several reasons why your turtle isn’t basking (or maybe he’s just basking when you aren’t around). If you’ve provided your turtle with the most optimal basking area possible and he still isn’t utilizing it, the best thing to do is watch him for signs of stress, illness, or pregnancy. Be sure to report any concerning behavior to your veterinarian. 

Sources:

https://www.avianexoticvetcare.com/handouts/reptiles/red-eared-sliders.pdf