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Home > Turtles > Can Red Eared Slider Turtles Drown? Vet-Reviewed Science & Facts

Can Red Eared Slider Turtles Drown? Vet-Reviewed Science & Facts

red eared slider in the water

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Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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All turtles and their freshwater cousins (the terrapins), including red eared sliders, spend a lot of time submerged underwater. Even though red eared sliders love swimming and submerging themselves, they can drown. In fact, all turtles can drown because they do not have the ability to breathe underwater.

If your red slider stays underwater for too long, it will drown. The same goes for any other turtle, though. Turtles need both oxygen from the air and water to live a happy and healthy life. Luckily, red-eared sliders are some of the best turtle swimmers, making it unlikely for them to drown if they are provided the proper enclosure.

With this information in mind, you probably have some more unanswered questions about your red eared slider turtle. In this article, we’re going to try to tell you everything you need to know to prevent your red eared slider from drowning.



How Long Can Red Eared Sliders Stay Underwater?

Red-eared sliders are technically terrapins, not turtles. Nonetheless, they do enjoy water and need access to it in order to be happy and healthy. In ideal conditions, they can spend about 30–45 minutes under water whenever they are swimming.

When asleep, red-eared sliders can spend up to 7–9 hours underwater, they do so by holding air in their necks before they sleep. Red-eared sliders that are brumating also spend extensive time underwater; their slow metabolic rate allows them to easily spend countless hours under water.

Image credit by: Pixabay

How Do Red Eared Sliders Breathe?

Even though red-eared sliders need access to water to stay happy and healthy, they need access to the air as well. These reptiles breathe in with their nose, allowing air to enter into their lungs. They also exhale through their nose.

All chelonians (shelled animals, which include turtles, terrapins, and the terrestrial tortoises) have their lungs encased in their shells (the lungs sit right under the shell and are attached to it). Consequently, they don’t have the flexibility to “expand” their chest to draw in air. Instead, they have specialized muscles that push and pull their lungs to inflate and deflate them. This unique compensation allows them the protection of their shell without compromising their ability to breathe.


two turtle hatchlings in the aquarium
Image Credit: Rusinova Tatyana, Shutterstock

Why Do Red Eared Turtles Like to Be Underwater?

If turtles have to come up for air, you may be wondering why they go underwater at all. Well, there are quite a few reasons why red-eared sliders enjoy staying underwater for long periods at a time.
Most notably, red-eared sliders have better survival rates underwater. As you probably know, turtles move very slowly on land, but they are faster in the water. By staying under the water, they can easily escape predators because of their increased speed.

Additionally, rivers and lake beds are flooded with natural food sources for them. This includes vegetation and insects. By staying underwater, the red-eared sliders have more access to the food and nourishment they need to survive.

On top of survival requirements, red-eared sliders like to be underwater simply for enjoyment. This turtle type is a great swimmer and enjoys being underwater more than it likes being on land. That being said, they do need to surface to breathe and they often come out to bask in the sun to thermoregulate. Pet red-eared sliders quickly associate their owners with food and realize they don’t have to swim to find food; they often spend most of their time basking and prefer to sleep in water instead.


divider- reptile paw

Signs a Turtle Is Drowning

If you suspect your slider is drowning, it is important to take it out of the water and place it on land as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to determine if your turtle is drowning since they spend so much time underwater by choice.

The biggest indicator that a turtle is drowning is that they’re struggling to surface and are actively trying to swim up but are either being weighed down or can’t find a ramp or rock to exit the water. Observing your turtles while they swim is a good indicator of this.

Turtles that aren’t fearful of drowning may be casually swimming and exploring their aquarium or even resting on the bottom if they feel like it (with their limbs possibly inside their shells). A turtle about to drown will appear desperate and might thrash as they try to surface. Their limbs wouldn’t be inside their shells as they would be actively trying to paddle up to get air.

Issues with regards to surfacing can easily be resolved by setting up a slider’s enclosure properly, which we’ll explain further below. However, female red-eared sliders should be very closely monitored, as sometimes they can easily be weighed down if they’re full of eggs, and their owners are unaware of this fact. This makes it incredibly difficult for them to surface easily. Ask your vet to confirm your pet’s sex and consult with them if you feel that your pet might be experiencing laying issues.

How To Set Up a Red Eared Slider Turtle’s Enclosure

To prevent your red-eared slider from drowning, you need to set its enclosure up properly. Creating a safe environment for the turtle makes drowning highly unlikely, though not impossible. Here is how to set up a red-eared slider turtle’s enclosure.

Fill It with Water

Begin by filling the tank with water. The minimum recommended tank size for a single red-ear slider is a 50-gallon aquarium. You want the water to be 1.5x to 2x as deep as the turtle’s length. For example, a 4-inch turtle needs approximately 8 inches of water. For this reason, their tank doesn’t necessarily have to be tall, but should be long and wide enough to create ample swimming space.

Red-eared sliders are naturally good swimmers and don’t struggle against strong filters (which are recommended, as they are exceptionally messy). Their water temperature should be kept between 75°F and 85°F (approximately 24–29.4 °C). A water heater should be used to attain this temperature, and thermometers should be used to accurately measure the temperature to ensure it isn’t too high or low.

Create A Basking Area

All red-eared sliders need a basking area. This basking area provides them a place to warm up, bask, and relax whenever they don’t feel like swimming. You can stack rocks on top of one another or find a plastic turtle dock. Stacking rocks to create a makeshift ramp to enter and exit the water is best, as this allows turtles to easily get out of the water whenever they need to. You can add other stones or wood to the basking area or place them in the water for the turtle to play with.

Add Lights and Heat

Red-eared sliders need additional light and heat in their tank. The basking area temperature should be about 85°F to 95°F (29.4–35 °C). UVB lamps are recommended to ensure your turtle can properly metabolize calcium. The lamp should be placed at a level that’s no more than 12 inches above where your pet would bask. There should not be any plastic or glass in between the basking spot and the lamp, as these materials can filter out UVB rays from the lamp. The lamp should be changed at least once a year.

Your red-eared slider’s light timings should be set on a 12 hour interval, providing them with 12 hours of “daylight” and 12 hours of darkness.




All in all, it is possible for a red-eared slider to drown simply because turtles cannot breathe underwater. With that being said, it is unlikely for a red-eared slider to drown if it is given an opportunity to get on a basking area or some other area erected out of the water. Given that red-eared sliders are really good swimmers, these terrapins are very unlikely to drown. Females should be closely monitored to ensure they’re not full of eggs, as this makes emerging from water much more difficult.

A proper enclosure should be a major consideration for red-eared slider welfare. Not only can it prevent accidental drownings but it is also required for their health and longevity when kept as pets.

Featured Image Credit by: Pixabay

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