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How To Know If Your Pet Turtle Is Dead (8 Signs To Look For)

Nicole Cosgrove

Unfortunately for all pet lovers, the sad reality of owning a pet is that they will one day pass away. In the case of a pet turtle, however, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether your friend in a shell really has joined the great beyond or not. Part of this is because the majority of the turtle’s body is hidden inside their hard shell and out of sight. The most common reason it can be hard to tell if your pet turtle is dead is a process called brumation.

Brumation is the turtle’s version of hibernation for bears and other animals. During this process, the turtle’s body systems slow down and they can appear to be lifeless. So, how can you tell if your turtle is dead rather than just in a state of brumation? Here are 8 signs to look for when checking to see if your turtle is dead.

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1. No Response To Stimulation

A brumating turtle is still aware enough of their surroundings to notice if you deliberately try to stimulate them. Try gently pulling on your turtle’s legs, pressing on their cloaca, or even flipping them on their back. If your turtle doesn’t try to move or respond to your efforts, they are most likely dead.


2. Cold To The Touch

person carrying an Eastern Box Turtle
Image Credit: Lisa Holder, Shutterstock

If your turtle feels abnormally cold when you touch them, they could be dead. However, this sign is a little bit trickier because a brumating turtle does have a lower body temperature. You may need to look for additional signs to confirm your turtle is dead.


3. Bad Odor

A dead turtle will begin to smell as they decompose. This process will begin quickly in a dead turtle, although colder temperatures can delay it a bit. This odor is particularly foul and is a good indication that your turtle is dead.


4. Sunken Eyes

painted turtle front view
Image Credit: LisaTaylorPhoto, Pixabay

Check your turtle’s eyes if you are not sure whether they are dead. Deep, sunken eyes can be an indication that your turtle is deceased. However, dehydrated turtles can also have sunken eyes, so you may need to look for other signs to confirm your turtle is no longer living.


5. Flies and Maggots

If you find maggots or flies infesting your turtle’s body, there’s a good chance that they are dead. A brumating turtle’s immune system slows down, which sometimes makes it easier for them to get injuries infested with maggots. However, a turtle covered in flies or maggots is more likely dead.


6. Shriveled and Sunken Skin

Snapping Turtle Lake
Image Credit: AWokZap42, Pixabay

A dead turtle’s skin may look loose, shriveled, or sunken. This can happen as the dead turtle begins to decompose. If your turtle’s skin looks like it’s shriveled or abnormal, they could be dead rather than just in brumation.


7. Rotten Shell or Skin

A rotting shell or skin is another sign that you are dealing with a dead turtle. Again, this rotting occurs as the dead turtle decomposes. Sometimes a turtle’s shell can get soft when they are bromating, so take into consideration other signs of death as well before you completely give up on your turtle.


8. Limp Legs

musk turtle_Vince Adam_Shutterstock
Image Credit: Vince Adam, Shutterstock

A turtle that is brumating still has control of their muscles. If you find your turtle unmoving with their legs sticking out of the shell, try picking them up. If their legs are limp and swinging lifelessly, they are probably dead. A brumating turtle should still be able to maintain control of their legs.


What If Your Turtle Is Just Cold?

If your turtle just seems cold and unmoving but has no other signs of death, there are a couple of tricks you can try to see if they are still alive.

Check For Breathing

Human holding a Painted Turtle
Image Credit: Scottslm, Pixabay

A brumating turtle will still be breathing, although their breathing system slows down a lot. One way to tell if a turtle is still breathing is to hold a feather or something similar in front of their nose. If the turtle is still breathing, you will notice movement in the feather. Because the brumating turtle’s breathing slows so far down, you will need to be patient and wait at least 10 minutes before you know the turtle isn’t breathing.

Because brumating turtles can also “breathe” through their cloaca, you can check that area as well. If the turtle is breathing, you will see the cloaca move or pulse. Again, you may need to watch the area for 10 minutes or so to catch the turtle breathing.

Warm The Turtle

If you think your turtle is just cold rather than dead, you can try warming them to see if you detect other signs of life. Place your turtle in a safe tub and fill it with room temperature water up to about halfway up their shell. Warm your turtle for about 15-30 minutes. If your turtle is alive, you should see signs of life after that time. Your turtle may urinate or defecate in the water or begin moving around.

Take Them To The Vet

vet. checking sick turtle
Image Credit: ALIAKSANDR PALCHEUSKI, Shutterstock

The best way to tell if your turtle is alive but possibly just cold or sick is to take them to a reptile veterinarian. The veterinarian will be able to examine your turtle, determine if they are alive, and treat them if they are sick.

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Because we love our pets, we want them to live forever. Sadly, that will never be the case. However, when it comes to your pet turtle, there’s always a chance that your seemingly lifeless pet is still with you. Look for these signs we’ve discussed to determine if your turtle is dead and hopefully you will find good news rather than the worst.

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Featured Image Credit: Creeping Things, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.