Why is My Turtle Staying in the Water?

Spotted Turtle

Written by Lisa

When not researching and writing about weird and wonderful animals, Lisa enjoys spending time with her 'two' families: her husband and 3 kids, and her 3 dogs, Sooty the cat, Frank the terrapin, and Bob the bearded dragon.

Last Updated on February 5, 2021

Aquatic turtles generally like to spend their time swimming and then basking in the heat. But they don’t just swim in the water, they will eat and poop in there too. But what if your turtle is spending all of its time in the water? Is this normal behavior or should you be worried?

Why Do Turtles Need to Bask?

The basking area is especially important for your turtle. It is here that it will enjoy warmth similar to that provided by the sun and where it will dry out after swimming. When basking under the heat lamp, your turtle will also be absorbing UV light, which is essential for its survival.

So if your turtle is spending most of its time in the water and is not basking, it could cause problems such as fungal infections. Basking is a normal, natural behavior that turtles engage in in their natural habitat, so it is important that you encourage your pet to do this by providing an inviting area. If your turtle does not feel encouraged to bask, it could become stressed, which can then lead to health problems.

Check Your Tank Setup

If your turtle is staying in the water and is not coming out to bask, it is a good idea to take another look at your tank setup. Aquatic turtles require both land and water, and it should be easy for your turtle to get in and out of the water. This means providing a sloped area that will allow your pet to climb out of the water with ease. This is even more important for baby turtles (hatchlings). Turtle ramps or docks can be purchased online or from your nearest reptile store. Amazon has a great selection, which you can see here (opens in a new tab).

Some people use floating docks or logs in their tank because these do not take up valuable swimming space, particularly in smaller tanks. However, if you are going to use a floating log, it is important to not use one found outside, unless it is sterilized first. Sterilizing is as easy as thoroughly cleaning the item and then boiling it to remove any microorganisms or germs that could be harmful to your turtle.

You will also need to ensure that the temperature beneath the basking lamp is not too cold or too hot. The ideal temperature should be somewhere between 85F and 90F. Your turtle is unlikely to want to bask if the temperature is too cold; conversely, if it is too hot then it can become very uncomfortable for the creature.

Water temperature can also play a role in whether your turtle stays in there or not. For example, if the water is too cold then the turtle might start to get ready to hibernate. In their natural habitat they do this when the weather (and hence the water) gets colder. They tend to settle at the bottom of a pond and will absorb oxygen through their skin.

To mitigate this, the water temperature should be between 77F and 80F for turtles that are healthy and over a year old. Turtles under one year of age require temperatures of between 80F and 82F. It is important to keep the temperatures constant. This can be achieved using a good quality water heater, which can be purchased from a local pet store or online (see here at Amazon).

Why is My Turtle Staying Out of the Water?

A turtle staying in the water and not coming out to bask is not considered normal behavior. Nor is it normal for aquatic turtles to stay out of the water. If your turtle is avoiding the water, there is likely to be a reason why.

In most cases, an aquatic turtle will avoid the water because it is uninviting. This could be because the temperature is either too hot or too cold or because the levels of ammonia or chlorine are too high. It might also indicate a health problem in the turtle.

The easiest (and first) thing to check is the water temperature. If it is under 70F it is too cold for your turtle, and if it is above 90F it is too hot. Water that is too hot or too cold is going to be extremely uncomfortable for your turtle and so it will not want to get in. Invest in a good quality water heater and ensure you have a reliable thermometer so that you can regularly check the temperature.

The chemical levels in the water will also need to be checked. Without the right amount of good bacteria in the water, ammonia from your turtle’s waste will build up, which could then cause irritation, particularly for the turtle’s eyes. The pH levels in the tank should be between 6 and 9. To help maintain the correct pH levels, I recommend investing in a good quality water filter (here at Amazon if you’re interested) and doing a partial water change at least once a week.

Mississippi Map Turtle
Mississippi Map Turtle

If the temperature and pH levels of the turtle’s tank are correct, it may be illness that is causing your turtle to avoid the water. When turtles are ill, they will usually try to raise their body temperature. This is done by basking. Nevertheless, avoiding the water will usually not be the only sign of illness in an aquatic turtle. Look out for other symptoms, such as:

  • loss of appetite
  • discharge around the nose, mouth, or eyes
  • swollen eyelids
  • lethargy
  • labored breathing.

If you suspect that your turtle is ill, I advise you to contact a local vet as soon as possible. It could be that your pet has an infection that requires a course of antibiotics. The vet can examine your turtle to establish if an illness is the cause of its refusal to enter the water and then advise on the best course of action.

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