My Aquatic Turtle is Sick: What to do?

Example of the set-up. The aquarium is sitting on a heating pad, a thermometer is placed at the water level, and there's a little cave for him to hide under from the UVB light above.
Example of the set-up. The aquarium is sitting on a heating pad, a thermometer is placed at the water level, and there's a little cave for him to hide under from the UVB light above.
Here's a way of providing him more of a distinction between light and shade by separating the light and the rest of the space with a cloth.
Here's a way of providing him more of a distinction between light and shade by separating the light and the rest of the space with a cloth.

Your turtle is acting strange. Bubbles keep foaming around his nose. His eyes are at a squint all the time. He’s lethargic; he just stays in that one spot. Maybe the opposite, he’s swimming erratically in the water. He’s not eating.

There are different symptoms of a sick turtle, some of which can be solved by adjusting his habitat. If the water is too cold, that could be the reason he is not eating; he’s preparing himself for hibernation. If his eyes are at a squint, the water needs to be cleaned or perhaps he is currently living in tap water and the toxic chlorine is irritating his eyes. Perhaps he’s not moving much because he is overfed or he’s swimming around insanely because he desperately needs to get out of the water. The foaming around his nose is the only symptom that can not be so easily treated. In fact, all of these symptoms can be indicators that your turtle has a bacterial infection and simply cleaning the water will not solve the problem.

One day, my turtle (a baby soft shell) started swimming erratically in his aquarium. I thought he was going to stop soon, but minutes went by and I could hear the splashes like someone was swatting their hand into the water. When I picked him up, he became limp, his head rearing and his eyes glancing all around like he was disoriented. I was devastated.

I don’t know how my turtle got sick. I fretted knowing he was probably going to die by the look of it, but that assumption did not stop me from trying to save him. I went on internet, but I could not find anything that I had described. There was one site that said a turtle that swims with an unbalance means one of his lungs is filled with fluid, a bacterial infection.

I believe this is what my turtle had. He refused to eat. Every time I placed him in his aquarium, he would ignore the land and shallow area, and swim frantically in deep water. Every time I took him out, he was lethargic. He started yawning a lot (another indicator of lung infection) and bubbles would appear around his nose.

When you suspect your turtle or any other exotic pet is sick, time is essential. An owner has to act fast or it will already be too late to do anything. Sometimes it is already too late before the symptoms surface.

This is what I did to save my turtle and I recommend it to anyone who thinks their aquatic turtle has an internal infection.

Six items:

Small, empty aquarium or a large container
A UVB bulb (something you should already have)
Heating pad or any controlled source of heat
A calcium sulfa block (for turtles)
A thermometer of some kind
Dechlorinating formula

If you do not have all of these items, go out and buy them immediately.

What to do?

First, take the small empty aquarium or large container (a bucket perhaps) and fill it with two or three inches of water. Depending on what type of turtle and the size of the animal, accommodate for what height the water level you think is appropriate.

Second, place the container on top of the heating pad (again, accommodate if you have a different source of heat; the heat should come from outside of the container, not from the inside).

Third, give one drop of Dechlorinating formula into the shallow water (or however much you think is needed--look at the back for intructions).

Then place the sulfa block into the water.

Check the temperature with the thermometer. Keep the water no higher than 86 degrees Fahrenheit and no less than 82 degrees.

Then place the UVB bulb overhead.

Once the temperature is at the desirable level, place the turtle in the container.

Regularly check the temperature (every few hours if possible). Twice a day change the water completely (once in the morning and once at night). Again, temperature should be between 82 and 86 degrees, so try to keep it at 84.

My turtle would go crazy every time he saw me walk by, so in addition to all I have said, I also draped towels over all the walls of the aquarium so he could not see me and panic.


The shallow water kept him from swimming frantically, but it also raised the temperature due to the heating pad. Think about it. When we’re sick, we wrap ourselves in blankets because sickness lowers our temperature. This goes the same for animals; they need warmth when they are sick.

Also sunlight in addition to heat provides Vitamin D3, an essential vitamin for one’s health.

If your turtle is not eating, a turtle sulfa block still provides him important vitamins and minerals without consumption.

By changing the water twice a day, any bacteria that is seeping from his nose and mouth will be washed away. Remember, this is shallow water and it needs to be washed out and cleaned regularly (during this, I suggest placing the turtle in a large bowl; changing the water should only take a few minutes).

I also suggest washing the aquarium or bucket with steaming hot water to kill any germs that are within. Using soap is very risky, especially if in a hurry. Just remember when using steaming hot water to clean an aquarium, do this quickly. You do not want to melt the glue that holds the aquarium glass together (always wash cold water afterward). Refill the water with average temperature and be sure to add dechlorinated water and sufla block (remember, too much dechorinating formula can hurt the turtle too). Make sure to check the temperature before ever putting your turtle in it; you do not want the temperature too high.

If the container is big enough, provide one shading area. You want to add a feeling of security for the turtle, so place a cave or sand in the container in case he wants to bury himself or get out of the sunlight. The key to a healthy turtle is providing him options. If he’s a soft shell turtle, provide him an area where he can dry his shell if he wishes too.

My outcome

For four days, I treated my turtle this way. Twice a day I would throw in a pellet, but he refused to eat. I kept the UVB light on him all day until it was time for bed. In the morning I would turn it back on. Every time I woke up, I changed the water. Every time I went to bed, I did the same thing. And whenever it crossed my mind, I checked the temperature (the kind that sticks on the glass meant for aquariums).

After the fourth day, I threw in a pellet and he ate it. Despite he was coming out of it and was acting normal, I kept him in there for an additional two days before placing him back into his original aquarium. There was no erratic behavior on his part. To say the least, I was thrilled.

I must have done everything just right, though every sickness and every turtle is different. You might try this and your turtle dies anyway, either because you noticed the signs too late or it was much more than an infection. Sometimes you can do everything right and still death is inevitable.

If the outcome is the worst-case scenario, at least you gave your turtle a fighting chance.

Again, the keys to helping a sick water turtle is heat, vitamins, and cleanliness (dechlorinated water).

Good luck.

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Comments 32 comments

tsadjatko profile image

tsadjatko 5 years ago from maybe (the guy or girl) next door

Good advice, I've used the same methods thing I wonder about is people who feed aquatic turtles feeder goldfish - goldfish are one of the most common food items recommended by pet stores for garter snakes, yet they CONTAIN the thiaminase enzyme. A diet primarily composed of goldfish results in severe thiamin deficiency in 6-9 months. Without B1 supplements, a varied diet, or removal of additional thiaminase from the diet, death preceded by convulsions, will occur.

Wide-spectrum antibiotics can also destroy gastrointestinal bacteria that produce B-vitamins, so supplementing the diet may be useful

goldfish fed to garter snakes will eventually kill them. I wonder if they have the same effect on turtles, I suspect they would.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 5 years ago Author

Hey, tsadjatko

I've never fed my turtle goldfish (of course, he would be too little to do so) but you bring up a good point. B-vitamins are important and I would think the sulfa calcium block would have that, with all the other necessary vitamins and minerals in a turtle's diet. My turtle loves ghost shrimp and guppies.

I never trust the pet store for advice on anything, no matter how reputable they claim to be. Always research and cross reference on the web to find the answers to your questions. I would trust opinions of those who are either vets, zoologists, or those with experience with the animal. Never listen to a clerk at a pet store. Bad experiences.

tsadjatko profile image

tsadjatko 5 years ago from maybe (the guy or girl) next door

You are so right!

mariahbooet 4 years ago

thank u so much i was sarching the internet all day and my turtle had all of thoos symptoms since its nite right now im going right away in the morning to get the suplies.

Rithika 3 years ago

Hi.. I have a small soft shell turtle which is just 1 yr old,suddenly one day it started swimming one sided and later after that it has stopped eating, its been 2 weeks it is not eating anything, it has become so dull and weak. I took it to a veterinary hospital near by but here none of them don't know how to treat it. Please help me I am worried what happened to it so suddenly, and please reply me if there is any way to treat it or cure its problem.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 3 years ago Author

Along with what I wrote here, buy antibiotics for water turtles. You'll probably have to order it online, but first call and see if any local petstores carry it. Sounds like his lung is filled up due to a bacterial infection.

Tsad 3 years ago

Rithika, do you have the proper habitat for your soft shell? UVB is important for a healthy immune system. In indoor aquaria water depth should be maintained at a level that will allow the animal to reach the surface by stretching out its neck while buried in the sand in on the bottom. This is especially important for hatchlings. If an aquarium is used it should also have a dry basking area with a hardware store reflector clip light lamp positioned to provide artificial basking facilities. This should be positioned to provide a basking spot of 90 degrees F or so (32 degrees C) in that section of the habitat. The habitat should also be equipped with a full spectrum fluorescent light to provide for UVB. A UVB source is necessary for Vitamin D3 syntheses (needed in calcium metabolism). If preferred to this lighting arrangement an “Active UV Heat” bulb may be used that fulfills both requirements.

Rithika 3 years ago

Thank you so much, I have applied all the suggestions. My Turtle is responding better now. I have used antibiotics as well as light so its working. And the turtle is safe :) Thank you so much.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 3 years ago Author

Glad to hear that.

alberson 3 years ago

thanks i did everything you said and he is eating and hes a happy turtle aging

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 3 years ago Author

That's great!

Kara 2 years ago

I see in your picture of the tank setup there is no filter. I have a newborn soft shell. My concern is the water level needs to be high for the filter, but now he won't bury himself in the sand, because the water is so deep. Any suggestions? Great blog, btw.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 2 years ago Author

My water level was too low for a filter, which is why you should change out the water twice a day (to also get rid of mucus) in the water. This is just a temporary setup until he's no longer sick. Hope that helps.

Kara 2 years ago

And also his shell is getting really soft and I don't know if that is normal?

Kara 2 years ago

P.S. Thanks for responding so quickly!

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 2 years ago Author

You're welcome, and lucky, as I usually don't check these things for days/weeks at a time. Soft shells are supposed to be soft, like leather. Not sure what else you could mean. Just be sure he has calcium in his diet and is exposed to UVB rays 12 hours a day. Good luck.

rupakalpa 18 months ago

My turtle is small...he has a soft shell...i bought him yesterday..and i give him the turtle food two times a day..but he seems to be so weak, he doesn't go in the water , and stays in one spot,he hasn't eaten anything today...i don't use any light or UV bulb for him..i have a normal fish bowl for him...when he was in the water i saw a bubble coming out from his mouth...i think he is sick..what should i do now ?

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 18 months ago Author

You need to provide this animal with UVB lighting, a bulb you can get from petsmart, petco, or even walmart. They need 12 hours of UVB lighting a day. Is the fish bowl your treatment for him, or is that where you intend to keep him, healthy or not? They need to be in 20 gallons minimum with filtration (when they are acting healthy). As for what you should do, that's what my entire article is about.

LMFergy 12 months ago

I just found your article tonight, our young RES has been acting ill the past 2 days, he's just been floating around, not doing much of anything, he's usually always basking, but he's staying in the water now. Today is Wednesday, on Monday I thought there was something stuck over his eye because he kept rubbing it, so I picked him up to take a good look, it appeared swelled shut, I very softly tried running my finger over his eye to see if something would fall or slide off, nothing did, and it looked swollen shut. I gave him another day. Yesterday he was less active, just floating around but still eating. Tonight he was still floating, it seemed like when he tried to eat he didn't have the energy to swim up to his food......? no basking, got him out to look at his eyes and the looked fine. I'm assuming his water was too cold. His tank is a 20 gallon tank, he's a young RES, he still fits in my hand, there's a filter in there, he has a basking light and basking dock and a uvb light, but no heater. So I'm following the steps tonight that you used to save your turtle, he's only been in the small tank for a couple hours, with the heating pad underneath, and seems to be enjoying it after freaking out for about an hour, he's calmed down now and seems to be accepting the warm water. I threw a mealworm in there and he didn't eat it, I wasn't surprised. Do I need to make a great effort to get him to eat pellets? He never has liked them. I'm going tomorrow to get a thermometer strip and a calcium sulfa I need to get a heater for his tank if the heating pad that I have will fit under his 20 gallon tank? Right now it's on low for the small "hospital unit" that I put him in, I'm assuimg if I'm able to move him back home I would turn the heat up to....medium??

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 12 months ago Author

LM, no, the heating pad will be sufficient. Just be sure the water isnt too hot. I'd try different food. I wouldnt try to force feed him thw pellets. Good luck.

LMFergy 12 months ago

Thank you for the reply, a heating pad will heat his water to the desired temperature if the tank is 3/4 full???? It's a 20 gallon.

I tried giving him fresh kill flies, which he has always loved, no interest.....mealworms, another favorite, no interest....freeze dried shrimp, yet another favorite, again, no interest.

His one eye is still swollen shut, he'll open it a little on occasion, but he'll usually just keep it shut.

I went to Petco the other day, got some supplies, they didn't have the sulfa blocks so I just ordered them from Pet Mountain. Also ordered a biological habitat cleaner, and a heater (which I can return if I need to) there anything else I should be doing? Putting any antibiotics in his water?

Thank you for your patience, I've solicited help elsewhere, even at Petco, they didn't know what to tell me, and you're the only one that has responded to my inquiries.

Linda and Tyler (my 5 year old son, it's "his" turtle)

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 11 months ago Author

LMFergy, if your turtle isn't better by now, I'd recommend a vet for antibiotics.

Linda 11 months ago

He is better, I'm a bit confused about his eye tho, some days it looks normal and some days he keeps it closed. But he's acting much better and is eating, he really likes the warm water, but I'm a bit confused about that too. Right now I have the heating pad on under his tank, I keep it on low, the tank is a 20 gallon, I keep it half full, and it's keeping the water temp at a consistent 82 degrees. I ordered a turtle tank heater, it arrived yesterday, but it says it keeps the water a consistent 78 degrees (preset), I'm a little worried about what may happen if/when I put the heater into his tank and the temp reduces so much.


mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 11 months ago Author

Linda, keep the temp at 82 for now. Again, i would take him to a vet or order turtle antibiotics. Glad to hear he's doing better.

Linda 11 months ago

Where would I get antibiotics besides a vet? I cannot afford a $50 office fee and then the antibiotics on top of that. I've called several around and they all want me to bring him in, I have fish penicillin that I'm putting in his water, not sure if it's helping. I even tried injecting blood worms (one of his favorites) with the penicillin, hoping he'd eat them, but no luck.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 11 months ago Author

Linda, this is my last response. Turtles are expensive pets. I know you care about your turtle greatly, but if you dont have enough to pay $100 at the vet, perhaps you are better off giving the turtle to a wildlife santuary near you, or to someome experienced with turtles who can afford it. Sorry, I cant give anymore advice. Keep his water warm, and do regular water changes. He needs antibiotics. Good luck.

chitra 7 months ago

My turtle is doing vomiting.. some white stuff hanging on mouth...

Roni 6 months ago

Thanks so much! I followed everything you said except the putting of towels because she's not afraid whenever i come near. She's ok now.. Only, i noticed that instead of basking into the dry basking area, she always put halfway up with half of her body still in the water.

I hope its not a sign of sickness.

Thanks again.

mariekbloch profile image

mariekbloch 6 months ago Author

You're welcome, Roni. No, don't worry, my turtle did that all the time.

PINK PANDA 4 months ago

are turtle was sick like yours then he got better and now he is sick again.

PINK PANDA 3 months ago

he died

rakan 8 weeks ago

can I use a heater

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