How To Tell If Your Turtle Is Dead: 9 Signs To Look For

Let me start by saying how sorry I am that you’re having to research this subject. I know all too well the pain of losing a beloved pet. While it's not a pleasant topic, I will try to cover this post as sensitively as I can.
How To Tell If Your Turtle Is Dead

Before jumping into more depth on the sensitive topic of how to tell if your turtle is dead, there are a few things you can quickly check for.

If your turtle is cold to the touch, stiff, unresponsive to stimulation, has a foul odor, hasn’t eaten for days, and has sunken eyes, sadly, your turtle has most likely passed away.

If you have a turtle that isn’t moving I advise you to always consult a vet for a professional opinion on this matter. There could be other reasons why your turtle isn’t moving.

You can find a local specialist turtle vet on the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians’ website.

Why Is My Turtle Not Moving?

Sleeping turtle

Your pet turtle not moving can be very concerning. But, it’s not necessarily sad news.

It could be that your turtle is having a nap. If your turtle is sleeping it will be in a relaxed state with its eyes closed and still be breathing. It will also be warm to the touch and may respond slightly to you touching it.

Another explanation could be that it has gone into brumation, something that turtles naturally do in the wild during the colder winter months.

What Is Brumation?

Brumation is the turtle equivalent of hibernation.

Warm-blooded mammals that can regulate their own body temperature (like bears for example) hibernate during the winter months. Turtles are cold-blooded, so they have to rely on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature.

They aren’t able to survive temperatures below freezing for long periods of time so they enter a state of dormancy during the colder months.

During winter, the temperature at the bottom of a lake, river, or pond remains slightly warmer and more stable than the air temperature. A turtle will go to the bottom, bury itself into the substrate and stay there.

The cold temperature slows their metabolism right down so they don’t need the same amount of food and oxygen as normal. Their cloaca (basically their butthole) contains blood vessels that absorb oxygen from the water around them so the turtle is able to ‘breathe’ while remaining underwater.

The brumation period for a pet turtle will be much shorter than that of a wild turtle. As you should provide a constant source and heat and UVB light, the temperature fluctuations in your turtle’s tank won’t be as dramatic as those of a wild turtle.

Check the temperature of their tank/habitat. If the temperature is below 50°F, your turtle is most likely in brumation.

Other Reasons Why Your Turtle May Not Be Moving

Turtle being examined by a vet

There are other possible reasons why your turtle may not be moving including:

  • Illness or infection
  • Stress
  • Lack of appetite
  • Old age
  • Environmental factors such as water quality, lighting, heating, and tank size

If you suspect that your turtle is sick or stressed, I strongly advise that you take it to a vet.

I have left details of where you can find your local turtle vet at the top and bottom of this post.

9 Signs That Your Turtle May Be Dead

There are a few clear signs that your turtle may have died:

1. Foul Odor

A bad-smelling odor can be the first sign of a dead turtle. It will start giving off a foul smell pretty soon after death as it starts to decompose.

2. Floating

A turtle floating on top of the water could be another sign that your turtle has passed on.

Research findings by the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences show that a turtle that dies will float to the water’s surface 16-32 hours after death.

Don’t take this as a definite sign though. Bear in mind that some turtles float on the water’s surface whilst they’re sleeping.

3. Lack Of Response To Stimulation

If your turtle does not respond when you touch it or move it, it may have died. A brumating turtle is still very mildly aware of what’s going on around it, despite being in a deep slumber.

If you pull gently at its legs and tail, and/or flip it over on its shell and gently press its plastron, there should be some form of response, no matter how minor.

If there is no response from your turtle, unfortunately, is not good news.

4. Cold To The Touch

If your turtle feels cold to the touch, it may be dead. A live turtle will feel warm when you touch it.

Again, don’t take this as a definite sign. During brumation, a turtle’s body temperature will be lower than normal.

5. Sunken Eyes

If your turtle’s eyes are deep and sunken, it may be a sign that your turtle is deceased. But, dehydrated turtles can also have sunken eyes, so you may need to look for other signs to confirm your turtle has passed away.

6. Limp Limbs

As I touched on in point 3 above, if your turtle is brumating, it will still respond to you you gently tugging at its limbs, although only very slightly.

A dead turtle’s legs will hang limp and lifeless when you tug at them.

7. Maggot Infestation

A maggot infestation is a pretty clear indicator that decomposition has set in and your turtle’s flesh is rotting away.

8. Skin

Having loose, shriveled, and saggy skin is a good indicator that your turtle may no longer be with you.

Shriveled and saggy skin is a result of your turtle decomposing.

9. Loss Of Appetite

Lastly, another sign to look for is a lack of appetite. If your turtle has not eaten in several days, it could be a sign of death.

How A Turtle Looks When It’s Dead

When a turtle has passed away its body goes through several changes in appearance.

  • Foul smell
  • Sunken eyes
  • Lifeless saggy legs
  • Dehydrated loose saggy skin
  • Unresponsive to any form of stimulation

What To Do With A Dead Turtle

I would start by contacting your local vet or animal control agency to inquire about proper disposal. Different states, counties, and even cities, have specific regulations regarding the disposal of deceased animals.

If burying the turtle in your backyard is allowed, make sure you bury your turtle at least 3 feet underground.

A decomposing animal will give off a pungent smell that dogs and scavenger animals like raccoons may be able to detect and possibly dig up your turtle’s remains.

This could become a very serious situation quickly if you’ve had your turtle euthanized by a vet. 

Vets use a drug called Pentobarbital to euthanize animals, which can stay can stay in an animal’s body for a long time afterward. There are several reports of animals dying as a result of ingesting pentobarbital when they’ve eaten the remains of a euthanized animal.

I’d hate to go through the upset of losing and burying my pet turtle, only to have it dug up, eaten, and then worry about the poor animal that just did so.

There is a solution to that though. Ask your vet about the Euthabag. It’s a biodegradable body bag for pets that is made from recycled material, resistant to tearing, and leakproof to prevent the leaching of pentobarbital.

You could also contact a pet cremation service to have your turtle cremated.

Preventing Death And Illness In A Pet Turtle

Here are some tips to keep your pet turtle healthy:

Set Up Your Turtle’s Home Correctly

There are 2 things to consider here:

The Size Of Your Turtle When Fully Grown

Too many people don’t appreciate just how fast and/or to what size, their pet turtle will grow, and get a tank that’s way too small.

Determining how big a tank you should get is pretty easy.

If your turtle is fully grown, measure the length of your turtle’s shell carapace:

How to measure your turtle's shell carapace length

You need to provide 10 gallons of water per 1 inch of straight carapace length (SCL).

The depth of the water in your tank should be double the length of your turtle’s shell carapace to allow them enough space to rotate a full 360° without bumping into anything. If the water isn’t deep enough they could get stuck on something and drown.

If your turtle isn’t fully grown yet, I’ve got information on what size certain species of turtles will grow to in my turtles that stay small post.

Turtles such as the red-eared slider, yellow-bellied slider, and painted turtle need a big tank. I’ve listed some of the best choices for those turtles in my best tank for red eared slider post.

Is Your Turtle Aquatic Or Non-Aquatic?

Some species, like the box turtle, don’t swim so need a different habitat setup than an aquatic turtle.

Check out my best turtle tank setup post if you have an aquatic turtle or my how to set up an indoor box turtle habitat post if you have a non-aquatic turtle.

Provide A Clean Environment

Turtles are sensitive to dirty water and can easily become sick if you don’t clean their tank regularly.

Make sure to change the water frequently and remove any uneaten food and poop from the tank.

A good quality water filter that can handle the waste produced by turtles is a great place to start.

A top tip for keeping your turtle tank cleaner is to remove your turtle from the tank at feeding times.

Feeding them in a plastic tub keeps any leftover food from rotting in the tank and reduces the amount of poop in the tank.

IRIS USA 68 Qt. Large Storage Bin with Buckle Down Lid

Adding plants to your turtle tank is another good way of keeping the water cleaner for longer as they help remove harmful ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate from the water keeping your tank’s nitrogen cycle in check.

Control The Temperature

Turtles are cold-blooded animals and have to rely on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature. Make sure to keep the tank at the appropriate temperature for your specific species of turtle.

You’ll need a water heater, heat lamp, UVB lamp, and a basking area to provide your turtle with the right environment.

If your turtle cannot dry its shell out fully, it’s at increased risk of developing shell rot.

Feed A Balanced Diet

Turtles require a varied diet that includes both plant and animal matter.

Younger turtles need a diet high in protein in order for them to develop and grow into healthy adult turtles.

Once they’ve reached maturity they will need a more vegetarian-based diet.

If you feed your turtle a combination of Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food, Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet, and Tetra ReptoMin you will ensure that your turtle gets the full range of vitamins and minerals needed.

Depending on the type of turtle you have, depends on what ratio of pellets, veggies, and protein you need to feed them, so check out your individual turtle’s requirements.

You should also supplement your turtle’s diet with veggies such as:

  • Bell peppers
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Collared greens
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Green beans
  • Mustard greens
  • Red lettuce leaves
  • Zucchini

Handle Your Turtle With Care

Handle Your Turtle With Care

Turtles are delicate creatures and can easily become stressed if handled incorrectly. Always be very gentle, support your turtle’s body when picking it up, and avoid excessive handling.

Turtles are generally very chilled and mellow in temperament. A good indicator that your turtle is stressed is if it’s trying to bite you.

Is My Turtle Dead Or Sleeping?

There’s a quick way to check if your turtle may be sleeping or dead. A sleeping turtle will be relaxed with closed eyes and slight movements when breathing.

A dead turtle will be stiff with open and unresponsive eyes, no movement, and a cold body temperature. Prodding can also help determine responsiveness.

Does A Dead Turtle Float Or Sink?

A dead turtle will sink to the bottom of the tank until decomposition sets in when it will then float to the surface. Floating to the water’s surface can take anywhere from 16-32 hours.

Don’t take a floating turtle as a definite sign of death though. Some turtles float on the surface of the water whilst sleeping.

How To Revive A Dead Turtle?

If you believe your turtle has died, you could consult your vet for a professional opinion. But, vets aren’t miracle workers I’m afraid. If your turtle has passed away, there’s nothing that can be done to bring them back to life.

Do Turtles Die With Their Eyes Open?

It varies from turtle to turtle, and the circumstances surrounding their death, whether they die with their eyes open or not. Sunken or hollow eyes can be a sign that a turtle has died, but you shouldn’t rely solely on just one thing, other physical signs should also be taken into account when trying to determine if your turtle has died.

Closing Thoughts On How To Tell If Your Turtle Is Dead

How to tell if your turtle is dead or alive can be tricky, especially if you are a new turtle owner. There are several signs that you can look for to determine if your turtle may have died.

Not moving, lack of response to stimulation, cold to the touch, floppy lifeless legs, sunken eyes, saggy withered skin, and a foul smell are things to check for.

If you suspect that your turtle may have passed away, take your turtle to a vet for confirmation. Pet turtles can go into brumation during the colder months.

You can find a local specialist turtle vet on the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians’ website.

Check out the turtle section for in-depth product reviews and guides on keeping your pet turtles happy and healthy.

Picture of Paul


Hey, fellow fish enthusiast 👋! I'm Paul and I've been an aquarium addict since I won my first goldfish at the fair many years ago. Let me share with you the knowledge that I've gained along the way (and avoid the mistakes I've made!), so you too can create an underwater paradise for your aquatic friends.