If you've ever discovered your turtle seems to be missing and later found him shriveled up in a pile of dead leaves or lying for days in muck at the bottom of his pond, it's natural to assume he's dead. However, that's not always the case as your turtle could simply be brumating — a lethargic state similar to hibernation that can make it look lifeless.
Understand the brumation process
When the weather cools down or food becomes scarce, a turtle's metabolism slows down and they will go off looking for a convenient den. Outdoor turtles sometimes dig into the mud and detritus at the bottom of their pond while others will leave the water to find a nice cozy pile of leaf litter or another suitable burrow according to the California Turtle and Tortoise Club.
It's easy to mistake a brumating turtle for a dead turtle. During brumation, the turtle's body processes slow down, including breathing and circulation. Digestion stops and your turtle's immune system also goes dormant. This means that diseases or other physical maladies can turn into more major problems during this time, and you could end up with a dead turtle.
Dead tortoise signs
Signs of life can be very hard to detect in a brumating turtle or tortoise due to the extreme slowing of all bodily functions. If you find your turtle not moving — even if she's looking shriveled up — don't assume that she's crossed the rainbow bridge quite yet.
Other signs of death might seem to confirm that there's no life in your pet; however many seemingly obvious signs of a dead turtle can also occur in a live animal that is brumating or sick.
- Cold to the touch
- Sunken eyes
- A bad odor
- Sunken, shriveled skin
- Flies and maggots in the flesh
- Shell or skin appearing to rot
A cool temperature is normal when a turtle or tortoise hibernates. A turtle or tortoise seemingly dead with no eyes and shriveled skin could simply be dehydrated. Furry areas or white specks of fungus can make it look like the turtle is in a state of decay although your lethargic pet is very much alive. Shell rot produces spongy areas and oozing smelly liquid. Flesh injuries can be ridden with maggots in a live creature.
Look for life
If your outdoor turtle doesn't have symptoms that would indicate decay, dehydration, or disease, he's probably alive and you can choose to let him come out of brumation naturally in the spring when the temperature of the soil rises above 50 degrees. Box turtles, for example, can even withstand freezing of their organs for short periods of time, according to Massachusetts Audubon. Gently moving your turtle's legs away from his body will usually result in a living turtle reacting with movement to retract further inside the shell.
If there's no reaction or other physical signs make you suspect a dead turtle, place her in a room-temperature soaking bath to gradually rewarm her. This will bring a living turtle out of brumation and increase detectable signs of life. Fill an escape-proof tub with electrolyte solution to halfway up her shell. According to The Turtle Room, you can rehydrate your turtle in a bath of clean, fresh water at room temperature — about 75 to 80 degrees.
Rewarming in the water might trigger urinating or defecating, movement, or other signs of life. Look for a detectable pulse or breathing movements in the skin between the head and legs or tail and legs. Warm your turtle or tortoise for 15 to 30 minutes. Call your reptile veterinarian who can schedule an office visit to determine if your turtle is truly dead and treat maladies such as shell rot, severe dehydration, or injuries.