How Long Can A Tortoise Hold Its Breath?

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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I noticed a blog yesterday claiming a tortoise can hold its breath for hours. Do you think the claim is valid? If not, then how long can a tortoise hold its breath?

Theoretically speaking, a tortoise can hold its breath for up to 24 hours. But these creatures lose consciousness after the first few minutes and drown. A drowned tortoise can have paralysis or any permanent health damage, and in many cases, they might die.

How can a tortoise manage to hold its breath for that long? Find the answers in the following article.

How Long Can A Tortoise Hold Its Breath?

Tortoises are more of a land creature. As a result, swimming is not something they excel at. While in water, these creatures run out of breath within 1 to 2 minutes. Russian tortoises, Sulcata tortoises, and desert tortoises are some examples of this.

Panicking while running out of breath does not help the tortoises, and they start drowning. But thanks to the unique breathing adaptations of tortoises, they can manage to survive hours underwater.

How long can tortoises hold their breath underwater? Unfortunately, no one can give you the exact answer. However, rescue stories indicate that tortoises can stay underwater with their breath held for up to 24 hours.

You might rescue a drowning tortoise alive even after a few hours. But they will be in a sensitive state, fighting for life.

Hence, you should really not let your tortoise drown purposefully. Not every pet can make it alive. While a healthy tortoise might get away with the trauma, the babies, old or weak ones, might be dead.

Can Tortoises Swim?

Tortoises can not swim as their physiology does not allow them to. So instead of swimming, these creatures float on the water or drift away. If you leave a tortoise in the middle of deep water, it will drown within a few minutes.

While tortoises can not swim, their close relatives, turtles, are the masters of water. But why can’t a tortoise swim? You will get the answer if you compare the physical structures of a tortoise and turtle.

Here I am pointing out the primary 3 reasons,

Shapes of flippers & feet:

Tortoises have evolved elephant-like feet. On the other hand, turtles are blessed with flippers and webbed feet.

Flippers and webbed feet in turtles aid them in swimming. Here, the front ones work like paddles, and the rear feet act as a thrust generator.

As a result, the turtles can easily move in the water. However, walking on land with either flippers or webbed feet is not something the turtles enjoy.

On the contrary, tortoise feet are short and thick, perfect for walking on land. These creatures kind of stroll as they can not stretch their legs.

In short, tortoises will walk miles, whereas the turtles struggle to cross any land distance. But in water, those fat, stiff feet of tortoises will do no miracles.

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Shell dynamics:

Look at the shell of a turtle and a tortoise.

Tortoises own a bulky and domed shape, while turtles have flat, light, and streamlined carapaces. The flat, aerodynamic shells of turtles can cut through the water without hassle. But the heavy, pyramid-like carapace of the tortoises fails to even make a balance in the water.

Natural habitat:

Wild animals have been evolving to cope with their surroundings for many years. The same thing has happened to turtles and tortoises.

There was a time when turtles used to have sharp teeth. But look at them now. They are toothless animals and bite using their sharp beaks. It is all part of their evolution.

Tortoises got separated from turtles long ago when they started living on land. They had to move on the ground to collect meals and run from predators. These requirements instigated the evolution of elephant-like feet.

While tortoises can not swim in the water, they sure can float. There is proof of tortoises migrating from one place to another by drifting away on oceans.

Learn more about why a tortoise can not swim by clicking here.

How To Save A Drowning Tortoise?

A drowning tortoise can make it alive if offered quick treatments. Hence, every tortoise owner should know what to do if they find their pets at the bottom of the water. But unfortunately, there is little information on tortoise drowning available on the internet.

The first thing you should do is to keep calm. If you freak out, chances are you will make the whole situation worse.

Generally, there is no way of knowing exactly how long the tortoise was at the bottom. You might find your pet’s eyes totally white, and it is barely doing any movement or even breathing. It is because the tortoise has breathed water, and now its lungs are filled with liquid.

After drowning, laryngospasm acts as a protection and hinders the water’s submission into the lungs. But with time, there is no other way for the tortoises to fight back.

Drowning is termed asphyxiation in vet science. It refers to the submersion of liquid in the lungs. This asphyxiation gets divided into two conditions depending on the intensity, anoxia and ventricular fibrillation.

Anoxia indicates the flooded lungs of the tortoises. Again, ventricular fibrillation is the irregular beating of heart muscles due to low blood flow. The water first destroys the blood cells, then dilutes the blood, and finally, the by-product potassium affects the heart muscles.

The tortoises exhibit the following signs due to prolonged submission of water in the lungs are,

  • Unconsciousness
  • Flaccid
  • Cold
  • Turning blue or cyanotic
  • Failing pulse
  • Absent respiration, etc.

For a newbie, the tortoise might seem dead. But tortoise deaths due to drowning within 24 hours are highly unlikely. Thus, you should take immediate steps to save the pets without losing hope.

Start by holding the tortoise upside down. Then open its mouth and press the flanks. You will notice water coming out of the pet’s mouth. If not, move to the following technique.

See, tortoises breathe by changing their body cavity volume. While inhaling, they contract two flank muscles to increase their body cavity.

During exhaling, tortoises relax these flanks and contract the other two. In short, the tortoise breathing technique depends on contraction, enlargement of the body cavity, and relaxation.

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It means putting pressure on the flanks can empty their lungs. Grab their legs and gently pull and push them. It will clear the lungs by throwing out the water.

Another way is CPR. As per this technique, shut the tortoise’s mouth and hold it tightly. Then blow air into their nostrils as hard as possible, 10 – 20 times per minute. It will inflate the pet’s lungs, clearing out the water.

Water may have submitted to the stomach too. In that case, a stomach tube is required to remove the water. But it is a no-go for keepers, and professional help is mandatory.

Usually, the tortoises breathe or show some movements within the first 15- 20 minutes. So, it is not wiser to give up trying. Instead, do whatever you can and then take it to the vet.

If you are a newbie, at least try first aid. Taking the pet to the vet can take long hours, and the tortoise might not make it.

The rescued tortoise would require medical support, antibiotics, some more trips to the vet’s office, and special care during the recovery phase.

Can Tortoise Hold Their Breath?

Tortoises can hold their breath. For how long? It depends on several factors, like age, health, surroundings, etc. Technically, young, healthy adult tortoises have more chances of surviving drowning than babies and olds.

As mentioned, surroundings play a role in the breath-holding process of tortoises. These creatures can survive up to 24 hours at the bottom of the pond or pool. On the contrary, they can not make it to an hour in an open sea.

Again, tortoises have to empty their lungs when retracting into the shell. So, they have to hold on to their breath for a short period while in there.

How Long Can Tortoises Survive Without Air?

Tortoises can hold their breath for 1 – 2 minutes underwater with the stored air in the lungs. Unfortunately, these creatures start drowning and gasping for air as soon as they run out of breath. However, according to collected data from different rescue agencies and vets, a tortoise can survive up to 24 hours without air.

Turtles are the masters of water. Yet they drown if they fail to replenish their lungs with air. Usually, turtles can hold their breath for 30 minutes to 1 hour during active sessions and up to 7 hours while sleeping.

On the other hand, tortoises are land dwellers and are not adapted for a swim. So, you can not expect them to go without air for long. As a result, if they slip into the water by mistake, they will surely drown.

But apparently, tortoises manage to survive up to 24 hours. It is because tortoises lose their consciousness when they drown underwater. Their body switches to a slower metabolic state and fights for survival in such conditions.

Can Tortoises Live Without Oxygen?

Tortoises can not live without oxygen. These reptiles are land creatures and solely depend on their lungs for oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange. Tortoises use oxygen as fuel to derive energy to run their biological and daily activities.

Tortoises use their outer nostrils for breathing. While inhaling, air enters the trachea via a series of cartilage rings or glottis.

Glottis also influences the airflow in the respiratory passage of the tortoises. Lungs receive the air from the trachea, and later on, blood carries the absorbed oxygen to different tissues of the body.

How Often Do Tortoises Breathe?

Tortoises are slow breathers. On average, they breathe approximately 4 times per minute. Experts suggest that such relaxed breathing techniques are linked to the extended longevity of the tortoises.

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Tortoises are known for their lifespan of hundreds of years. Slow metabolism is undoubtedly a reason why they live that long.

Other factors are gene repair capabilities and immunity response. Apart from these, slow breathing practices have also helped them achieve a hundred years of longevity.

Generally, dogs breathe 24 times per minute and live for about 13 years. Similarly, monkeys and humans breathe 34 and 24 times per minute on average, respectively. While monkeys manage to live more than 40 years, the average lifespan of humans is more than 70 years.

Now compare these breathing frequencies and lifespans of different creatures to tortoises’. These reptiles have managed to live for more than centuries, and slow breathing has definitely affected this longevity.

Can A Tortoise Breathe Under Water?

Tortoises are land creatures, and generally, they can not breathe underwater. However, according to some sources, some of these reptiles have muscles designed for anaerobic respiration. It helps the tortoises survive for hours in case of drowning.

Turtles, the close relatives of tortoises, do a great job breathing underwater. They use their cloaca or larynx muscles for gas exchange while in the water. They can live on the stored oxygen for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Again, the time frame extends to 7 hours if the turtles sleep. However, it is because while resting, their metabolism drops. The same thing happens when turtles hibernate, and they can live underwater for months.

Nevertheless, this is not the case with tortoises. They have evolved to breathe on land using their nostrils and lungs. Inability to breathe in water is one of the reasons why they can not swim.

When tortoises fall underwater, they manage to hold their breath for a few minutes. Then, they get unconscious as they run out of oxygen so fast.

Some tortoises manage to survive underwater for hours with their specialized muscles. Those tissues can exchange gas in water, but for a limited time. Soon, the stored energy and oxygen will dry up, and the creatures will die.

How Long Can A Sulcata Tortoise Hold Its Breath?

Tortoises are not famous for holding their breaths. It is because they live on land and exchange gas with lungs. Thus, tortoise species like Sulcata tortoises can not hold their breath for longer than 1 – 2 minutes while in water.

Different documentaries and online stories claim that tortoises can hold their breaths for up to 24 hours. Well, there is proof of those incidents.

But you can say those tortoises had gotten away with a free lifetime pass. But, there is no guarantee that your tortoise will make it alive if it falls underwater.

If you force your tortoise to hold its breath, it will experience severe and permanent health damage. Unfortunately, some people throw tortoises into the water, mistaking them for turtles. Remember, turtles and tortoises are not the same.

Turtles can swim and hold their breath for an hour. On the other hand, tortoises can not swim and drown within minutes. Go through this article if you are confused about identifying turtles and tortoises.


Tortoises can hold their breath for a few minutes in water, and then they drown. However, if you are lucky, your tortoise might survive up to 24 hours underwater.

It is wiser to offer first aid to a drowning tortoise instead of taking it as dead. Also, use a protective fence around your pool, pond, or water body if you have a tortoise at home to eliminate such accidents.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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