Turtles like most other animals do yawn without there being any sinister health issues behind it, but if they yawn or gape a lot then the matter really needs further investigation. It is sometimes quite difficult to see quite what is going on as often the first sign that the turtle has been gaping is the little click sound its mouth makes as it closes. You sometimes will have to watch for some time before you see the turtle yawn so if you start noticing it a lot the chances are that it is happening even more often than you are witnessing.
Underwater or in the air?
Yawning or gaping underwater is not such a worry as the same behaviour on land. Many turtle experts feel that underwater it is a sign that the turtle is really relaxed and that it is perhaps just evening out some pressure to make it easier to stay underwater. On land, though, the turtle is yawning for the same reason that any animal yawns – to get more oxygen into the body. If this is repeated behaviour then it is very possibly an early sign that the turtle has a respiratory tract infection and is trying to force more air into its lungs. If the yawn is accompanied by a stretching out of its neck and other signs such as lethargy and anorexia, then a visit to the vet should be the very next thing on the agenda.
A very misunderstood symptom
If you are worried about your yawning turtle you may turn to the internet for advice and that is frequently very helpful, but unfortunately in the case of yawning and gaping turtles there are a lot of videos posted showing just this behaviour, in the belief that the animal is exhibiting cute or human behaviour. This is very misleading, as it is not normal for any animal to yawn excessively and if they do it is usually because they are ill or at least not in the best condition.
Yawning as a reflex is not totally understood and many of the beliefs about it are not completely accurate. Although the usual explanation of yawning is that the body needs more oxygen is the most likely, tests have in fact shown that animals do not yawn more in conditions of low oxygen or less in high. But another belief does sound reasonable and especially so in the case of water-living animals such as turtles. This theory is that yawning stretches the lungs and redistributes the surfactant on the lining of the lungs, making the air sacs (alveoli) in the lung tissue less likely to collapse and become incapable of reinflation. As part of the problem for a turtle with a respiratory tract infection is that the lungs fill with water and cannot replace it with oxygen, this would seem to make a lot of sense.
How much is too much?
It is never possible to set a limit on what is normal as every animal is an individual. With all disease processes, the benchmark is whether the behaviour has changed with time. If a turtle which is otherwise healthy, eating well and swimming normally starts to yawn it may just be a sign that it is in the very first stage of a respiratory tract infection or possibly its mouth is uncomfortable with ulcerative stomatitis in an early manifestation.
If the behaviour continues with no further deterioration, it may turn out to be a new habit. If on the other hand the turtle has always yawned and does it at specific times of day, when it is hungry for example, or when it has been sleeping or swimming, it may be of no significance at all. As with any animal husbandry, the secret of keeping a turtle well is to make sure that you know all its behaviours and respond appropriately if anything changes.
What needs to be done?
A visit to the vet is never a wasted journey, although obviously it could become rather expensive if you go for every tiny thing that worries you about your pet. You really have to decide when the condition warrants some specialist advice and one of the saddest phrases anyone will ever say is ‘if only ...’. If you feel that your turtle is unwell but the only thing that is obvious is the yawning and gaping, then clearly you must take it to the vet. If on the other hand the turtle is in bouncing health, eating well and generally going about its daily business with no discernible change but it yawns once in a while, then just make a mental note to watch out for any sinister behaviour and leave well alone.
As long as the habitat and the food provided are clean and appropriate, with the right temperature for both water and air and with plenty of basking places, then all is very likely well. One note on habitat that many turtle owners don’t always think of is that the animal needs a basking place which is firmly anchored or better still a shelving part of the habitat floor. If the basking area is loose floating on the water so that the turtle has to struggle on and off it, then this can in itself cause gaping and yawning as the poor thing has to exhaust itself just to get out of the water. Think like a turtle – that’s the secret to having a happy pet!