Swimmer puppy syndrome – also known as swimmers syndrome in dogs, swimming-puppy syndrome, twisted legs, turtle pup, and flat-puppy syndrome – is a very rare developmental deformity seen in primarily newborn puppies.
Left untreated, swimmers syndrome causes serious and even life-threatening consequences, but with early intervention, swimmer puppies can go on to live a relatively normal life (1).
What Does Swimmer Puppy Syndrome Look Like?
Puppies with swimmers syndrome begin to show physical symptoms a week or two after birth. Swimmers syndrome in dogs has nothing to do with actual swimming (in water); it is called “swimmers” because swimmer puppies look as though they are swimming when they try to move around the environment (2).
Dogs will lie on their chest with their limbs extended to the sides or in front of and behind the body, and “paddle” as though they were a turtle, as seen in the above picture. Here’s another photo on what this condition looks like.
Where healthy puppies in a litter should be able to walk by three weeks, swimmer puppies are unable to walk or stand due to severe weakness in the hind limbs (3).
Complications of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
As swimmer puppies spend more time lying flat, their chest and abdomen flatten causing the thorax or midsection of the body to develop in a flat cylindrical shape rather than a cylindrical shape (4, 5).
In severe cases, the front of the chest can curve inward. These changes cause difficulty with breathing in young dogs as their lungs are unable to fill fully due to shifting or compression.
Digestion is another common problem in puppies with Swimmer Puppy Syndrome and it’s not unusual to see regurgitation of milk. Digestive problems can also disrupt normal bowel movements causing straining or constipation.
The longer swimmers puppies go without any treatment, the more severe their physical deformities can become and the wider-reaching effects of those deformities can be. For example, as the thorax becomes even flatter, internal organs can be pressed out of place (6).
The Outlook for Swimmers Puppies
It used to be thought that these pups were a “lost cause” but as our understanding of veterinary medicine has advanced, we now know that there is hope. With early intervention (see below), puppies can live a relatively normal life.
Generally, successful treatment involves things such as bandaging the dog’s limbs, intensive physiotherapy, external splinting, and in some cases, hospitalization. A notable 2013 study is a good proof of this, which observed the dog for 10 years and demonstrates how puppies with this condition can continue living a relatively normal life.
Without any intervention at all or treating this condition too late, most Swimmers puppies are more likely to die than to live past 8 weeks. Note that some veterinarians without experience of treating this problem may suggest euthanasia as the “only option” (7).
What Causes Swimmer Puppy Syndrome?
Although we have come a long way in our ability to rehabilitate Swimmers puppies, we still don’t understand what causes this condition (8). However, there are some speculations.
Some experts believe that SPS is an inherited condition in dogs while others believe that it’s a congenital defect, or is related to in-utero viral or fungal infections. A few other suggestions for the cause include dog-inappropriate (hard or slippery) floors, delayed neuromuscular development, weight gain that’s exceeded the dog’s skeletal development and dysfunction of synaptic or ventral horn cells.
In piglets, this very same condition was suspected to be caused due to stress during pregnancy (9).
Breeds More Prone to Swimmers Puppy Syndrome
While we aren’t exactly sure what causes this puppy condition, we do know that certain breeds are more prone to it. Swimmers is seen in smaller and “dwarf” breeds much more often than it’s seen in large breed dogs.
Cases of Swimmers have been seen most often in the following breeds (10):
- Yorkshire Terriers
- West Highland White Terriers
- English Cocker Spaniels
- English Bulldogs
- Basset Hounds
- French Bulldogs
How to Treat Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
1. Taping or Hobbling
Generally, the first go-to for treatment of Swimmers Puppy Syndrome is the taping method. Taping – also referred to as “hobbling” – is when a medical tape is used to secure the puppy’s legs in the correct position.
It’s inadvisable to first try this yourself. A veterinarian who is experienced with hobbling in dogs should always show you how to tape your puppy’s legs so that you don’t cause any pain or damage to the limbs.
Although supported by the sling, your puppy’s feet should be only just touching the ground. Using a harness or sling to support a puppy in this way strengthens the dog’s leg muscles, but it also helps to relieve pressure on their sternum.
It’s important that you reposition your Swimmers puppy on their side any time that you see them laying on their sternum. Encouraging your puppy to sleep on their side as much as possible will relieve pressure on the chest. Even if they are not sleeping, repositioning is a good way to reduce complications from constant pressure on the chest.
3. Maintaining a Healthy Weight
It may sound simple, but helping your Swimmers dog to maintain a healthy weight is more beneficial than you might realize. The more extra weight your pup has to hold up, the slower their progress with therapy will be. It’s also worth considering that extra weight means more pressure on the sternum of Swimmers puppies.
Be sure to give your Swimmers puppy a supportive, orthopedic and lofty bed (not any regular dog bed) that will help to keep as much pressure as possible off the dog’s chest and abdomen. You can also pad your puppy’s bed with blankets so that you can customize the height and supportiveness of their bedding.
Massage has many benefits, but it’s also a great tool to help promote well-being in Swimmers puppies while also stimulating the dog’s nerves and muscles (13, 14). Massaging your puppy after a feed can also help the digestive process along and help to resolve problems like constipation and gas.
Hygiene should never be neglected in Swimmers pups. Since these puppies aren’t able to support their body weight, they are also unable to stand to use the potty or to move away from waste when they do go while lying down.
Failing to clean up after your Swimmers pup immediately after their accident can cause infection as well as urine burns and painful sores.
Scientists that studied this condition strongly suggest that appropriate flooring is extremely important, particularly non-slippery floors that prevent slippage and further injuries in puppies. Furthermore, due to pups relieving themselves where they rest, it’s recommended to use pee pads in your dog’s favorite spots. Applying baby powder and wiping the dog can also help to prevent fecal scalding.
8. Tickle or Otherwise Stimulate Your Puppy’s Feet
Tickling or touching your puppy’s feet means that you are stimulating their nerves and creating a “nuisance” sensation that will cause them to kick. Kicking helps to stretch out the legs and build muscle, both extremely important things for Swimmer’s puppies.
9. Water Therapy
Water therapy is recommended for Swimmer dogs that have developed a swimming reflex (this happens around 6 weeks old). Keeping the pup secured, submerge them in water up to their chin.
When submerged, the puppy’s swimming instinct will kick in and they will begin paddling. Be sure to keep hold of the puppy but let them paddle. This helps to build up muscle in the legs and can be done for short periods, two to three times a day.
Managing Life With a Swimmers Pup
Rehabilitation and therapy are both great tools for giving dogs with Swimmers Puppy Syndrome a fighting chance for a normal life, but this will require a lot of commitment from you.
For therapies to work, they must be done every day, multiple times a day and, for the average dog owner, this can be difficult. However, difficult or not, consistency and repetition of therapy activities and treatments are the best and only way to give your Swimmer puppy the future that they deserve.
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