Health puppies begin to stand at 14 days and have a rather steady gait by 3 weeks of age. If a puppy cannot stand and walk by week 3, the puppy may be a “swimmer”.
A swimmer puppy is a puppy with weak adductor muscles that pull the legs together. As a result, the puppy lies flat on the floor and paddles around like a turtle.
The legs affected can be the fore legs, the hind legs, or all four, although the hind legs are usually more severely affected.
Causes of Swimming Puppy Syndrome
The exact cause of this syndrome is unknown. It could be congenital. Breeds that seem to be more susceptible to this condition include:
- Small breed dogs (such as the Dachshunds, Yorkshire Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, English Cocker Spaniels).
- Breeds with large thorax and short limbs (such as the Basset Hounds, Pekinese, Cavalier King Charles, French and English bulldogs).
Also, overweight and heavy-boned puppies are more prone to become swimmers.
There are other “theories” as to what causes this syndrome, such as:
- Infection: Some say that swimming puppy syndrome is the result of a viral or fungal infection in the dog mother’s uterus that results in a muscular dystrophy of the adductor muscles.
- Overheating and Overfeeding: It is also said that when the temperature is too warm in the room, some puppies may get too comfortable. They keep feeding on their mother’s milk, get lazy and don’t move too much, resulting in developing swimming puppy syndrome.
- Inner Ear Problem: Another possibility may be due to an inherited inner ear problem that causes the puppy’s body to be unable to position itself properly and normally.
Symptoms of Swimmer Puppies
The clinical symptoms are that the puppy cannot stand up and cannot walk normally.
Swimmer puppies move by making swimming or snake-like type of movements. They stick their legs out to the sides and paddle around like a turtle.
As these puppies cannot stand up, their thorax and abdomen are compressed. They are flat-chested from lying on their stomachs and have abnormally narrow chest cavities.
As a result, they regurgitate the milk that they have drunk and cannot breathe properly. The puppies have trouble filling their lungs, so they often breathe with their mouths open.
Because the compressed abdomen, puppies with this problem may also suffer from constipation.
Swimmer puppies may also have joint deformities such as medial patellar luxation because of the abnormal angles of their limbs.
Treatment of Swimmer Puppies
In most cases, the condition will go away as the puppy grows and the adductor muscles develop and strengthen.
In a case study, the researchers found that home care treatment involving food and environmental control, as well as physiotherapy such as massage helped treat a 50-day-old puppy.
The home care treatment includes the following:
- Keep the swimmer puppy on a non-slippery surface such as carpeted floor, since slippery floors can make the problem worse. In the study, the researchers used a cotton carpet, and placed an absorbent pad on the puppy’s bed. They changed the pad frequently to keep the environment clean.
- Since swimmer puppies cannot stand up, they pee and poop while lying down, which of course is unhygienic and can cause erosive lesions from urine and fecal scalding. So, in the study, the researchers wiped the puppy regularly with a wet cloth, and applied baby powder regularly to keep the skin dry.
- After feeding, the researchers lifted the puppy up and massaged the puppy gently from head to tail to prevent regurgitation of the food.
- The puppy was massaged every two hours from the head to the hind limbs, and the joints were moved to increase mobility and flexibility.
- The puppy was held up in a standing position and walked several times a day.
The result of the study was amazing – after 40 days of treatment, the puppy was able to walk normally!
Other things that can be done to swimmer puppies to help them recover include:
- Use a pair of flexible plastic handcuffs or a hobble made from adhesive tape on the affected limbs to limit splaying. See this video:
- Put the puppy in a sling or harness for 15-20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day for muscle training.
- Keep a swimmer puppy sleeping on his side, rather than splayed flat out. Sleeping on his chest will only flatten the chest more. It may also hinder smooth breathing.
- Also turn the puppy frequently when sleeping and nursing.
- Make your puppy’s bedding soft. You can’t watch the puppy 24 hours a day, so when you are not watching and when the puppy is sleeping on his chest, at least his chest is not resting on a hard surface. You can also put some soft fluffy blankets in the whelping box for the puppy to rest on.
- Stimulate the puppy’s paw pads with a toothbrush to increase tactile sensation. This supposedly can stimulate the nerves and get the puppy to use his legs more forcibly.
- Avoid over-feeding the affected puppy to limit rapid weight gain.
At first glance, swimmer puppies may face a dire situation due to their inability to stand up and walk.
But, as shown in the home treatment above, special care and regular massage, as well as a clean and hygienic environment, can go a long way in helping a puppy with this condition.
Don’t give up!
Here is an inspiring video of a swimmer puppy who beat the odds and was able to not only walk but run on four legs: