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 3 weeks, 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 predisposed 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 is also one theory which says that swimming puppy syndrome is the result of an infection caused by a viral or fungal disease in utero that results in a muscular dystrophy of the adductor muscles.
Symptoms of Swimmer Puppies
The clinical symptoms are their inability to stand up and inability to 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 abdomen is compressed, puppies with this problem may also suffer from constipation.
Affected 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, a cotton carpet was used, and an absorbent pad was placed on the puppy’s bed. The pad was changed 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 puppy was wiped regularly with a wet cloth, and baby powder was applied regularly to keep the skin dry.
- After feeding, the puppy was lifted up and massaged 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.
- Keep a swimmer puppy sleeping on his side, rather than splayed flat out.
- 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.