Swimmer puppy syndrome—also known as swimmers syndrome, swimming puppy syndrome, and flat pup syndrome—is a rare deformity that can afflict some puppies.
Although smaller and dwarf breeds are more prone to the syndrome, larger breeds may also suffer from it. Breeds that are more likely to produce puppies with swimmer puppy syndrome include English and French Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers, Basset Hounds, and Dachshunds.
Thankfully, with intervention and care, swimmer puppy syndrome can often be reversed.
Symptoms of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
Symptoms of swimmer puppy syndrome begin to show in the first few days to weeks of the puppy’s life. The puppy’s chest will appear flattened, not rounded. It will only lie on its stomach, not on its side. Its legs, both front and back, will be splayed out.
When compared to its littermates, the puppy’s developmental problems may become more evident. By three weeks of age, the puppy will not be able to stand or walk, and may struggle to move. When it does move, it may look like it is trying to paddle or swim.
The puppy will be putting a lot of pressure on its sternum, which will contribute to the flattening of the chest and ribs. Because of its flattened chest, the puppy’s heart and lungs may have difficulty working and may become displaced or improperly develop.
This causes swimmer syndrome puppies to have difficulty breathing and low energy levels. They will also be weak and may have problems with circulation.
The puppy may also have difficulty eating. Because of the pressure on its chest, it may also struggle with keeping food down. Additionally, swimmer puppies may have sores or lesions on their bodies from lying in urine or feces.
Causes of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
The exact cause of swimmer puppy syndrome is not known, mainly because it is fairly uncommon. Some veterinarians believe it may be hereditary or due to a congenital defect. Inadequate nutrition or delayed nerve development may also be to blame.
Swimmer puppy syndrome may also be caused or exacerbated by environmental factors. One contributing factor to swimmer puppy syndrome—or the worsening of the condition—is overeating. Swimmer puppy syndrome is more common in one-pup litters because the puppy has access to more milk, making it more likely to become overweight. Once it is overweight, it may move less and put too much pressure on its chest, flattening it.
If a swimmer puppy is left untreated, it will fail to thrive and will likely die. In the past, dogs with swimmer puppy syndrome were viewed as unable to be saved. Now, thankfully, if it is caught early and corrective action is quickly started and maintained, the syndrome is often reversible.
If a puppy is suspected to be suffering from swimmer syndrome, a veterinarian should be consulted as soon as possible. The vet should be able to provide guidance about how to best help the swimmer puppy.
There are also a variety of home treatments that may help a swimmer puppy. No matter which treatment (or variety of treatments) is chosen, it is incredibly important to begin as soon as possible. The sooner treatments begin, the more likely it will be that the puppy will have a positive outcome.
Note that all of the treatment methods are very time-consuming and require consistency. If a treatment is started but is not continued appropriately, any progress made could be quickly lost.
As mentioned earlier, overweight puppies may be more likely to suffer from swimmer puppy syndrome. Overweight puppies may be less energetic in general, and may find movement to be more difficult. It is important to make sure that overweight puppies be put on an appropriate diet. It may be best to consult a vet about the best ways to help the puppy lose weight.
Swimmer puppies, overweight or not, may need additional assistance with eating. It is best to help prop the puppy up while it is eating. After it has finished eating, rub its belly to help it digest the food to prevent regurgitation.
Even if the puppy is not initially overweight and other treatments are being pursued, it is important to make sure that the puppy does not become overweight as it becomes stronger and gains more mobility. If it becomes overweight, that may reverse the progress the puppy has otherwise made and cause additional damage, including hip and joint problems.
Adjusting Environmental Factors
A swimmer syndrome puppy should never be left to lie on a flat surface; doing so will only aggravate the chest flattening and pressure on its body. Its bedding should be soft and fluffy. In order to help relieve pressure, the puppy’s bed may be adjusted so that it is able to lie on its side rather than its chest.
Another environmental consideration is to make sure that the surfaces the puppy walks on provide traction. One option is to put down carpet or a rug, but newspaper may also provide some traction. Lining a box with towels may also work.
Make sure that the puppy has a clean place to relieve itself, and change it often. The puppy will need to be wiped or cleaned often to prevent or help heal rashes from excrement. Baby powder and moisture barrier creams may also prevent irritation, but a vet should be consulted before using either.
Sling and Hobble Therapies
A sling or harness could be used up to four times a day, for up to 20 minutes at a time. This relieves some of the pressure that happens when the puppy is lying down, and also encourages the puppy to try to reach the floor. This will help the puppy strengthen its muscles.
To assist with leg realignment, the sling therapy may be paired with a hobble made from tape. Be aware that the puppy may try to chew off the hobble. If this is the case, the puppy may need to wear a cone while the tape is on.
Hobbling should be done gradually for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times each day. Over time, the frequency may be increased. Consult a vet to learn how to properly hobble the puppy’s legs in the correct position.
Swimmer Puppy Syndrome Sock Method
It may be a good idea to make a vest by cutting leg holes in a sock and stuffing it with fluffy material or foam in order to give the puppy some additional padding under its chest. Make sure that the sock is not too tight, though. The vest may encourage the puppy to lie on its side, which could help stop its legs from splaying out.
Another therapy that is useful in encouraging the dog to properly use its legs is water therapy. While vets may have access to specialized equipment for this type of therapy, it is possible to help a swimmer puppy at home in a bathtub or sink (if large enough).
Ensure that the water is comfortable, not too cold or hot, and make sure that the puppy’s head is not able to be submerged the water. It may be best to suspend the puppy in a sling or hold it in the water so that it is not touching the bottom of the tub or sink.
Because the water helps relieve weight and pressure, the puppy may be more inclined to try to move. When it becomes tired, remove the puppy from the tub or sink and dry it off completely. This therapy should be done multiple times each day.
Swimmer puppies should be encouraged to lie on their sides. Their righting reflex may initially prevent them from staying on their side. However, over time—especially with the addition of other therapies—they should be able to adjust to staying on their side for longer. This should also help leg alignment and will reduce pressure on their chests.
The puppy’s paws can be tickled with a soft toothbrush a few times a day. This helps stimulate the nerves in the puppy’s feet and can increase both feeling and movement. This, in turn, can help the puppy’s muscles develop.
A swimmer puppy can be encouraged to walk by manually moving the puppy’s legs in walking motions. This should be done multiple times each day, and can also be combined with a sling.
In addition to encouraging the puppy to walk, its legs will also need to be trained to be able to go beneath its body, rather than staying splayed to the sides. This can be done 4 to 5 times a day for about 10 minutes per session.
Outcomes of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome
If swimmer puppy syndrome is totally left untreated, the puppy is likely to die. Also, if treatment is not started soon enough, the dog may have health problems throughout its life, including issues with breathing and eating.
Thus, it is vital to begin therapies for swimmer puppies as soon as possible. With time, patience, and a commitment to consistent therapy, dogs with swimmer puppy syndrome can improve and thrive.