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Home > Dogs > Swimmer’s Syndrome in Puppies: Vet Reviewed Causes, Signs & Care

Swimmer’s Syndrome in Puppies: Vet Reviewed Causes, Signs & Care

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Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Veterinarian, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Swimmer’s syndrome is an uncommon physical condition affecting a puppy’s limbs, causing the pup to paddle or “swim” due to inability to stand or walk. Aside from standing and walking, this physical deformity can also lead to problems in breathing, eating, and circulation—making early detection and intervention important to ensure a better quality of life for a swimmer pup.

In this article, we will discuss what this syndrome is, what signs to look out for, possible causes, and what you can do for your swimmer pup to improve their quality of life.


What is Swimmer’s Syndrome?

Swimmer’s syndrome is a developmental canine problem that causes a pup’s limbs to splay out to the side of the body due to weakness, hindering the pup from properly standing or walking. The syndrome starts at the hind limbs before affecting the front limbs, restricting the pup’s movement to a paddle-like motion on the floor—with their limbs out to the side, as if they are swimming. Other names for the syndrome include swimming-puppy syndrome, flat-puppy syndrome, twisted legs, and turtle pup.

With the pup’s limbs hindering them from standing, the puppy’s thorax is also pressed against the floor, giving a swimmer pup a flat chest and putting the puppy at risk for a variety of problems. A dog with swimmer’s syndrome may experience difficulty in respiration and breathing, eating and digestive issues, joint problems, and even risk for early death.

Swimming puppy syndrome is a very rare complication, with little research and evidence available. But like with all developmental complications, early identification and intervention can make all the difference.

Puppy with swimmer's syndrome on the carpet
Image Credit: fralla, Pixabay

What Are the Signs of Swimmer’s Syndrome?

Aside from the previously discussed descriptors of swimmer’s syndrome, other signs of this syndrome include the following:

  • Weakness, lethargy, and low energy (especially compared to littermates)
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Inability to eat and drink properly, and regurgitation
  • Difficulty in urinating and defecating (and possible lesions due to scalding)
  • A flat chest compared to a normally rounded thorax
  • At 1 week of age, having legs splayed out to the sides of the body
  • At 3 weeks of age, being unable to stand or walk

Swimming puppy syndrome is generally a rare disease among dogs but is more commonly seen among smaller breeds. No matter your dog’s breed, it is recommended to look for these signs while your dog is still a puppy, before 21 days of age. The earlier swimmer’s syndrome is detected, the quicker it can be treated.

divider-paw The 3 Common Causes of Swimmer’s Syndrome

There is little research on the topic of swimmer’s syndrome; no one knows for sure where the condition comes from or what causes it.

Swimming puppy syndrome is a congenital condition, but the cause of the condition can come from a variety of factors. Some experts look at the syndrome as hereditary, while other experts believe that it is an acquired congenital condition—in which the deformity occurs before or during birth.  Other experts believe environmental factors can play a role in acquiring the condition after the pup has been born.

1. Genetics

Veterinarian experts that look at swimmer’s syndrome as a hereditary condition, wherein genetics play a major role in acquiring the condition. Looking at the syndrome from this approach, it is recommended that puppies affected by swimmer’s syndrome should not be used for breeding, as this may increase the risk of passing down the gene to offspring. They found that small litter size and early weight gain were seen in labrador swimmer pup litter.

mother dog and puppies feeding milk
Image Credit: Michelle_Raponi, Pixabay

2. Congenital Condition

Other experts that look at swimmer’s syndrome as an acquired congenital condition. This approach considers external or environmental factors that can cause the syndrome while the mother dog is pregnant. Factors can include infections or accidents that can occur during pregnancy, or while the mother is giving birth.

3. Environment

Environmental factors occurring after the pup’s birth are another suspected cause of swimmer’s syndrome. For example, veterinary experts suspect that an environment that is too warm can cause a puppy to overheat and be lazy, while staying in a lying position for extended periods of time. This limitation in movement can then affect the pup’s muscle development.

Puppy sleeping with paws up
Image Credit: Sundays Photography, Shutterstock


How Do I Care for a Puppy with Swimmer’s Syndrome?

For the longest time, puppies with swimmer’s syndrome were thought to be hopeless cases. Today, despite the limited research about this condition, treatment options and home-care remedies are available to give your dog a better quality of life!

Caring for a swimmer pup involves 3 methods—nutrition, environmental modifications, and physiotherapy.

1. Nutrition

Sick or not, nutrition is of utmost importance in any pet. A healthy diet is necessary for swimmer pups, as their weight must be carefully controlled. Due to their posture and the weakness in their limbs, any extra weight can put unnecessary pressure on their bodies.

Swimmer pups also have difficulty with nursing and swallowing. As dog parents of swimmer pups, it is recommended to control their nursing, and help them swallow their food properly by propping them up while rubbing their belly to prevent regurgitation.

Supplements can also be recommended by your veterinarian, such as vitamin E or selenium. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian prior to giving your swimmer pup any supplements!

labrador puppy having medication
Image Credit: Ilike, Shutterstock

2. Environmental Modifications

Much like baby-proofing a home, it is important to provide a safe environment for your swimmer pup that is safe, accessible, and promotes healthy movement for your puppy. Try to keep your pup from laying flat on a surface to avoid putting pressure on the chest, as well as on the joints of the limbs.

Keep your puppy away from slippery surfaces. Try placing them on rough surfaces with enough traction to avoid any slips and falls when standing. This can be done by laying a carpet down or using towels to prevent sliding.

Swimmer puppies have difficulty moving freely, so they will poop and pee where they rest. Because of this, it is important to keep the areas where they rest clean.

3. Physiotherapy

Just like humans undergoing physical therapy for any physical disabilities, puppies with swimmer’s syndrome can also benefit from physiotherapy. Physical movement is vital in the treatment of puppies with this syndrome, as the increase in movement shows a better prognosis in a puppy’s life and progress.

Giving a full body massage to your puppy can help in relieving any tension in their muscles. This can be followed by providing “range of motion” exercises to your pup’s limbs, such as flexion and extension on the digits, hind-leg joints, and hip joints.

Training to stand is also part of the physiotherapy program, in order to strengthen and encourage the muscles and structures involved. Stimulating the paws and extremities of the swimmer pup can also encourage nerve activity. This part of the training can help facilitate the physiological development of your swimmer pup.

It is important to discourage the flat-lying position for your swimmer pup. Moving them from side to side, as well as encouraging them to sleep on their side, can also facilitate better breathing in your pup. Swimming can also help strengthen your pup’s muscles without adding extra pressure on their limbs and joints.

Consult with your veterinarian for recommendations on the proper physiotherapy program for your swimmer pup.

woman strokes and massages domestic dog’s belly on couch
Image Credit: alexei_tm, Shutterstock


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What can I do to prevent swimmer’s syndrome?

As swimmer’s syndrome does not have a definite cause, the best we can do is avoid risk factors. Ensuring the pregnant mother receives proper nutrition and constant veterinary consults is recommended, as well as keeping the environment of the newborn pups clean and at the proper temperature.

Image Credit: Nina Buday, Shutterstock

I’m not sure if my puppy has swimmer’s syndrome; how long can I wait before consulting?

Even if you are not sure, it is always better to consult a vet as soon as possible. The sooner the pup is diagnosed, the sooner they can receive treatment, and the better the outcomes for your pup’s life!

divider-dog paw


Swimmer’s syndrome may be uncommon and diagnosis may be scary, but puppies with this syndrome are no longer considered hopeless cases. Treatment for swimmer’s syndrome takes a lot of work for both the puppy and their owner. For the best outcome, it is important to be patient and to enjoy each other’s company during treatment—to give your swimmer pup the best chance at a long and happy life!

Featured Image Credit: Ksenia Merenkova, Shutterstock

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