Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

Written By Kim Rain
Published: 02/01/2022Updated: 02/01/2022
Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

What is Swimmer Syndrome?

Swimmer syndrome is a congenital condition that can affect the limbs of puppies and kittens soon after birth. All kittens are born with loose ligaments which tighten up as they grow in their first days and weeks. Sometimes, though, those ligaments don’t tighten properly, and can cause the legs to splay laterally in a frog-like or swimmer position. Kittens born with swimmer syndrome are unable to walk on affected limbs.

This condition is seen in the early weeks of a kitten’s life, and while it will affect the ability to walk, it can be treated if action is taken right away. Often, kittens with swimmer syndrome also develop Flat-Chested Kitten Syndrome (FCKS), an often-fatal condition involving the flattening of the breast bones and deflating of the lungs. Swimmer syndrome may be the cause of FCKS due to the inability of the kitten to get up because of their affected limbs which forces them to lay on their breast bones during a crucial growing period. 

Symptoms of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

Symptoms of swimmer syndrome are centered around the limbs, and can be seen as early as one week after birth. However, most pet parents will notice the signs around 3 weeks of age when kittens generally begin to stand and walk. Signs include:

  • Limbs that are splayed to the sides of the body, or lay behind the body, and resemble frog legs or a swimmers pose
  • Inability to move limbs and feet below body
  • Inability to stand
  • Inability to walk
  • Losing weight due to inability to get to mother to nurse


A kitten can be affected by one of three types of swimmer syndrome.

  • Only the back two legs are affected. This is the most common type.
  • Only the front two legs are affected.
  • All four legs are affected.

Causes of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

The cause of swimmer syndrome is not fully understood yet, but there are some theories as to why a kitten may develop this condition. These include:

  • Genetics
  • Loose tendons around the hips causing too much flexibility
  • Mother’s diet was unbalanced, leading to ligament deficits 

Diagnosis of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

Generally, a kitten will be diagnosed with swimmer syndrome by appearance alone, as the condition noticeably affects the limbs. Between 1 to 3-weeks of age, a breeder or pet parent may notice an abnormal positioning of the limbs in a kitten. They will keep an eye on it, as many kittens can present with splayed limbs at the 1 to 2-week mark, but as the bones and tendons continue to grow, they end up forming normally.

However, if by 3-weeks old, the limbs are still splayed to the sides of the body, or laying limply behind the body, swimmer syndrome will be suspected. By this age, kittens are usually standing and beginning to walk, but a kitten with swimmer syndrome will be unable to stand, walk or even move their limbs below their body.

A trip to the veterinarian can confirm the diagnosis after a brief physical exam. Some veterinary professionals may prescribe euthanasia for the kitten, as without treatment, they will be unable to walk, and may develop other serious health issues, such as flat-chested kitten syndrome. Others may recommend an in-home treatment program that can fix swimmer syndrome and give the kitten back use of their affected limbs.

Treatment of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

Treatment for swimmer syndrome aims to help the affected kitten’s limbs grow properly and back into the normal positioning to allow them free range of movement. This is done in-home with simple procedures for about 2 to 4 weeks.

Due to the fact that kittens grow incredibly fast, time is of the essence. Treatment should begin as soon as the condition is noticed, ideally between 2 to 4 weeks of age.

Leg wrapping and binding

Using simple medical tape, you can create hobbles for your kitten, essentially a way to keep the limbs fixed in a position. First, you’ll need to find the kitten’s knees, located near the abdomen, and their ankles, just above the paws. Then, the knees are wrapped with medical tape, and then the ankles are wrapped.

Next, the kitten’s limbs are manually, but gently, manipulated into the correct position, and then a line of connecting medical tape is applied between the taped knees, and again between the taped ankles to keep them firmly in the correct position. You can find several online sources and videos that show how to do this properly. Keep the tape on the kitten to encourage the limbs to finish forming properly, removing and replacing the tape once to twice daily for physical therapy exercises.


Physical therapy to help correct limbs is easy to do at home as well. The tape is removed and a series of movements is performed with the kitten. These can include range of motion exercises that gently stretch the affected limbs straight and bend joints to place the foot under the body. Be sure to also bend the legs gently backwards to keep muscles from tightening up from the fixed position caused by the tape.

Other exercises include placing the kitten in your lap and gently bicycling the legs, placing the kitten’s feet underneath their body while they are eating, and encouraging them to take some steps using a toy. Massaging each affected leg while holding it in the correct position can also help.

Once a kitten begins to walk, you can also use DIY walkways that force the kitten to walk through a narrow corridor with their taped legs to practice walking in the correct position.

Environmental changes

Help your growing kitten and make sure there aren’t obstacles for them to trip over in their environment. Also, you’ll need to create a surface with enough traction to help them as they begin to stand and walk. Wood flooring or tiles are too slippery, so opt for carpeting that gives them more traction. Buy a sample piece of carpet, carpet tiles or a rug that you can place where they’ll be walking if necessary, including in a pen.

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Recovery of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

For a kitten without treatment, swimmer syndrome can cause an inability to stand or walk, and due to the extra amount of time laying down during crucial growth periods, it can also cause other medical issues, some of which can be fatal. This is the reason why some veterinary professionals suggest euthanasia.

With in-home treatment, however, most kittens can have a full recovery, so long as the treatment begins early, and lasts long enough for the kitten’s limbs to form into their correct positions. With patience, perseverance and a lot of adjusting as they grow, you can help a kitten with swimmer syndrome be fully rehabilitated and grow up to have free range of motion in all their limbs.

A kitten suffering from swimmer syndrome can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your kitten is at risk of this congenital condition, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag!’s pet insurance comparison tool lets you compare plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

Cost of Swimmer Syndrome in Cats

The average cost of treating swimmer syndrome: $20 - $150

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