Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Veterinary reviewed by: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

Swimmer Syndrome

Veterinary reviewed by: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

Swimmer Syndrome

What is Swimmer Syndrome?

Swimmer syndrome, also known as swimming puppy syndrome or flat pup syndrome, is a musculoskeletal disorder in newborn puppies where the legs are splayed out like a 'swimmer' in water. This results in an inability to stand or walk and causes the puppy to remain on their chest and belly. Because swimmer puppies are unable to use their limbs properly, they “paddle” their legs to move around, much like a turtle.

Symptoms of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Swimmer puppies appear normal and healthy during the first several days of life, nursing well and gaining weight quickly. Signs emerge around the third week, which is when puppies should start to walk. The symptoms of swimmer syndrome include:

  • Inability to stand or walk by three weeks of age
  • Limbs splayed out laterally
  • Paddling motion of the legs
  • Lying on the chest and belly
Since swimmer puppies tend to spend most of their time on their chest and stomach, the chest can become flat from bearing all their weight. Pectus excavatum, a chest wall deformity in which the ribs and sternum do not develop properly, can also occur. Swimmer puppies with pectus excavatum will have difficulty breathing and appear lethargic.
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Causes of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Little research has been done to determine the cause of swimmer syndrome in dogs, therefore it is unclear what exactly causes it. However, it has been suggested that genetic and environmental factors may contribute to swimmer syndrome, specifically: 

  • Hard or slippery floors
  • Being overweight or obesity
  • Weight gain exceeding skeletal development
  • Delayed neuromuscular development
  • Dysfunction of synaptic or ventral horn cells
  • Abnormal myelinization 

Certain breeds also seem to be predisposed to swimmer syndrome. These include small breeds such as the Yorkshire Terrier and Dachshund, and breeds with large chests and short limbs like the French BulldogEnglish BulldogPekingese, and Basset Hound.

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Diagnosis of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Many pet parents do not recognize the paddling motion in swimmer puppies as an abnormality and thus only bring them to the vet weeks after symptoms first appear. Unfortunately, a delay in treatment can lead to a lower success rate of treatment. Puppies with swimmer syndrome typically make a better recovery with early diagnosis and treatment, therefore it is important to bring them in as soon as you notice any symptoms.  

To diagnose swimmer syndrome, your vet will likely perform a physical examination and ask you questions about your puppy’s symptoms. They may also consider others diagnoses before arriving at the correct diagnosis, as some of the symptoms of swimmer syndrome are similar to those of other conditions such as canine distemper, encephalomeningitis, spina bifida, toxoplasmosis, neosporosis, and myopathies.
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Treatment of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Swimmer syndrome was once considered untreatable, with euthanasia being the only “remedy.” Fortunately, we now know that there are treatment options available to help swimmer puppies recover and ultimately live normal, healthy lives. 

Hobbles

Hobbling or taping the legs in the correct position will realign the limbs and encourage proper growth. If the puppy tries to chew at the hobbles, they may need to wear a cone while their legs are taped. Your vet can show you how to properly tape your puppy’s legs into the correct position. 

Sling or harness therapy

Using a sling or harness to keep a swimmer puppy in a standing position will help build muscle, as well as take pressure off the chest and stomach. When in a sling or harness, the puppy’s paws are lightly touching the floor but not supporting their weight at all. 

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy will help strengthen the leg muscles as well as encourage the puppy to use their legs properly. Your vet may refer you to an animal rehabilitation center for swim sessions. 

Physiotherapy 

A physiotherapy routine consisting of gentle massages and physical therapy exercises increases muscle tone and strength, stimulates circulation, and activates limb coordination. It also reduces tension and anxiety, stretches the muscles, increases flexibility, maintains joint range and mobility, and improves proprioceptive awareness. As the leg muscles get stronger, the puppy will begin to self-correct their own walking.
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Worried about the cost of Swimmer Syndrome In Dogs treatment?

Pet Insurance covers the cost of many common pet health conditions. Prepare for the unexpected by getting a quote from top pet insurance providers.

Recovery of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

In addition to beginning treatment as early as possible, successful recovery and management of swimmer syndrome will require time, patience, and consistency from the pet parents. Regular therapy must be complemented with environmental modification and nutritional support.

Hard or slippery floors can aggravate swimmer syndrome, so it is important to provide the puppy with a soft and non-slippery surface such as a cotton carpet, egg crate foam, or bunched up towels or blankets. Since swimmer puppies tend to relieve themselves where they lie, it is also recommended to place a potty pad on or near their bed. The pad will need to be changed and the puppy cleaned and dried regularly to prevent urine and fecal scalding.

Some swimmer puppies may regurgitate their food after feeding, causing them to be underweight, while others may be overweight, which can put more strain on the limbs. In either case, your vet may prescribe a special diet to help bring your puppy to a healthy weight. Puppies who regurgitate their food must also be massaged after each feeding to aid with digestion.

Swimmer syndrome can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog is at risk of developing swimmer syndrome, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!
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Cost of Swimmer Syndrome in Dogs

Average cost of treating swimmer syndrome in dogs: $60 to $120 per session.  

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Swimmer Syndrome Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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