Swimmer puppies are easy to spot. They crawl around like seals, legs out to their sides, making clumsy, futile attempts to get up. Though the disorder normally self-corrects, another more serious condition can accompany it and lead to complications.
What it is
Swimmer puppy syndrome (SPS) has been described in small breeds like the Dachshund, Yorkshire Terrier, West Highland White Terrier and English Cocker Spaniel. It’s also seen in breeds with large chests and short legs – the Pekingese, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Basset Hound, and French and English Bulldogs. It seems that no breed is immune to the condition.
SPS isn’t detectable until a litter is two to three weeks old – when puppies start to walk. It can afflict just the forelegs, just the hind legs, or all four legs. At one time, slippery floors were thought to be a cause for SPS. We now know that shiny floors aggravate the problem and prevent weak, unsteady pups from getting up, but it is not a trigger for the condition.
There is no specific test for SPS. Bones and joints are formed correctly. The neurological examination is also normal – the pup has proper reflexes and he feels pain as he should. The pup simply has an inability to get his legs underneath and stand up. It looks like lack of coordination.
A complication common to swimmer puppies is dorsoventral (top to bottom) flattening of the chest. This pectus excavatum (PE) narrows the chest cavity, so much so that these puppies may have trouble filling their lungs. The consequence is that they breathe with their mouths open, and if breathing difficulty is severe, have bluish mucous membranes.
PE is detected by feeling the sternum between the forelegs. The bones ‘cave in’ rather than forming a smooth line. To understand this condition, imagine your breastbone being pushed inward toward your spine (through your chest). PE is confirmed by taking a chest radiograph.
The link between SPS and PE is heavily debated. Some veterinarians and breeders believe that having PE makes the pup prone to SPS because the legs don’t have the leverage to get the pup up. On the other hand, some believe that a pup with SPS, having constant pressure on its chest, falls victim to PE.
If a pup has PE and is asymptomatic (shows no signs), no treatment is required. In this case, the defect is cosmetic only. If breathing is compromised, the condition needs attention. Regular compression of the chest from side to side, and encouraging the puppy to lie on its side, can induce the chest to deepen, correcting the abnormal shape.
If the PE is severe, surgery is needed. The veterinarian applies an external splint that is used to anchor sutures passed around the ribs. These sutures pull the chest out to a normal position. This works because the bottom of each rib is made of cartilage and very pliable at this age.
What you can do
Swimmer puppies that don’t have PE usually self-correct. Some veterinarians suggest hobbling the legs together to prevent a splay-leg stance. Rubbing the paw pads with a toothbrush can increase tactile sensation, supposedly stimulating the nerves and getting the pup to use its legs more forcibly.
Food should be restricted in SPS puppies to prevent excessive weight gain (if the pups are on solid food). Fat puppies always have a harder time getting up. Physiotherapy can also be attempted to boost muscle strength. Move the limbs for 10 minutes four to five times a day.