HOW TO Treat Swimmer Puppy Syndrome

Last week: HOW TO Treat Your Dog for Chocolate Toxicity
dog swimming

Last month, the story of Harper, a Pit Bull puppy found in a trash bag, captured the hearts of millions. Harper suffered from a little-known condition called swimmer syndrome, which causes a puppy to lie on his belly with his legs spread out, resembling a swimmer.

If a puppy with this motor-development anomaly is treated while he’s still young, as Harper was, the prognosis is excellent – in fact, 90 percent of puppies fully recover.

However, puppies that are not treated have less than a 50-percent chance of survival.

Swimmer puppy syndrome is also referred to as flat-pup syndrome, splay leg and myofibrillar hypoplasia. On, Jack Vanderwyk notes that it’s important to differentiate this syndrome from pectus excavatum, a severe deformity causing a funnel chest.

What are the Symptoms of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome?

Swimmer puppy syndrome may be difficult to detect until the puppy is a week or two old and begins to walk.

“A swimmer puppy moves about with both front legs out to the side of the chest, in a paddling motion,” according to, a website created by Coreen, a Cocker Spaniel breeder who has experience saving puppies with this condition. “The hind legs trail out behind with little or no movement.”

On the Lab Blog, “Lab Mama” wrote of Fudge, her chocolate Lab born with the condition, “When he moved to his mother to nurse, he looked like a soldier crawling under concertina wire, scooting along on his tummy.”

These are the symptoms to look for, according to Vanderwyk and

i Love Dogs The puppy’s chest is flat instead of curved.

i Love Dogs The puppy constantly lies on his belly.

i Love Dogs If you place the puppy on his side, he immediately rolls back onto his belly (this is called the “righting reflex” – young puppies have a natural instinct to roll onto their bellies and crawl to their mother, but once they’re done feeding, they’ll lie on their sides and sleep).

i Love Dogs The puppy’s limbs extend to the side (especially his front legs), and if they move at all, it’s with a paddling motion.

i Love Dogs His hind legs may either be tucked under his torso or splayed out behind him.

i Love Dogs While nursing, the puppy doesn’t flex at the neck, and his back arches in an extreme backward movement.

i Love Dogs The puppy has difficulty keeping food down (many puppies with swimmer syndrome die from pneumonia caused by inhaling regurgitated milk).

i Love Dogs He has difficulty breathing; his mouth may always be open.

What Causes Swimmer Puppy Syndrome?

According to, some former theories on causes that have since proved to be false were poor nutrition (the mother’s diet lacked the nutrients to enable the puppy’s bones to grow normally) or environment (either the puppy was placed on too hard or slick a surface, or bacteria was to blame for the syndrome).

As for dietary causes, Vanderwyk notes that recent studies have looked into vitamin deficiencies and other nutrition issues affecting mothers of swimmer syndrome puppies, but have not found any correlation between the deficiencies and the disease.

In “Swimmer Pup Syndrome,” Fred Lanting, a show judge and author of “The Total German Shepherd Dog,” writes that the condition occurs most often in dwarf breeds, but can be found in larger breeds like German Shepherds.

Vanderwyk notes that small breeds like Dachshunds, Yorkshire Terriers, West Highland White Terriers and English Cocker Spaniels may be more predisposed to the syndrome. He also writes that breeds with a large thorax and short legs, including Pekingeses, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Basset Hounds, French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs, may experience more occurrences of swimmer syndrome.

There is no gender predisposition to swimmer puppy syndrome. Vanderwyk notes that puppies that grow more quickly than their littermates as well as runts of the litter may occasionally be more likely to have the condition.

How is Swimmer Puppy Syndrome Treated for Newborn Puppies?

“The cure for this must be taken as soon as possible and is really quite simple,” reports

For newborns, regularly check the litter to see if any of the puppies tends to stay on his belly or has a flat chest.

If one of the puppies shows signs of the condition, suggests you put him on one of his mother’s nipples that is next to the floor. As he nurses, gently turn him on his side and hold down his head and body. Even if he resists, keep him in this position until he is done feeding.

“Do this several times a day until the pup returns to normal and lays on its side,” writes “When that happens you have just cured swimmer puppy syndrome. Sometimes this only needs to be done once or twice. But be vigilant until you are sure.”

How is Swimmer Puppy Syndrome Treated for Older Puppies?

For older puppies, two methods have been found to successfully build their coordination, muscle development and circulation: letting the puppy swim and having him wear a harness.

i Love Dogs Swimming: “Hold the puppy in your hand or a sling, with support to keep his head up out of the water, and let him paddle for a while in warm water (probably around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent chilling), but take him out and dry him thoroughly if he tires,” Vanderwyk writes. He recommends as many sessions as you can manage, and suggests you massage his limbs both in and out of the water.

i Love Dogs Harness: You can create a harness or restraining device from an old T-shirt, socks or elastics and Velcro. Its purpose is to take pressure off of the puppy’s chest by preventing him from rolling onto his belly.

How is Swimmer Puppy Syndrome Prevented?

Langley writes that the only sure-fire way to prevent swimmer puppy syndrome is to prevent the parent of a puppy with this condition from breeding again.

“Play the odds: Assume genetics unless you are absolutely convinced a problem is purely environmental,” he writes. “The longer I live, the more evidence I see that nearly everything has a bigger genetic component than you would initially think.”

PHOTO: Brendan Atkins

Find A Vet HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.

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Laura Goldman

Laura Goldman is senior social media writer for i Love Dogs, Inc. She does love dogs. And elephants and turtles. Along with writing about the loves of her life, Laura likes to play with her two pound pups and tell anyone who'll listen just how awesome Pit Bulls are.

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