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What is a swimmer puppy?
A swimmer puppy is a very young puppy, normally 4 weeks of age or younger, who has legs that stick out to the side rather than underneath. Their chest is normally flat, and their back legs sometimes drag behind them. This often means that swimmer puppies struggle to walk, as their legs don’t push them off the ground, merely along it (‘swimming’ along the ground). It is important that a swimmer’s puppies legs are righted as soon as possible.
Some puppies are undeniably born as ‘swimmers’, with legs that stick out to the side. However, whether this is genetic (caused by genes) or merely congenital (caused by in-utero-carriage) is hard to say. Many people report that puppies sometimes develop symptoms after being held in particular ways, as their bones are soft and pliable. From this logic, it’s not unfathomable that difficult birthing could also result in puppies that may be ‘pressed’ into a swimmer body shape.
However, a lot of swimmers are born as normal puppies and then become swimmers through their environment. One of the most significant causes of swimming is when litters are raised on surfaces with poor traction – particularly surfaces like newspaper. These puppies can’t gain purchase on the floor, and end up ‘swimming’ instead of moving. As noted above, some claim that puppies can become swimmers through routine poor handling (e.g. applying pressure to the pup’s chest when holding) and even one-off unfortunate incidents (e.g. a bitch laying on a pup). Puppies in small litters (especially singleton puppies) are at risk of becoming swimmers from being overweight.
Make sure the bedding in your whelping box is easy for the puppy to grip on! Vet bed is great for this, but you can also use carpet, rubber matting, synthetic grass, etc.
Make the surface of the whelping box undulating. You can achieve this by putting egg carton, lumpy foam, or scrunched up newspaper underneath the bedding in the whelping box. This helps to encourage swimmer puppies to use their hind legs.
Place the puppy in sleeping positions that are helpful to recovery. Puppies that sleep on their chest will exacerbate the flatness on their chest, so place sleeping swimmer puppies onto their side at every opportunities. Also ‘tuck’ in the legs of these puppies, so they’re underneath the pup’s body and not out to the side. Obviously you can’t do this all the time, but even doing this occasionally will see improvements.
Be conscious of the way you hold the swimmer puppy. Don’t hold the puppy in a way that exacerbates the symptoms – so don’t place pressure on their chest, and don’t encourage the legs to stick out sidewards.
You can hobble the puppy. Basically, create ‘paw cuffs’ that pull the legs together using tape, a small child’s sock, or whatever may work. Obviously, make sure that the cuffs don’t cut off circulation. Even though this feels barbaric to do, the puppies I have done this to have not really objected to the process.