The "Swimming" Puppy Syndrome

During the years I have been breeding English bulldogs together with being the breed instructor in the club, I have seen a great number of litters and puppies. From this indeed great number of puppies, that is, 1365, 36 puppies had quite an unusual abnormality of the development, the so-called ‘swimming puppy syndrome’. Till recently I thought that this syndrome is much likely to be found in our breed, but if one comes across it in other breeds, those will be the breeds with a massive body, gaining weight quickly, with a broad chest and short legs. However, the syndrome has been more and more often observed recently, but in breeds different from the above, in dogs of lighter breeds, with a more ‘classical’ outline, and even in cats. At the same time, there have been no swimmers in 48 litters of English bulldogs in a row. That is why the story about personal experience may help beginners in breeding get an idea about the problem that is new for them and give hints what to do not to put the puppy down, but to help it live and develop normally. This is not a scientific article; there are people more competent in this question than me. However, our practical experience may help some of you solve the problem quite easily.

For those who have never seen ‘swimmers’ – in the beginning, the newborn puppies look normal, maybe they have less muscle tone; they gain weight quite fast, they suck well and they look more than healthy. They are quite strong and full of life. The first signs of the syndrome can be noticed while watching the sleeping puppies – some of them lie on their backs, some – on the side, some – curled up. One or several puppies lie on their bellies only, with spread out legs. When one tries to turn them, they try to return to the previous position. Then the events may develop in two directions: in the first case, when all the puppies in the litter stand, even not very firmly, on four legs and try to walk, the swimmers, or ‘turtles’, as they are sometimes called, raise themselves a little on their front legs, their hind legs performing typical ‘swimming’ movements, like little frogs. Half-lying, they move forward in irregular pushes. This is not the most complicated case. Things may be much worse when the puppy cannot raise even the front part of the body, but only waves its front legs alongside its body, raising the hind legs up, like a seal raising its flippers, bending its back at the same time. This is a more complicated case, because such puppies lie on their bellies most of the time and they are most likely to have different problems. Firstly, skin on their belles perspires and becomes irritated; there can even be scabs or ulcers. Secondly, the centre of gravity is shifted to the chest, the soft ribs cannot keep the correct form and the chest, under the pressure of body weight, splays in both sides, becomes flat, flattens below and becomes transversely oval, as if bending in the direction of the spinal cord (funnel chest).

The compressed chest flattens the lungs, where the congestion and adhesion of pleural petals take place. Thus, the chest loses its function of a protective framework, but becomes a press made of a hard tissue. As a result, there is no more normal circulation which leads to the risk of development of congestion pneumonia. Even in the mildest cases of chest deformation, there are often functional disorders in the respiratory apparatus and in the cardiovascular system. Because of the altered angulation of limbs, there are joint deformities. Muscular hypotonia weakens the ligamentous apparatus, which leads to the abnormal joint mobility. As the puppy grows and gains weight, the pressure on the inner part of limbs becomes stronger and the limbs twist more and more and they are out to the sides of the chest. It is obvious that a puppy like this cannot stand or move normally. In a situation like this, every breeder must remember that there is extremely little time to help the puppy; in the second case, there can be only some hours left.
So, what is a swimming puppy syndrome? What causes it, how to fight it, how to protect the future puppies from it? If there are any abnormalities in a puppy’s behaviour, what should be paid attention to first? I will try to explain everything in a simple way. The causes for this condition are still unknown; still, there exist several unofficial theories. The most popular theory is the one of genetic predisposition. In my turn, I doubt that this theory is the answer, because, having analyzed all the 36 (out of the total number of puppies, that is 1365) cases of the syndrome in our puppies thoroughly, having watched the children and the grandchildren of the affected dogs, no regularities have been found. According to the next theory, this condition is connected with the congenital dysplasia of the hip joint. To tell the truth, having come across the problem for the first time and having cured several ‘swimmers’, with a sinking heart we were waiting for the age of the obligatory for English bulldogs then X-ray and dysplasia check. However, the results of the former ‘swimmers’ and ‘turtles’ were better than the results of their litter mates that were not affected .
There is an opinion that the syndrome may arise as a consequence of some virus diseases or fungus infections in a pregnant bitch, the diseases and infections being the reason for muscular dystrophy in puppies. Again, no link has been found in practice; all the bitches that have given swimming puppies in litters were absolutely healthy, and it was confirmed by their owners and by the appropriate health checks and tests. The following theory considers the condition as a prenatal pathology, connected with the disturbance of mineral metabolism, or, more precisely, with phosphoric-calcium metabolism. It seems to be highly probable, as calcium and phosphorus balance, appropriate amount of D vitamin and essential fatty acids are necessary for the synthesis of bone tissue. Lack of these elements results in the failure of the fetus to develop good muscles during the appropriate stage of development. Weak skeleton, unable to perform the supporting function later is formed, that is why big massive puppies usually have problems. If the bitch receives full value balanced food according to a definite scheme at least one month before delivery, the puppies are born strong, but not heavy, with well-developed muscle for the age and with strong ligaments. I think that this theory needs more thorough investigation, because we have been using a special feeding scheme for pregnant bitches for two years, and we have not had any swimmers in 48 litters for these two years. Moreover, sucking piglets may have this problem, too, and cattle-breeders give them injections of E vitamin and selenium. The scheme has not been tested on puppies, so I have nothing to say in this connection. One more possible cause of the syndrome, having something in common with the previous one, is the distortion of conduction of a neural impulse towards muscles due to partial underdevelopment of the myelin sheath of nerve tube. If the massage and exercises are started in time, (the earlier the better) they help the myelin sheath develop, contributing to full recovery of the necessary function.
The fact that puppies lie for too long cannot be ignored. Bulldog puppies are rarely left with their mother for 24 hours, because of her weight and clumsiness – she can easily crush the puppies. As a result, the mother has the puppies by her side only when she feeds them. The puppies spend the rest of the time lying calmly in the box, which satisfies the owner. At the same time, the nature’s idea is different – mother disturbs the puppies all the time, licks them, pushes them with her nose, rolls them from one place to another. They crawl to their mother, push each other, bustle around the nipples. These are the best, the natural massage and exercises. One should remember this dealing with orphaned puppies and during artificial feeding, because normal movements and optimal weight for the age provide them with the development that is correct in all aspects.
So, we as if know what we should blame. Now we are passing over to a more practical and necessary part – what should be done.
1. The bitch must receive balanced quality food before mating, during pregnancy and lactation. She must also receive appropriate dietary supplements. It must be said that quality dietary supplements are necessary to build full value biological material, to supply nutritional and elementary composition, to correct immunity, to normalize the metabolism of amino acids and fat, etc.
2. From the very birth of puppies, a thick straw bed must be used for them. It will support the body well and diminish the load on the chest. The bed can be filled with rolled pieces of newspaper or cellular polystyrene. Egg cardboard boxes, covered with thick cloth, can be used as a massage bed. As the puppies grow, rolled towels or rugs are placed in their playpen, to make puppies tense their muscles to the maximum while surmounting such obstacles. In any case, the surface must not be too soft, smooth or slippery.
3. Disturb and turn the puppies as often as possible, do not let them lie in one and the same pose, especially on their bellies. Do not overfeed the puppies.
4. If there is even the slightest suspicion that a puppy is a swimmer, it is necessary to start massaging the body and especially the limbs of the puppy without hesitation, to strengthen muscle tone. The massage and the specially selected exercises will reinforce the weakened ligaments and muscles (the stability and normal functioning of limbs also depend on the condition of the surrounding muscles), they will relax those too tense. The massage must be gradually more and more intensive, abrupt and painful movements must be avoided. The exercises should be done 3 – 4 times a day, each course lasting for 10 – 15 minutes.
5. If some time has been lost and the chest starts to flatten, the massage of chest must be done together with the massage of limbs. For this, the puppy is laid on its belly on your palm. The body is enfolded like a hand expander and you start massaging movements along the ribs from the spinal cord to the front of the belly. Try not to let the puppy fall asleep while it is lying on its belly; turn it on a side and support in this position with the help of a rolled towel.
6. If the age of the puppy presupposes that it must already be able to stand on its limbs, but it is not going to do so, then, together with everything mentioned above, you should hobble it. To do this, put a broad figure-of-eight elastic band on the hind legs, above the hocks. The space between the loops must be small, corresponding to the natural space between the puppy’s legs when it is standing. This kind of hobbling hinders angulation and does not let the corresponding joint capsules stretch too much.

7. However, the fastest and the easiest way to cure a swimming puppy is to start using the so-called ‘corridor’ in the right time. This construction is very simple: a corridor is made along the perimeter of the puppies’ playpen. The width of the corridor is equal to the width of the puppy’s body +1, 5 cm, not a centimeter more.

Being placed into such a corridor, the puppy is unable to spread its limbs apart and it is forced to place them in the right position. It helps the puppy stand up and take the first steps. It is desirable to motivate the puppy to move independently with the help of a piece of something tasty.

The puppy must spend most of its time in such a corridor, because even when it is tired and falls asleep on its belly, it will not be able to spread its limbs – the puppy will be forced to stretch them forward or place them under the body, which is good.

If there is no possibility to make such a corridor along the perimeter of the playpen, a simple long corridor will do, the longer the better, but you will have to work with the puppy in such a corridor, because every time the puppy reaches the end of the corridor, you will have to take it out and turn it round.

This simple construction helps a swimmer start to walk normally within about a week; the most important thing is not to start too late.

This is indeed the quickest and the most reliable way, giving maximum guarantee. Whatever the reasons of the syndrome are, structural disorders in movements are first of all obvious in puppies. Knowing all this, we must consciously provide the swimmer puppy with the correct functional load. It is also necessary to activate definite inhibited structures in CNS – after it, normal reflex function of movements will quickly develop. In this case, the corridor will play the role of the passive factor of releasing mechanism of inhibited functions, the normal function being artificially restored. (By analogy with the exercises for patients after stroke). Maybe the broadly advertised swimming exercises for such puppies are helpful, but only in the mildest cases, because, being in water, the puppy will consolidate the swimming function, inhibiting the function of normal movements, which is already disturbed and thus can be completely weakened while swimming. By the way, the only puppy in our practice that we could not cure and had to put down was the puppy that had been treated, following the vets’advice, by swimming and nothing else. However, I must say that was a single instance. The other ‘former swimmers’ live active lives and make their owners happy with their show results and other achievements. By the way, in the picture you can see our last ‘swimmer’ in the categories ‘before’ and ‘after’.