Neurological diseases

What to Do With a Flat Puppy - Swimmers Syndrome in Dogs

Matthew Nesbitt
By Matthew Nesbitt, Journalist specialized in animal research. Updated: March 21, 2024
What to Do With a Flat Puppy - Swimmers Syndrome in Dogs

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Do you have a puppy that can't walk normally? Do their legs bow out and they lay flat on the ground? Are they not able to stand up at all? When this occurs, it can be very shocking for dog guardians. They look like they are completely immobilized and we fear our puppy may be unable to walk or even stand for the rest of their life. Also known as flat puppy syndrome, swimmers syndrome in dogs is a condition which can mean the dog will never be able to stand properly in their life.

At AnimalWised, we look at what to do with a flat puppy. By looking at the causes, symptoms and treatment of simmers syndrome in dogs, we can do all we can to try to ensure a puppy grows up to be a fit and happy adult dog.

You may also be interested in: What Causes a Dog to Lose Balance?
  1. What is swimmer puppy syndrome?
  2. Symptoms of swimmers syndrome in dogs
  3. Causes of swimmers syndrome in puppies
  4. How to treat flat puppy syndrome

What is swimmer puppy syndrome?

The terminology for veterinary medicine can be slightly confusing, but it is helpful to learn so we can have a better idea of health complications in dogs. The term ‘syndrome’ means there is a set of clinical signs and symptoms which collectively have an effect on the organism. It can result from one or more causes, but a syndrome is not a disease in itself.

Swimmers syndrome, also known as flat puppy syndrome, swimmer puppy syndrome, flat-pup syndrome or turtle pup, results from an alteration to the nervous system. This results in problems with the development of the puppy's motor skills. This means the puppy can lose locomotion or even struggle to stand up. This syndrome acquires its name due to the fact the puppy looks like they are swimming when they try to walk.

The condition usually manifests itself during the first month of life, the reason why it is most closely related to puppies. This is because puppies are usually born with their legs splayed and laying flat on the ground. It is only when they attempt to walk for the first time, we can see their is something wrong with their ability to stand.

Swimmers syndrome in dogs can affect any gender or breed of dog. However, there are certain breeds which are more prone to developing flat puppy syndrome:

It has been seen that dogs with shorter legs seem to suffer from swimmers syndrome more than others, but larger breeds can develop it. Mixed breeds are also subject to the condition.

Symptoms of swimmers syndrome in dogs

We have already mentioned the main symptom of flat puppy syndrome in dogs, i.e. moving their legs as if they were swimming on the ground. However, there are other signs which may be able to show us this syndrome is developing:

  • Weakness
  • Wandering and ataxia (lack of coordination)
  • Inability to stand up
  • Hyperextension of the extremities
  • Sternal recumbency (flattened sternum and abdomen)
  • Wounds from dragging the legs
  • Constipation
  • Shortness of breath (trouble breathing)
  • Weight loss (cannot compete for food due to lack of mobility)

Swimming puppy syndrome can affect both the hind legs and forelimbs. However, it most commonly affects both hind legs. The prognosis for recovery tends to be more reserved when it affects all four of the puppy's limbs.

When the above clinical signs are observed, they can generate a lot of concern and doubts about the dog's future. However, this doesn't mean there is nothing we can do. In too many cases, euthanasia is recommended by veterinarians when treatment options are available. Before we look at possible treatment for swimmers syndrome in dogs, let's look at its causes.

Causes of swimmers syndrome in puppies

The causes may vary, but this condition is usually associated with a birth defect. This means it develops during pregnancy. Another term for the syndrome is ‘splayed leg’. This is something which is known to be caused by myofibrillar hypoplasia in other animals, such as pigs[1]. This means the legs form incorrectly, something which can be more difficult to correct.

However, it is also believed that environmental factors can be involved[2]. These include the dogs spending too much time walking on slippery floors. They can't get purchase and this affects their ability to develop properly. This could potentially be compounded by issues such as weight. Although there is insufficient research into the topic, it is believed swimmers syndrome is:

  • Hereditary: transmitted from parents to children.
  • Environmental: causing the legs to malform.
  • Nutritional: nutritional deficits may also lead to this syndrome.
What to Do With a Flat Puppy - Swimmers Syndrome in Dogs - Causes of swimmers syndrome in puppies

How to treat flat puppy syndrome

Swimmers syndrome in dogs does not disappear overnight. It is necessary to go to the veterinary clinic to diagnose the problem and begin possible treatment. While there is potential for the syndrome to be cured, prognosis will depend on the individual clinical picture and when the treatment is begun. We will also need to ensure we follow the guidelines set out by the veterinarian. Generally, treatment may include:


Physiotherapy is the main treatment of swimmers syndrome in dogs. Best results are achieved when the treatment is started as soon as possible. This may be as soon as the third or fourth week of life, i.e. when they start trying to walk. This is the best chance for the animal to have no sequelae and to recover completely. 15 minute sessions of physiotherapy should be carried out several times daily. This will help to increase muscle tone and strength, in addition to stimulating motor skills. Swimming is an ideal complimentary physical therapy.


In some situations bandages are used to reposition the dog's limbs. This technique shows more satisfactory results when it begins at three to four weeks of age. This is bones and joints can be molded more easily at this time, making the treatment more effective.

The bandages are made with tape in a figure 8 pattern to join the legs. They are not to be joined together, but positioned in the ‘normal’ position. As the puppy's growth is exponential, the bandages will need to be changed regularly as they develop. We also need to be careful with the mother as she will likely try to remove them.

Nutritional supplements

Vitamin E, selenium or taurine can be used as a complementary treatment. A deficit in selenium can lead to reduced growth, weakened immune systems or fertility problems. They are not the main type of treatment.

Weight control

Excess weight makes movement difficult and causes overload of the joints. This is totally counterproductive when the dog suffers from flat puppy syndrome. Thus, offering a balanced diet of quality food is also part of the treatment to cure the swimming puppy syndrome.

Environmental modification and enrichment

The use of non-slip floors can be a simple solution for puppies with flat puppy syndrome. Likewise, it is advisable to check all surfaces of the home to ensure that they promote the recovery of the dog. It is always positive to improve environmental enrichment in general to ensure that the animal is entertained and happy. This is the case whether or not it has swimmers syndrome.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to What to Do With a Flat Puppy - Swimmers Syndrome in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Neurological diseases category.


1. Ducatelle, R., et al. (1986). Spontaneous and Experimental Myofibrillar Hypoplasia and its Relation to Splayleg in Newborn Pigs. Journal of Comparative Pathology, 96(4), 433-445.

2. Kim, S. A., et al. (2013). Home-care Treatment of Swimmer Syndrome in a Miniature Schnauzer Dog, Can Vet J, 54(9), 869-872.

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  • Hoskins JD Swimmer puppies and kittens , p.419-420. In: Hoskins JD (Ed.), Veterinary Pediatrics. WB Saunders, Philadelphia, 2001.
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  • Mello FPS, Neuwald EB and Alievi MM Syndrome do cão swimmer-story of 4 cases . Mostra Cientifica, 8. Educational Ed., Feira de Extensão, 32:61, 2008. Micheletti L. Syndrome Swimming: Case report. Course completion document, University Center of United Metropolitan Faculties, 2009. 29p
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What to Do With a Flat Puppy - Swimmers Syndrome in Dogs