On July 7, 2005, we had a litter of nine Chocolate Lab pups. One female pup was born very small, sick and weak; she only lived about half an hour. Other than that, there was nothing remarkable about any of the pups at birth. Everything seemed normal.
The puppies grew and developed in ordinary fashion for the first few weeks; I saw nothing to cause any particular concern. It wasn't until they began to sit up, stand, and then walk, that I realized I had a pup with a problem.
At nearly four weeks old, Fudge was unable to stand, let alone walk. All the other puppies were walking, playing, fighting and generally behaving like puppies always do. Fudge, on the other hand, was not doing any of these things. He laid flat on his belly at all times, with all four legs splayed out to the sides. When he moved to his mother to nurse, he looked like a soldier crawling under concertina wire, scooting along on his tummy.
When I held him, I could feel how flat his rib cage was; he had trouble breathing. I made an appointment with our vet to confirm my ‘diagnosis’ of Swimmer Puppy Syndrome. At the time, I had never seen a case in person.
The vet seemed to think I was overreacting; he assured me Fudge would outgrow it. I refused to accept that, since the poor baby was already four weeks old and having respiratory problems. A spin around the Internet wasn’t very encouraging, either. Most sites I found recommended euthanizing afflicted pups to prevent them from dying a slow and painful death. I looked this sweet little pup in the eyes and knew that was not a viable option, so I kept searching.
Thank God for Coreen at Oak Ridge Cockers, a Cocker Spaniel breeder with experience saving Swimmer puppies. Her site was full of information and positive encouragement, and gave me the basis for Fudge’s treatment that ultimately saved his life. If you visit her site, you will see a synopsis of Fudge’s story.
I didn't think to take photos of "Fudge" before beginning to work with him, but there are several taken early on in his therapy. The first priority is to get the pup off it’s chest so it can breathe more normally. I adapted the information from Coreen to make it applicable to a much larger pup. Using an old, ribbed-knit t-shirt, I cut a large piece and made holes for Fudge’s legs. I used a thick make-up sponge under his belly, and smaller, wedge-shaped ones on the sides of his front legs. Then I tied the ends of the shirt up and over his back to hold the whole rig in place. This relieved some of the pressure on his rib cage and he was able to breathe easier immediately.
The second concern is positioning the front legs properly; the wedge-shaped sponges helped accomplish this. The elbows must be propped in tight to the body so they can bear some of the pup’s weight and get it accustomed to being in a more upright posture. This also permits you to lay the pup on it’s side...Swimmer puppies do not ever lay on their sides like normal pups do. It took three days in the ‘rig’ for Fudge to lay over on his side by himself—a major milestone.
To transport him to a follow-up appointment with the vet, I laid him in a basket. I noticed that the size and shape of the basket forced him to lay on his side and use his front legs when turning over, so I used the basket every day - a sort of 'hobble by basket' technique that seemed to help strengthen his little legs. He had not tried to push himself up and back onto his butt before the basket therapy.
Fudge’s front legs were completely rigid; the muscles were constantly tensed. I held him on my lap every night and massaged each side until he relaxed. He would sleep so soundly during this procedure that I could flip him over and rub the second side without waking him. We’re talking one blissed-out pup!
On Wednesday, August 3, 2005 I put Fudge in his 'rig' for the first time. On Sunday, August 7, 2005 he took his first steps. By August 12, 2005, I tried to photograph him walking, but it wasn't easy! All he really wanted to do was RUN! The photo in the home page header is of Fudge's little butt as he ran through my yard on August 12th.
It took another two weeks for Fudge to fully catch up with his litter mates. At eight weeks, when he went to live with his new family, no one would ever have known he started off with problems. He's a happy, healthy adult dog with a full life expectancy. I sold him with the caveat that he not be bred, because some 'experts' believe there 'may' be a genetic component to the syndrome.
If you think you may have a Swimmer puppy, do not wait to intervene! The sooner you act, the easier it will be for the pup to catch up with normal development. I encourage you to read the information on Coreen's web site. Jack Vanderwyk has a scholarly article on the syndrome at labradornet.com. Please don't hesitate to post a comment here asking for help if you need it.