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Swimmers may occur in litters of Corgis or of Newfoundlands. Any breed can be affected. It is not the length of leg that predisposes a puppy or a litter to this problem. The condition is not necessarily hereditary, even though it may occur repeatedly in the litters of one bitch.

All puppy bones are little more than rubber bands in their first weeks of life. If you notice the shape of the chest of your puppies as they are born, you will see a normal oval shape, with the long axis vertical. As puppies crawl around the whelping box and nurse, often they begin to acquire a more flattened shape, with the long axis of the chest becoming more and more horizontal.

Factors which contribute to this are
  • 1. Excessive milk consumption - due to a mother with great deal of milk willing to stay in the whelping box for long stretches. This is what accounts for repeated litters of swimmers from one bitch.
  • 2. Flat whelping box - no way for a puppy to alter pressure on the rib cage by crawling up onto a toy or something similar.
  • 3. Temperature in room too warm - puppies are content to lie in one position and not move around looking for a warm spot.

Delayed walking and aspiration pneumonia are possible consequences of this flattened shape.

Treatment and prevention are pretty much the same thing. Do not allow a bitch with too much milk to spend an unlimited amount of time in the box nursing her puppies. Watch for the first evidence of this problem and take steps to get mother away from the puppies for a couple of hours at a time if you see it starting. Even if this makes more cleanup for you, it will help the puppies. Place sections of orthopedic "egg carton" foam under the blanket in the box, raise one end of the box 2 to 3 inches, or put lots of small soft toys in it so that the puppies can find a place were they can get the weight of the stomach off their lungs, and can orient with their head and chest higher than their abdomen.

Do not have the room too warm. A heating pad under the blanket in the center of the box will give the puppies a reason to move around when the bitch leaves the box, going to the warm spot where they can use each other as ramps to get their head and chest going uphill. If your puppies are spread out all over the box when not nursing, your room and box are too warm. They should want to congregate in one area, and touch one another. If they pile up (literally) and whimper, they are too cool. Keep the room at a comfortable temperature of 68 to 72, so the bitch can be comfortable and not stressed by heat, and so that the puppies will gather in one area of the box. This has the additional benefit of keeping them from being squashed by the bitch or against the sides of the box when she enters the box and lies down.

Traditionally 'hobbling' the puppies legs has been used to help get these puppies up on their feet. In some short legged breeds this may indeed help, but generally speaking, the prevention and treatment guidelines above will be all that are necessary. If puppies have aspiration pneumonia from pressure on their stomach and lungs, cold nebulization and antibiotic treatment may be needed.

Mary C. Wakeman, D.V.M.
©8/2000 for BREEDERVET

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