Swimmer Syndrome and how to fix it

Swimmer Syndrome can be very serious, but it can also be completely corrected if treated early. Find out how to fix it.

Swimmer syndrome, or splayed leg syndrome is an issue that is not entirely understood in cats yet. It is much more common in puppies. There are different degrees of swimmer syndrome: 

  1. Swimmer syndrome in all four legs, usually associated with Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome (FCKS)

  2. Swimmer syndrome in just the front legs, often associated with Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome

  3. Swimmer syndrome in just the back legs, usually not associated with Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome, particularly if treated early.

If you have a kitten with Swimmer Legs, or Swimmer Syndrome, please do not despair....it is very distressing to see a beautiful little kitten with Swimmer Syndrome, but there is a very good chance that you will be able to fix it.  For more info on FCKS, please see the very last paragraph of this article.

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What is Swimmer Syndrome?

Splayed leg syndrome is also referred to as Swimmer Syndrome or ‘frog legged kitten’! Its causes are not fully understood but it is thought to be a mechanical issue. The ligaments in the joints of the legs do not tighten up properly and the result is that the kitten is left with floppy leg joints. All kittens, and human babies, are born with loose ligaments, and these ligaments tighten up in the days and weeks after birth. In a very small minority of kittens, the ligaments appear not to tighten up. The result is that the legs hang limp behind or to the side of the kitten. The legs have the appearance of a frog, or breast stroke swimmer, which is where the other names have come from.

This condition is often seen with Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome, or FCKS. FCKS is usually, but not always, fatal. In FCKS the lungs deflate and the breast bones around the lungs and heart of the kitten start to flatten and compress. It is thought that Swimmer Syndrome is often seen with FCKS because, if the kitten is unable to support the weight of its body with its legs, the weight then rests on the breast bone, putting more pressure on the breast, diaphragm and lung structures. This is not fully understood yet, and FCKS can occur on its own, in the absence of Swimmer Syndrome. Swimmer Syndrome can also often occur in the absence of FCKS.

How to diagnose Swimmer Syndrome

Swimmer Syndrome becomes obvious fairly early on. If you are very attentive to your kitten it can be seen as early as 7 days old. With every litter of kittens, check that the kittens’ legs are in the normal position - if they are often jotted out to the side, or behind them, then keep a close eye on them. Swimmer Syndrome can be corrected, but the earlier you start the correction the more successful you will be.

Swimmer Syndrome treatment

Veterinary surgeons have been known to suggest that kittens with Swimmer Syndrome be Put to Sleep. Please do not do this before you have tried to correct the condition. If you have access to a good veterinarian who you trust then a trip to the vet is always useful, particularly so the vet can check for Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome as well. In some cases, kittens with Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome will have a poor chance of recovery, but in less severe cases it appears that even FCKS can be helped. Fixing the kitten's leg position is vital to helping FCKS. 

Kittens grow fast. Very fast. The key to fixing Swimmer Syndrome is to make sure that the joints and ligaments of the affected legs are held in the correct position as the kitten grows. The joints and ligaments will then grow in the correct position and this should correct the Splayed Leg Syndrome. As pressure is applied to the kitten's joints, which will happen naturally as the kitten moves around, the pressure will help to strengthen and fuse the bones in the correct position. If you start the treatment early, at around 2-4 weeks of age, it should take around 2-4 weeks to correct. Treatment consists of bandaging the kitten’s legs, and using physiotherapy exercises. 

Leg Bandaging

The key is to essentially bandage up the affected limbs so that they are in the correct position. It is vital to get them in the correct position so that they grow properly and you do not cause secondary issues for the kitten. If you bandage the legs in the wrong position you will make it worse. Swimmer syndrome is quite rare in kittens but if you have access to an experienced vet they can show you how to correctly position the limbs. A specialist physiotherapist would be even better. If you do not have access to either of those:

  • Google some diagrams of a cat’s anatomy, and compare them to the hip joints of a human so that you can begin to understand how the feline anatomy works

  • If you have other kittens in the litter who are not affected by Swimmer Syndrome, look at their leg joints and gently feel the position they are in. Hold them gently and move them gently and carefully so you can feel the mechanics of the movement when it is working correctly

  • Compare this to your affected kitten. The difference will be clear.

  • Make sure the kitten is always on a surface with good traction. Carpet is good. Wood floors, lino, vinyl or tiles are not at all suitable - you must make sure the floor has traction, or the kitten will never recover. Buy a carpet off-cut for the room, or for a pen if necessary.

Binding the Legs

  • Be patient. It will take you multiple attempts to get this right, trust me! But it will be worth it in the end. Don't get flustered, you will get there eventually - practice makes perfect.

  • Take some stretch fabric strapping/plaster tape (it is essentially a roll of sticky plaster that looks like a roll of sellotape - the sort of thing you use to hold a bandage on, you can get it in Boots or any chemist)

Stretch fabric strapping to correct Swimmer Syndrome

  • When the kitten is around 2-4 weeks of age, you can begin to correct the position. Do it as early as you can, but be aware that the smaller the kitten the more fiddly it is to bandage their legs, and the more distressed mum may become. Also remember not to get distracted and keep the kitten away from mum for very long if the kitten is very young.

  • Cut a length of plaster tape about 10cm long, depending on the size of the kitten. It must be long enough to wrap around one leg, then across and around the other leg and back to the middle. So roughly 3 times the length of the distance between the kitten's legs. Experiment until you get the right length.

  • Have the kitten on a flat surface in front of you, with the kitten facing away from you and perfectly straight. Position the kitten into the correct position.

    • A simple way to do this is to take both of your hands, completely flat, and put one of either side of the kitten.

    • Use you palms to gently place the kitten's hip and knee joints in the correct position by moving your hands very gently inwards towards the kitten.

    • Make sure you correct it from the hip joint not just by pulling the feet together (if you just pull the feet together this actually pushes the hip joints outwards, in the wrong direction! Some online tutorials just tie the feet together, but this is not the best way of doing it)

  • Take your piece of tape and wrap it immediately onto the kitten’s fur around the kitten’s thigh bone, also called the femur, or hock. Wrap the tape around it twice to get a firm grip, ensuring it is not so tight as to cut off the blood supply. The fabric tape is stretchy, which helps with this.

  • The image below uses plasters because we didn't have any tape to hand, and is demonstrated on a biro. With a kitten, you would wrap it round the leg a couple of times instead of the small overlap we used here, or use a greater overlap back onto the plaster to make sure it is strong enough to hold: plaster tapes doesn't stick as easily to furry kitten legs as it does to a biro! If you are struggling, you could try using two pieces of tape: wrap the first around the kitten's leg, then use the second to join the legs together. That way you get a piece of tape firmly attached to the leg, and you can then use this as a base to wrap the joining tape around. 

Swimmer syndrome in kittens and how to fix it

  • Then, making sure the kitten’s legs are still in the correct position, with the natural distance between the two thighs, take the tape to the other leg, leaving exactly the right amount of tape inbetween the two thigh bones for the natural gap. Wrap the tape around the outside of that leg and back to the inside and straight across to the leg you started on. Then push together the two bits of tape inbetween the kitten’s legs - so you push the front piece and back piece together - the sticky sides will then be taped together. The two images below shows how to wrap the tape around the second leg, and then stick it back to itself in the middle:

Swimmer syndrome in kittens and how to fix it

Swimmer syndrome in kittens and how to fix it

  • Make sure that it is not too tight and you are not cutting off the blood circulation.

  • Then take another piece of tape and do the same thing around the kitten’s two feet, making sure the feet are in the correct position, which is facing forwards and not sticking out to the sides, or in to the centre.

  • Remember you are trying to put the kitten’s legs into their naturally correct position. Keep comparing it to a littermate to make sure you are doing it correctly. It will take a few attempts, but with a trial and error approach you will figure it out!

  • Now you should have a kitten whose legs and feet are in the position they should naturally be in. The kitten will still be able to move around, although both of his feet will be taped together so his movement will be more limited, but the important thing is that his leg joints are now being held in the correct place.  

Physiotherapy for kitten Swimmer Syndrome

  • Physio exercises: every hour, make sure that you stretch the kitten’s legs gently forwards and backwards, but only in the correct position. It is particularly important to stretch the legs backwards to make sure the muscles do not tighten up from being strapped up. But you MUST make sure that the hip joints are in the correct position when you do this, and not flopping out to the sides which is what they will want to do because of the loose ligaments. You can also very gently rotate the leg/hip joint so that the hip rotates ever so slightly inwards a few times - this is a very tiny movement. 

  • Replace the tapes daily, or more often if necessary. Your kitten may wriggle out of them now and again, but that is ok - just re-apply them, 

  • Make sure that the kitten is still getting enough milk from his mum - his taped legs will put him at a disadvantage. If he is struggling to get milk, either supplement his milk yourself, remove some of the other kittens for a while, or discontinue and then start again when he is a bit older.

  • If you are struggling to tape the legs up, wait a week or two until he is bigger and try again - it will be easier.

What is Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome? 

For more information on Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome, please see this very useful article on Pawpeds. This is a veterinary level article and it can be very useful to print this out and take it to your vet if you suspect FCKS. There is also a very recent theory evolving that FCKS may be able to be helped, or even fixed, by supplementing the mother with high levels of taurine...we may write more on this in a later article.

Swimmer Syndrome and Taurine 

If taurine supplementation might help FCKS, could it also help Swimmer Syndrome? Read more about taurine supplementation to see if you think it might be worth trying. If you do use taurine supplementation for Swimmer Syndrome, please do contact us to let us know how you get on with it all. 

This article is not a substitute for medical advice.

If you have any questions about this article, or you suspect you have a kitten with Swimmer Syndrome, please feel free to contact us. We cannot give medical advice in place of your vet, but can help guide you from our own experience alongside your vet. It is important that your kitten is seen by a medical professional to confirm the diahnosis of Swimmer Syndrome, and also to check that you are positioning the legs correctly. 


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