I knew Fruitcake was special the moment he was born.
He didn’t look anything like his siblings. He was white with marvelous black patches. My little cow puppy! His eyes were ringed in black like a teenager experimenting with liquid eyeliner. And when I discovered he had six toes on each of his back feet, it seemed to underline his uniqueness.
Even the other puppies thought he was special and he was often employed as pillow or couch.
He grew wide and then wider. Each day it became more evident that he was quite different than his siblings. I thought, “Maybe he had a different dad,” but didn’t really worry until the other puppies began pulling up on all fours and he remained flat like a pancake.
Finally, at just over two weeks it became clear that something was decidedly wrong with my favorite pup. Sugar Cookie and Toddy had been climbing the walls all week, racing around the pen, and Wassail was able to stand and stumble drunkenly across the floor before returning to her naps (she’s a serious napper). Fruitcake, though, continued to sleep well past sunrise with his legs splayed out behind him.
When he finally did try to pull up, he could only assume the position of the walrus.
The other pups had started the same way, but they quickly pulled their hips up, too. Not Fruitcake. When he attempted to pull his hips up, his legs slid out from under him. He did begin to move around, but only by pulling himself with his front legs and ‘swimming’ with his hind legs, uselessly. Sometimes he got stuck on his back and couldn’t turn over, shrieking his frustration.
I contacted Shannon, OPH’s medical director. She said she’d make an appointment for him with a vet to get checked out. Then I set to worrying and googling. It looked like Fruitcake was a ‘swimmer pup’ – a puppy with swimmer puppy syndrome. For many years (and possibly still), puppies like this were simply euthanized. It seemed the humane thing to do—their internal organs were strained and pushed sideways as they had to bear the weight of the growing puppy. They were prone to pneumonia from the pressure on their chest and cardiac issues from poor circulation. Beginning solid food could bring an entire new set of issues and most importantly, they might never really walk.
It all sounded impossibly grim, but then I read articles about therapies that have saved swimmer pups. The authors, many of them breeders, were hopeful and enthusiastic and recommended slings and water therapy and hobbles and chutes. Fruitcake would need some intensive physical therapy immediately—4-6 sessions or more every day.
The vet examined Fruitcake and frowned at his extra toes. “This deformity could mean there’s more wrong internally.” She said we’d have to wait until he grew a bit more before we could xray and be sure, as his bones are really just cartilage now (which explains why puppies are so bendy, one friend observed – they’re like sharks!).
Meanwhile, she confirmed that yes, he was acting like a swimmer pup and we should treat it as such for now. She showed me how to rig up hobbles on his hind legs using vetwrap to force the legs to stay close together which would help him build the correct muscles. She said putting him in a sling to support his weight and allow him to use his limbs would help. I told her I’d read from one article, that just repositioning his legs underneath him as often as possible, even when he was napping, would help and she agreed.
So Operation Fruitcake has begun. And I have to say there couldn’t possibly be a more adorable patient. He is snuggly and sweet and only complains minimally about my constant interruptions of his naps.
We’re still figuring out a sling. I started with a scarf, but it wasn’t too effective as Fruitcake and the other pups would all rather chew on the edges of the scarf than allow him to move about in it. Also, Fruitcake is top heavy and sometimes ends up on his nose with his hind legs in the air. A friend gave me a human arm brace and I’m working on modifying it to work.
OPH had a doggie life vest in its donations, so I zipped over to Hanover to pick that up hoping it might work as a sling and later be employed to try water therapy when Fruitcake is a little bigger and I’m certain I won’t dump him on his head. The idea of him ingesting water has me somewhat leery of that route so far. I put the tiny vest on him this afternoon and it rendered him frozen. He just crouched there stunned the entire time the vest was on him. When I picked him up by the nifty handle, he was limp as a noddle and stayed as still as possible.
We’ll try again later.
This morning I showed Nick this awesome chute therapy idea (here’s the article that Deb sent me which explains it) and when I returned from Hanover he had begun to build a chute for Fruitcake. After a few adjustments, he had one long run completed. We set Fruitcake in it and he spent a good ten minutes licking the paper on the side before deciding to simply nap in his wedged state. We’ll try this again later, too. Nick already has ideas for building him a square run like the one in the article. (Have I mentioned how amazing my husband is?)
Meanwhile, multiple times each day, I climb in the puppy pen and prop him up and place my hands behind him to act like a brace. He stands and swats at his siblings briefly before his legs go out. He is managing to sit for nearly a minute without my assistance, so I’m clinging to that triumph as proof that PT is working.
These big pups will tumble over the sides of the whelping box any day, so soon it will be time to move from the whelping box to a full blown puppy pen. I’m looking for a no-slip solution for the floor of my puppy pen (which is currently covered in super smooth linoleum). Fruitcake needs a nubby, nonslip surface to help him stand, but it also needs to be something I can wash frequently, so a large piece of carpeting won’t work.
I found a few sturdy bath mats with tacky backing at Dollar General, but I need many more, so I’ll be checking the Goodwill and the Dollar Store this week. I did find a really cool grippy, nubby tub mat with suction cups on the bottom that would be perfect but it wasn’t cheap and I need ten or fifteen more to cover the puppy room and have a spare set for washing. Welcome mats might also work. I have a few more days to sort this out, but your ideas are most welcome!
I’m employing any/all visitors (and thankfully Estelle is allowing this – I think maybe she knows that Fruitcake needs us) to sit in the puppy pen and assist Fruitcake or hold the sling (he’s nearly five pounds so this is excellent weightlifting exercise!). Everything I read says that early intervention is key and consistent PT will make the difference. The goal is it have this pup walking on his own, even if he doesn’t walk like the other pups.
For his part, Fruitcake is charming and affectionate and loves to chew on his therapists. We welcome all help and ideas—so if you’ve had experience with a swimmer pup, please comment here or contact me. Fruitcake and I can use all the help we can get.
p.s. the other three are doing great – happy, pudgy, busy, walking puppies!
Estelle is my constant shadow, here she is now…
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Thanks for reading!