Swimmer Kitten Syndrome in Cats

Published on
Last updated on
5 min read

Key takeaways

Swimmer syndrome is a congenital condition in which the muscles and tendons in a kitten’s legs do not develop properly, causing them to be unable to walk.

  • The name comes from the position the kitten adopts with its legs lying beside and behind it instead of under its body supporting its weight
  • Swimmer syndrome is rare in cats, and its causes are not yet understood
  • Symptoms include the characteristic posture where the kitten's legs remain splayed out beside and behind its body
  • If left untreated, the kitten will never walk properly and may develop life-threatening side effects
  • Diagnosis is based on physical examination
  • Treatment includes binding the legs into the proper position and physical therapy
  • The prognosis for swimmer syndrome is good if treatment is undertaken early
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A closer look: Swimmer Kitten Syndrome in Cats

Healthy kittens are born with loose tendons which mean that for the first few days of their lives, they are unable to walk. Over the course of three weeks, the tendons and muscles develop sufficient strength and tension to bring the legs under the body and allow for them to bear the kitten’s weight. Once this occurs, the kitten begins to walk.

In kittens with swimmer syndrome, the tension in the tendons and muscles does not develop properly. Instead of the legs moving under the body, they stay splayed out beside the body. The kitten is not able to rise to its feet and walk.

Swimmer syndrome is rare in kittens. If a kitten has not started walking by the time it is 20 days old, veterinary attention is required. Early treatment is necessary to correct the problem before it becomes permanent.

Risk factors

Swimmer syndrome generally affects the hindlimbs, but in rare cases both the forelimbs and the hindlimbs are affected.

In some cases, the continued weight placed on the chest of the kitten leads to the development of Flat Chested Kitten Syndrome (FCKS). This condition involves the flattening of the bones of the chest, which constricts the movement of the lungs. This condition can be fatal.

Possible causes

The causes of swimmer syndrome are not yet fully understood. There may be a genetic component as in some cases, full litters are born with the condition. It is also theorized that poor nutrition for the mother during pregnancy affects the development of the kittens.

Main symptoms

The characteristic symptom of swimmer syndrome is the inability to stand or walk. The legs of the kitten lie beside or behind the body rather than moving underneath the body to support the kitten’s weight.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnosis of swimmer syndrome is based on physical examination.

Steps to Recovery

Treatment includes daily bandaging and physical therapy.

Bandaging helps to place the kitten’s legs in the proper position. Bandaging typically involves wrapping medical tape around the knees and ankles so that they are in the proper position.

Physical therapy helps the muscles and tendons to develop the proper tension for standing and walking. Physical therapy treatments may include:

  • Moving the legs through the full range of motion
  • Bicycling the legs while the kitten is on its back
  • Exercising the legs and gradually increasing the demands placed on the muscles and tendons to encourage development
  • Placing the feet under the kittens body
  • Encouraging first steps with a toy or treat
  • Massaging the legs while holding them in the correct position

It is important to ensure that the surfaces the cat is walking on are rough enough to offer traction, such as carpet. Wood or tile floors are too slippery for the kitten to manage at first.

Without treatment, the kitten will be permanently unable to walk. Other conditions are likely to develop as a result of constantly lying on its belly. These conditions include FCKS, which can be fatal.

With early treatment, full recovery is likely. Treatment requires patience and consistency and takes between 2 and 4 weeks to complete. Cats who recover the ability to walk tend to live as long as cats born with normal function.


There are no known preventative measures to avoid swimmer syndrome. Providing excellent nutrition and prenatal care to the mother is recommended.

Is Swimmer Kitten Syndrome in Cats common?

Swimmer syndrome is rare in cats.

Typical Treatment

Taping the limbs Physical therapy


Kim Rain - Writing for Wag!
Amber LaRock - Writing for Emergency Vets USA
Diogo Cardilli, C F João, Fabiana Voorwald, Joice Faria, Mirela Tinucci-Costa, G H Toniollo - Writing for Arquivo Brasileiro de Medicina Veterinária e Zootecnia

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