Dogs in High Places: How Altitude Affects Canines
By Mary Jelf, Leadville Today Contributor
Mountain enthusiasts are aware of the possibility of altitude sickness for themselves, but how often do we think of this possibility for the pets that accompany us on the journey?
It turns out that dogs (yes, cats, too) can be affected by the thinner air and lower oxygen levels in much the same way as humans. Some dogs may show no adverse effects from an ascent, but it is always prudent to keep eyes open for changes in your dog’s behavior and potential signs of distress.
In humans, altitude sickness can cause fatigue, dizziness, headache, thirst, and nausea. Dogs don’t use words to tell us they are feeling ill, so we must watch them closely for symptoms. Here’s what to look for:
- easy tiring
- excessive panting
- less interest in food
- excessive drooling
- coughing that sounds dry
- sudden collapse
- lack of coordination or stumbling
- lethargy or an unwillingness to move
In extreme cases, a dog’s gums may be pale or turn blue, he may have a fever, or his pulse may be rapid. His feet and maybe even his face may swell and there may be bleeding from his nose and eyes.
If your dog does seem sick, how can you tell if it is due to the altitude or something else? Think to when the symptoms started. If your dog is generally healthy but got sicker as you travelled higher, the altitude is a likely cause. Most often, altitude sickness starts above 8000 feet, with problems more likely above the 11,500 feet threshold.
What should you do if you think your dog is suffering? First, encourage your pet to drink water to rehydrate. Some dogs won’t drink more in response to dehydration, so switching from a dry kibble to a wet food can help them get more moisture. Provide rest time to help with temporary recovery. Move to a lower elevation, because that is ultimately the only thing that will solve this problem. Then, keep monitoring your pet’s symptoms and seek veterinary help if they persist.
Dr. Dennis Linemeyer has been practicing veterinary medicine at the Leadville Veterinary Clinic since 1972. He says he rarely gets calls from dog owners about high altitude sickness, probably because most pet owners recognize the symptoms in their animals and are prepared to take measures to help them get better. He clarified that fatigue when arriving at high altitudes is caused by the body needing to take some time and extra energy to produce extra red blood cells to efficiently process the thinner air.
How can you prevent or lessen bad effects of altitude? Some effects can be lessened by gradual acclimation to elevation. Driving into the mountains, instead of flying, can help with a slower transition, as can stopping for a day or two at a mid-level destination. For example, spending a day nearer to Denver, at 5280 feet, before continuing on to higher elevations can be a great way to take the change more gradually.
After you arrive at your destination, take it easy at first. If moving to a mountain area, take your pet on easy hikes first, then slowly build their endurance. Their body’s blood will change in response to the new environment. Be extra vigilant if you already know your pet has heart or lung problems. Be aware that if visiting during the summer months, the heat and intense sun can compound the effects of altitude. Watch over time, because each outing can be different.
It is also a good idea to be very familiar with your pet’s regular habits. How far and long can they usually walk? How much do they usually drink? What color are his gums under normal circumstances? It is the changes in behavior that will indicate to you something is wrong.
When planning a hike or other mountain adventure, think ahead. Watch the weather. Pack enough water and snacks for both you and your dog. Map and know your route. Have a plan for emergency action. Could you carry your dog down the trail if needed? Would you be willing to change your plans to take care of your sick animal? If you are uncertain about it at all, it might be best to leave your dog at home to be safe.
Dr. Linemeyer stressed the importance of owners knowing their pet’s medical conditions, especially with regard to potential heart problems like murmurs or leaks. Some dogs (and some breeds of cattle) can be prone to developing HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema – which can be life threatening. Animals with those conditions would be best left at lower altitudes to minimize further risks to their health.
He also reiterated that when an animal is showing distress in this way, the best way to help get them well is to get them down to a lower elevation.
Dogs love to hike and can be a great addition to a fun mountain adventure. We owe it to our four legged friends to take as much care for them as we do all of our companions. The key is to be vigilant and have a plan in case of trouble
In conclusion, if you are concerned about your pet’s health, you can contact Dr. Dennis Linemeyer of Leadville Veterinary Clinic at 719-486-1487. Emergency care is often available and instructions for contacting Dr. Linemeyer after hours are available when you call the office line. The clinic is located at 728 Front Street in Leadville, Colorado.
LT Contributor Mary Jelf practices living joyously in the high country. She relies upon beginner’s luck and the kindness of strangers. Some days she turns thoughts into words to share to make the world a better place. She would like to attribute the following links which provided great resources for this article.
- “Can Dogs Feel the Effects of Higher Altitudes?” Rocky Mountain Cocker Rescue.
- “Do Dogs’ Ears Pop When Altitude Changes? | Cuteness.” Cuteness.com.
- “High Altitude and Dogs.” The Honest Kitchen Blog, 20 Nov. 2017.
- “PetMD.” PetMD.