On a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Salt Lake City to watch the Portland Timbers take on Real Salt Lake a few years ago, we visited Park City, which sits at around 2,100 meters above sea level (masl) (7,000 feet). We didn’t notice the effects of the high altitude all that much, but our dog Maxwell, who was 14 years old at the time and with a heart murmur, gave us a scare. While tramping around in the snow above the city, Maxwell began to cough, wobbled unsteadily and suddenly collapsed. He fell on his back and didn’t move for several moments. Then, as quickly as he fainted, he was back to his usual self.
So when we headed to 4,700 meters (15,000 feet) in Chilean altiplano with Mistico Outdoors, we did a bit of research, as we wondered whether dogs experience altitude sickness as well. Turns out, they do.
Like humans, dogs feel the effects of altitude sickness. Heights ranging between 1,524 and 3,505 masl (5,000 to 11,500 feet) are considered high altitude. Anything above 11,500 to about 18,000 is extreme altitude. As Dave and I struggled with pounding headaches, nausea, sleepless nights, and shortness of breath, we wondered how Sora felt.
Proper hydration is the best way to prevent and overcome the symptoms altitude sickness. Since we can’t explain this to our dogs, we’ve got to ensure they are consuming more water than they usually would on their own. When it came time for meals, we poured Sora’s kibble into at least one cup of water. She’s not a picky eater, so she could care less that it was a bit more mushy than usual.
Dogs require at least one ounce of water for each pound of body weight per day, and at least 1.5 times that when in high altitude, so be sure your dog has access to clean water at all times. Bring a water bottle and bowl for your pup if you go out on any adventures requiring physical activity.
You can also start giving your dog electrolytes prior to ascending to high altitude and throughout your stay. While dogs can tolerate Pedialyte (which I’ve seen in pharmacies nearly everywhere in Latin America), I prefer to give Sora more natural solutions, like simple table salt, coconut water (from a coconut, not from a can), or low-sodium broth.
Signs your dog may be dehydrated:
Touch your dog’s nose. A dry nose indicates mild dehydration. Your pup’s nose should feel wet.
Check your dog’s gums. Pink is healthy, white, pale, and dry gums signify dehydration.
Look into their eyes. Are they sunken?
Is your dog exhibiting signs of lethargy? He may be dehydrated.
Pinch your pup’s skin. Use your thumb and forefinger to pinch a small piece of skin on your dog’s head or back. If it does not spring back, this is a warning sign.
These short walks help both you and your dog adjust to the high altitude. Take five to ten minutes every thousand meters (or few thousand feet) and walk around to help adjust to the thin air. Monitor your pup’s breathing and energy level to make sure she’s not overdoing it. While we stopped several times during our ascent to the Chilean altiplano, we still suffered for several days after arrival. Ideally, taking several days to arrive to extreme altitude is the way to go.
Over the first few days in high altitude, limit the amount of exercise you give your pup. It’s not the day to head out on a 10-mile hike. We tested Sora by letting her run around in an enclosed sport court (because she’s a terrible off-leash dog!) and kept an eye on her panting level. During our hike to Rainbow Mountain in Peru, we stopped often to rest and offer Sora water (and catch our own breath!).
Signs of Altitude Sickness
On the drive up, up, up, we noticed Sora pawing at her ears in the car, and we started to panic. Our friend suggested that perhaps her ears were popping, so we bought some bread to chew on and help her try and relieve her discomfort.
Other signs of altitude sickness include:
- Excessive drooling
- Pale gums
- Bleeding from the nose and retina (only in extreme cases)
- Increased pulse
- Dry Cough
- Swelling of feet and possibly the face
- Sudden collapse
- Lack of coordination
- Lethargy and refusal to move
If you detect any signs of altitude sickness in your dog, he should be taken to lower elevation immediately. If symptoms continue, visit your vet ASAP.
With the precautions and care listed above, dogs can indeed acclimate to and partake in exercise in high altitude. It may take a few days, and the most important takeaway is to keep an eye on them and make sure they drink plenty of water. Dogs can’t communicate with us about how they feel, so it’s up to us to monitor their behavior.