Several years ago, Dave and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Salt Lake City to watch the Portland Timbers take on Real Salt Lake (they lost, womp womp). Naturally, we brought along Sora and Maxwell for the journey. While we were in the vicinity, we figured that we may as well check out Park City.
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.
As you can imagine, we were terrified—and perplexed—over what had just happened. After some thought, we credited the episode to high elevation. Park City sits at an elevation of about 7,000 feet above sea level. While not incredibly high, Maxwell, at 14 years old and with a heart murmur, waas affected by the higher altitude. Thankfully, he ended up being ok after the collapse, but we never took him to high elevation again after that occurrence.
I had never before considered how altitude affects dogs. So when we headed to 15,000 feet in Chilean altiplano on a trip Mistico Outdoors during our bike tour, we did a bit of research about altitude sickness in dogs.
Can Dogs Get Altitude Sickness?
The lack of oxygen and change in air pressure at high altitudes can cause altitude sickness in dogs. It’s not as common in dogs as it is in humans, but pet owners should be aware of the symptoms when they travel to higher elevations. Most of the effects of high altitude generally present in elevations higher than 8,000 feet.
Some dogs have no problem with the high altitude, while others may exhibit more signs. Depending on how fast you ascend will affect the onset and severity of the symptoms.
How Does Altitude Affect Dogs?
Like humans, dogs can get headaches, vomit, or feel nauseous at high altitude, among other symptoms. In extreme cases, it can cause a build up of fluid in the lungs and brain.
Heights ranging between 5,000 to 11,500 feet above sea level are considered high altitude. Anything from 11,500 to about 18,000 feet is extreme altitude. As Dave and I struggled with pounding headaches, nausea, sleepless nights, and shortness of breath after arriving to the Chilean Altiplano, we wondered how Sora felt. Of course, she couldn’t tell us directly, so we could only surmise based on her behavior.
Signs of Altitude Sickness in Dogs
Since our dogs can’t tell us with words how they feel and because dogs notoriously mask when they are in pain, it is up to pet parents to monitor their dog for any signs of malaise. When a dog feels symptoms of altitude sickness, it may present in the following behaviors:
- 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 of these signs, gradually move your pet to lower elevations. If symptoms persist, seek veterinary care immediately.
Preparing Your Dog for High Altitude
Slow acclimatization is key in preventing altitude sickness. Of course, time restrictions do not always allow for several days to reach a high altitude destination. There are some steps you can take prior reaching high altitude to help both you and your dog feel most comfortable.
- You can give your dog electrolytes before to ascending to high altitude and throughout your stay. I lean toward more natural solutions, like coconut water or low-sodium bone broth for dogs, such as this one from Honest Kitchen. Unlike humans, dogs don’t require salt like we do in order to hydrate. In fact, too much salt can cause poisoning, so be sure to check salt levels of any product you purchase.
- Acclimatization walks are slow, short walks that help both you and your dog adjust to the high altitude. Take five to ten minutes every 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. Ideally, you’ll want to take several days to acclimate rather than go straight from sea level to over 10,000 feet.
Alleviating Symptoms of High Altitude
Not all signs of elevation indicate that your pet is in trouble. It’s natural for your pet to feel unwell or out of breath. Keep a vigilant eye on your dog to make sure symptoms don’t worsen. In the meantime, there are several ways to help relieve your dog of some of the discomfort as the acclimate.
- Give your dog a toy or bone to chew on as you progress toward higher elevation. As we drove up, up, up to about 13,000 feet in Chile, we noticed Sora pawing frantically at her ears in the car. Wondering what the problem was, 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. It seemed to work.
- 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.
Dogs require at least one ounce of water for each pound of body weight per day, and at least 1.5 times that 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.
Related post: To see how we ensure our dogs never go thirsty, read Keeping Your Dog Hydrated on the Trail.
- Limit Exercise. 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 and kept an eye on her panting level. Stop often to allow your dog to rest and catch their breath during hikes.
Some Dogs Should Avoid High Altitude
Dogs with certain medical conditions or specific breeds should likely avoid high altitude excursions to ensure safety. If your dog is one of the breeds or presents one of the medication conditions mentioned below, have a chat with your vet before hitting the thin air as exposure can cause life threatening problems.
- Flat-faced or brachycephalic dogs like pugs, Boston terriers, and boxers should take extra caution before heading to higher altitudes. The thin air can cause breathing problems.
- Dogs with pulmonary edema can experience severe problems in high altitude. The thinner air will create respiratory distress and can cause fluid in the lungs to occur.
- Heart diseases or heart murmurs may also become exacerbated in high altitudes, as we saw in the case of Maxwell. Some conditions may not present at lower altitudes so it may be a good idea to have your pup checked out before going to higher elevation.
Senior dogs may also be more sensitive to higher altitudes.
In addition to immediate physical signs of high altitude sickness, long term effects of spending time in high altitude could cause vision problems, such as pannus. Dogs who spend frequent time in the altitude and/or have light colored eyes like Sora are more susceptible to eye problems caused by the sun.
We use and highly recommend RexSpecs to protect your dog’s eyes in high altitude, among a number of other conditions like water, snow, and sand. They are well-designed and incredibly durable.
To read more about eye protection and dogs, see Does My Dog Need Sun Protection?
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 all the time, so it’s up to us to keep a vigilant eye on out for symptoms.