Pets and active lifestyles often go hand in hand. From the daily walks to the afternoons playing fetch in the park, most dog owners enjoy a bit of exercise and spending time outside. For the more adventurous pet parents, you may think about taking your dog with you when you go hiking or mountain biking, but some routes involve spending time at high altitudes. You know when you are feeling altitude sickness and even the most experienced hikers will often turn back when they feel faint, but what about your dog? Can they handle it, and what can you do to make their experience better?
What is Altitude Sickness?
There are many reasons you may find yourself in higher altitudes than you are used to. It may be for sports, but may be because you have moved house, or are on holiday. Altitude sickness affects different people in different ways. Some people may never feel it at all if they have become accustomed to living at high altitudes.
Altitude sickness is caused by the change in air pressure and lack of oxygen that occurs at very high altitudes. Symptoms in humans can range from dizziness, fatigue and headaches to vomiting, a rapid pulse and shortness of breath. While it can be harmless, provided you slow down, rest or even reduce your altitude when you start to feel ill, it can become very dangerous if ignored.
Dogs and Altitude Sickness
Dogs can suffer form altitude sickness, but not every dog will. Dogs at high altitudes may struggle with reduced oxygen levels and pressure change, but altitude sickness is more common in humans than dogs. As a general rule, you should be particularly aware of potential problems when you reach approximately 8,000 feet or higher.
All dogs are different and will be affected by high altitudes to different degrees. Important factors to consider is how used your dog is to altitudes of any type and how fast your ascent is. A dog who lives on a very low, flat plain and has never had to even climb a hill will probably experience more of a shock than a dog who has lived their whole life in the mountains. Similarly, if you gently stroll up a mountain, you and your dog will have more time to adjust, compared to if you run or bike up.
Symptoms of Dog Altitude Sickness
The most difficult aspect of altitude sickness in dogs is that you may not even notice they are struggling. Generally, as a human, you notice you are feeling ill, so you can easily call out to your group and take a rest while you adjust or choose to turn back. Your dog cannot communicate quite in the same way, so it is up to you to notice if they are displaying any symptoms. These include:
- Refusing to move
- Excessive drooling
- Lack of coordination
- Sudden collapse
- Swollen paws
- Swollen face
- Bleeding from the nose
- Pale gums
- Increased pulse
If you have concerns, it is always worthwhile to stop, take a break and monitor them. They may just be panting due to the exercise, but if they keep panting after a cool-down, consider taking them down to a lower altitude, at least until they can adjust.
Can All Dogs Handle High Altitudes?
Ultimately, most dogs will adjust to high altitudes sooner or later. You can even help them with this, as outlined below. However, it is important to understand that a few dogs will have a very particularly poor time in high altitudes. Certain breeds may already have breathing difficulties, and there are plenty of medical conditions that will not be able to handle changes in pressure or oxygen.
It is worth noting that older dogs may not adjust as well as young dogs. If you are unsure at all about the potential affect that high altitudes will have on your dog, you should discuss your plans with your vet regardless of their breed or health concerns. However, if your dog fits into any of these categories, you should definitely contact your vet, and consider changing your plans:
- Dogs with heart concerns
This includes everything from heart murmurs to heart disease. Heart issues become much worse when the body is trying to compensate for limited oxygen by pumping harder and faster. Your dog may even have a small, undiagnosed heart issue that, under normal circumstances, causes no issues, but will be aggravated by high altitudes.
- Flat-faced dogs
Also known as brachycephalic dogs, being flat-faced is common in a number of breeds, such as boxers, pugs and Boston terriers. If you have one of these breeds, you are probably already aware of some fundamental breathing difficulties that they face due to the shape of their noses. These difficulties will become much worse when the air is thin, so it is advisable not to take them to high altitudes.
- Dogs with pulmonary edema
Pulmonary edema is a condition in which the lungs accumulate fluid. It can impact your dog’s ability to breath and may even cause your dog to stop breathing or have a cardiac arrest. As you might imagine, a dog prone to pulmonary edema is likely to suffer from an episode when they are more desperately attempting to breathe. Their lungs will fill with fluid, and you will need to seek urgent medical care.
Dogs with the limitations outlined above may find high altitudes to be fatal, but most other dogs should be able to handle it. This doesn’t mean they won’t suffer from altitude sickness, however, so you should still consider how you can prepare your dog to give them the best chance of making it up the mountain without any incidents.
The best solution is to make your ascent gradually over several days. Most animals will acclimatize naturally in about 2 or 3 days. This may mean you make your trip into a camping trip and take the longest, most gradual route to the top. It may also mean you go on local acclimatization trips in advance of your main trip.
This means finding local high altitudes and attempting them one at a time, starting at the lowest. You should spend at least 10 minutes at every few thousand feet to help them to adjust. Watch how they are doing before pushing it up a notch to the next thousand feet. Your goal is to have them feel comfortable at 10,000 feet, or whatever the highest point of your main trip is.
Before undertaking the ascent, it is wise to give your dog electrolytes as this will help them to manage the altitude. Avoid using human electrolyte solutions, however, as these usually have a high salt content to support the human hydration system. Dogs, on the other hand, may be poisoned by ingesting too much salt. Instead, coconut water and low-sodium bone broths are a better idea. It is also a good idea to keep offering these electrolytes to your dog while you are at a high altitude.
Treatments and Solutions
So, you have prepared your dog by acclimatizing them and giving them electrolytes, but they are still showing signs of struggling with altitudes – what do you do? Obviously, if your dog seems very ill, or has passed out, it is best to head back down to low altitudes, but otherwise, don’t panic. There are a few ways you can help them to alleviate their symptoms.
- Avoid exercise
This tip works better if you are on a high altitude holiday or have recently moved house, rather than if you are already on a hike. If your dog is not adjusting as well as you had hoped, don’t push them into doing exercise, even a normal walk. If you are already out on a hike, consider giving up for the day or, at the very least, increase the number of breaks, and their length, and reassess your route. Remember, your dog’s health always comes first.
The best solution to altitude sickness is drinking water. It can be hard to convince your dog to have more water, so you may have to resort to tricks, like adding a cup of water to their meals. As a general rule, your dog may require about 1.5 times the amount of water you would give them at low altitudes. This would probably work out at 1.5 ounces of water per day for every pound that they weigh. Never go out at high altitudes without plenty of water for both of you and a bowl.
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- Bones and toys
Another symptom of ascending to high elevations is ear-popping and other simple discomforts. If your dog is pawing at their ears, or otherwise distressed, without any alarming symptoms of altitude sickness, it is a good idea to have some comforts on hand to distract and relieve them. Chewing on a toy or bone will do just that, so make sure you’ve always got one with you when you are about to ascend.
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- Eye protection
Last, but not least, your dog may need their eyes protected at high altitudes, so consider investing in doggie goggles to help with this. This is because frequent trips to high altitudes can negatively affect their vision, as can the reflective nature of the snow that is often found at high altitudes, as well as sand and lakes. Dogs with light-colored eyes are particularly susceptible to vision problems.