How Do High Altitudes Affect Dogs?

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Whether it's to the park down the street or on our weekend adventure, pet parents love their dogs and want to take them everywhere. For those of us who like adventures that include hiking in steep terrain, we often don't fully understand the impact of high altitudes on our dogs. Do dogs get altitude sickness and is it safe to take them on a high-altitude hike? How does moving to a high-altitude location affect our dogs?

Altitude does affect dogs (and cats, for that matter).
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Does altitude affect dogs?

Altitude absolutely affects dogs (and cats, for that matter). The effects can be scary and even devastating, in some cases, ranging from vomiting and headaches to a dangerous build-up of fluid in the lungs and brain. Pets are especially susceptible to developing these symptoms when they're active at high altitudes. Those effects are very similar to humans, it turns out. Some symptoms of altitude sickness in dogs may include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Soft coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

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Can dogs get altitude sickness?

Dogs can get altitude sickness.
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Dogs ​can​ get altitude sickness. When dogs travel to 8,000 feet (or higher, obviously) above sea level, they become vulnerable to altitude sickness.

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Hypoxia, which is commonly referred to as "mountain sickness" in humans, can also affect our pets. It's more common in people than it is in dogs, but hypoxia can still be a big issue for pets. Hypoxia occurs when oxygen levels in the blood drop to uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous levels.

Because the air is thinner at higher altitudes, people (and dogs) have to breathe more frequently to take in an adequate amount of oxygen. As a result, the heart ends up pumping harder to circulate less oxygen, when increases the heart rate and raises blood pressure.

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Altitude sickness in dogs symptoms

Dogs suffering from hypoxia (aka altitude sickness) may seem lethargic and uninterested in his surroundings. You may also notice an affected dog panting excessively and he or she might have dark purple or blue tongue and gums. Other potential symptoms of hypoxia in dogs include bleeding from the nose, difficulty breathing, soft coughing, fatigue, lethargy, pale gums, and vomiting.

Experts also suggest looking for other signs, like a dog who doesn't return to his normal anxiety level after reaching a high altitude and being given a little time to adjust or a dog that's panting or lightly coughing — these could be symptoms that high altitude is triggering an underlying heart condition in your dog.

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Preparing dogs for high altitude

Introduce your dog to higher altitudes slowly.
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A good first rule of thumb is to introduce your dog to higher altitudes slowly. This can help dogs avoid ear-popping, better prepare for physical activity at higher altitudes, and reduce the chances of altitude sickness in dogs.

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That said, if you're taking your dog to a higher altitude suddenly, you should limit the amount of physical activity he engages in and keep a close eye on him for signs of canine altitude sickness. You should also make sure to offer your furry friend plenty of water to drink and even switch from dry kibble to wet food to help keep your dog hydrated because dogs don't always drink water when they're feeling dehydrated.

If you're planning to move somewhere at a high elevation, know that, if you take things slowly, your dog should eventually adjust, even if he shows signs of distress early in the move. If he is showing signs of distress, of course, decrease his activity, take him to lower elevations when possible, and, if symptoms of hypoxia in dogs persist or worsen, see your vet.

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