How Do High Altitudes Affect Dogs?

Dog Sitting On Mountain Against Sky
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Whether it's to the park down 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. Is it safe to take them on a high-altitude hike? How does moving to a high-altitude location affect our dogs?

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.

Researchers have studied the physiological reactions animals have to high altitudes, Dr. John Tegzes, MA, VMD, and Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology, explained to PetMD. Those effects are very similar to humans, it turns out.

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

Since mammals have to reach extremely high altitudes to be affected, altitude sickness in dogs can be rare. Dr. Tegzes explains that most places at high enough altitudes to affect pets have very small populations (think 500 or fewer people), which minimizes the number of pets with the potential to be affected.

Golden Retriever watching the sunset at Belmeken
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Can dogs get altitude sickness?

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

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.

Symptoms of altitude sickness in dogs

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 include bleeding from the nose, pale gums, and vomiting.

lethargic

  • excessive panting
  • bleeding from the nose
  • pale or purple gum
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Soft coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite

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.

Preparing dogs for high altitude

A good first rule of thumb is to introduce your dog to higher altitudes slowly. This can help dogs avoid ear-popping and better prepare for physical activity at higher altitudes.

That said, if you're taking your dog to a higher altitude suddenly, you should limit the amount of physical activity they engage in and keep a close eye on them for signs of 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 persist or worsen, see your vet.