Until I had traveled to Park City with an old dog several years ago, I had never wondered about altitude sickness in dogs. My dog, who had a heart murmur, was running around happily, and then suddenly collapsed. He was out for a few minutes and then rebounded back to his happy-go-lucky self.
While the episode may not have been entirely linked to the high altitude, it was the only out-of-the-ordinary factor that could explain what had happened.
Years later, just prior to traveling with Sora at 15,000 feet in the Chilean altiplano, I decided to do some research to learn more about how dogs are affected by elevation.
If you’re planning a high-altitude adventure with your pup, it’s important to be aware of the risks of altitude sickness in dogs. Just like humans, dogs can experience symptoms of altitude sickness at high elevations, but with some preparation and precautions, you can help your dog stay safe and comfortable during your mountain getaway.
Can Dogs Get Altitude Sickness?
Like humans, low oxygen levels from high elevations can give dogs altitude sickness, causing headaches, vomiting, and nausea, among other symptoms. In extreme cases, it can cause a build up of fluid in the lungs and brain.
Altitude sickness is 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. The speed at which you ascend will affect the onset and severity of the symptoms.
Elevations ranging between 5,000 feet to 11,500 feet above sea level are considered high altitude. Anything from 11,500 to about 18,000 feet is extreme altitude.
Signs of Altitude Sickness in Dogs
Since our dogs can’t tell us how they feel with words and because they notoriously mask pain, it is up to pet parents to monitor their dog for any signs of malaise.
Symptoms of altitude sickness in dogs includes:
- 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
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
If you detect any of these signs, take a break to allow your dog to rest and recover. Gradually move your pet to a lower elevation if they persist and seek veterinary care immediately.
Preventing Altitude Sickness in Dogs
If you’ve ever experienced altitude sickness yourself, then you understand how awful it feels. I personally suffered from a pounding headache for several days and was unable to sleep for three straight nights.
Watch your dog closely as you begin to climb, keeping an eye out for indications that they may be experiencing altitude sickness.
There are some steps you can take prior to reaching high altitude to help both you and your dog feel most comfortable.
Keep Your Dog Hydrated
Hydration is key to preventing symptoms of high altitude. The dry air and increased activity can cause your dog to become dehydrated more quickly than usual.
Bring a portable water bowl and pack water specifically for your dog and offer them water more often than you would on a typical hike.
Gradually Acclimate Your Dog to High Altitude
Just like humans, dogs need time to adjust to higher altitudes. If you’re planning a trip to a high-altitude destination, it’s important to gradually acclimate your dog to the change in elevation.
Start by spending a few days at a lower altitude before heading to higher elevations. If you are driving up to high altitude with your dog, stop every few thousand feet and take a short five to 10-minute walk. These acclimatization walks will help you and your dog adjust to the thin air. This will give your dog’s body time to adjust to the change in air pressure and oxygen levels.
Monitor your pup’s breathing and energy level to make sure they’re 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.
Additionally, make sure to give your dog plenty of rest and water during the acclimation process. If your dog won’t drink extra water, you can add it to their meals.
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.
Keep them on a leash during the first few days, if necessary, to force them to slow down as they adjust to the altitude.
Stop often to allow your dog to rest and catch their breath during hikes and monitor their panting level.
Give Your Dog a Chew
If you notice your dog pawing constantly at their ear, they may be popping. Give your dog something to chew on as you progress toward higher elevation to help pop their ears and relieve the discomfort.
How to Treat Altitude Sickness in Dogs
Not all signs of altitude sickness indicate that your pet is in trouble.
It’s natural for your pet to feel unwell or out of breath, just 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 they acclimate.
Stay Hydrated (Yes, again!)
Proper hydration is the best way to prevent and overcome the symptoms of 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.
If your dog won’t drink water or other liquids on their own, add it directly to their food.
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.
Be Prepared for Emergencies and Have a Plan
Just like any other time you will be spending time on the trails, having an emergency plan in place can help facilitate stressful situations. In addition to bringing plenty of water and food, pack a first aid kit that includes dog-specific items, identify the location of the nearest veterinary clinic, including emergency hospital, and bring along the 10 Essentials for you and your dog.
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 at 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 my old dog mentioned at the beginning of this article. 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 are more susceptible to eye problems caused by the sun.
I use and recommend eye protection, like 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.
With the precautions and care listed above, dogs can acclimate to high elevations, but they may experience altitude sickness. With the right knowledge and preparation, it’s absolutely doable to explore high elevation regions with your dog.