Have you ever wanted to pack up your bags and take a trip to the mountains? I know I have! But have you ever thought about how higher altitudes can affect your dog, as well as yourself? Elevation sickness (also known as “altitude sickness”) is very common when pets and people experience a change in altitude from what they’re used to! In this article, I’ll go over the basics of elevation sickness including when it occurs and common symptoms, and how to handle it if it happens to you or your pup out on the trail.
What is Elevation Sickness?
Elevation sickness, or altitude sickness, is a group of symptoms that can arise if you walk or climb to a high altitude too quickly. The reason for this is because of the change in barometric pressure and the amount of oxygen in the air. Barometric pressure is the pressure of the air around you - as this goes down, the amount of oxygen in the air around you also decreases, making it more difficult to breathe if your dog (or you) aren’t used to that amount of pressure.
Common Symptoms of Elevation Sickness
Elevation sickness can manifest in several different ways in both humans and pets, and can develop into a more serious problem if left untreated. For humans, some of the most common symptoms include the following:
Fatigue/loss of energy
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
For dogs, many of the symptoms are the same, and can include the following:
Shortness of breath
Loss of appetite
Excessive tiredness/lack of coordination
Swelling of the face or limbs
Drooling or panting
Additionally, it is important to know that there are three kinds of altitude sickness that can affect both humans and dogs: AMS, HAPE, and HACE.
AMS stands for “Acute Mountain Sickness,” and it is the most mild and most common form of altitude sickness. The main symptoms include the ones listed above. It is often characterized by dizziness, muscle aches, and nausea.
HAPE stands for “High Altitude Pulmonary Edema,” and this occurs when there is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. This form of altitude sickness can be dangerous and potentially life threatening. Some additional symptoms for HAPE include irregular heartbeat, feeling of suffocation or drowning, and shortness of breath.
Finally, HACE stands for “High Altitude Cerebral Edema” - the most severe form of altitude sickness. This occurs when there is fluid in the brain, and it is a life threatening condition that requires medical attention right away. Additional symptoms that may be present at this stage include: confusion, loss of consciousness, ataxia, fever, and/or rapid heartbeat.
When Does it Occur?
The symptoms of elevation sickness only start to manifest around 8,000 ft above sea level, but if your pet isn’t used to higher altitudes, they may experience some mild symptoms around 5,000-6,000 ft. Symptoms can occur within 12-24 hours after exposure to higher elevation. If you just moved to a new place that is at a higher elevation than you were used to, it can take a couple of days for you and your pets to adjust to the change in altitude. Be sure to check the elevation of any hikes you are wanting to take to make sure you and your pup can handle them!
How to Handle and Prevent Elevation Sickness
One of the best ways to handle elevation sickness is by actively working to prevent it! But should your pet ever experience it, it’s important to know how to handle it and get them the necessary care they need. Below, I’ve listed some general guidelines on how to handle and prevent altitude sickness.
Take time to acclimate - if your dog isn’t used to higher elevations, this is one of the key ways to help reduce their chances of experiencing altitude sickness. Slowly introduce your pet to hikes at higher elevations over 2-3 days - start with lower altitudes, shorter hikes, and eventually build up stamina and elevation levels over time. Don’t jump right into a 10,000 ft altitude hike if you haven’t done it before - it likely wouldn’t end well for either of you!
Take plenty of water breaks - proper hydration is one of the best ways to prevent altitude sickness! Make sure to offer plenty of water throughout the hike. And if you have to, you can even pour water into some kibble or dehydrated food to trick them into rehydrating if they won’t drink on their own. You can even bring dehydrated goats milk to entice them to drink if they aren’t a fan of drinking plain water!
Bring a toy or chew for your dog - just like humans, dogs can experience ear popping at higher altitudes too! Giving your dog a toy to chew on can help alleviate some of their discomfort.
Pack a first aid kit for your dog in case of emergencies - just as a general precaution, it’s a good idea to bring a first aid kit for you and your pup in case of any illness or injury! For higher altitude hikes, it’s also wise to bring along an emergency canine carrier in case your dog becomes injured or unable to walk to reach lower altitudes.
Bring extra fuel - if you’re planning to be out all day, be sure to pack extra snacks for you pup! It can be useful to bring some kibble or dehydrated food as well. Not only does this provide extra energy while you’re out on the trail, but you can also pour some extra water into your pup’s food to keep them hydrated.
Invest in protective eyewear - dogs who spend extended periods of time in high altitudes or who have light colored eyes are at risk of developing vision problems, such as pannus. If you are intending on hiking high altitudes fairly frequently with your pup, it is worth it to invest in goggles to protect them from ultraviolet light and the negative effects of high elevation.
Move to lower elevation if you notice any symptoms - do this slowly to avoid rapid changes in air pressure and oxygen levels, but be sure to move to a lower altitude if your pet is experiencing any symptoms. If the symptoms don’t stop after you’ve decreased your elevation, it is important to seek veterinary care, as the symptoms of altitude sickness can become life-threatening if not addressed.
Reduce your pet’s activity level - take breaks and keep your pup from pushing themselves too hard. Monitor their panting and allow time for them to recuperate and catch their breath as you ascend and gain elevation.
Health Conditions & High Altitude Hiking
While most dogs will be fine adjusting to higher altitudes if done slowly, there are some important things to consider when it comes to older dogs, dogs with health conditions, and even certain breeds!
Heart problems like heart murmurs and heart disease can be exacerbated by high altitudes. This is because the heart will have to compensate for the lower oxygen levels by pumping faster and faster! Before taking to the mountains, speak with your vet about your dog’s condition to see if it is safe for them to hike at higher elevations. If it is, be sure to take it slow and get them acclimated to higher elevations, and monitor them closely for signs of altitude sickness while you ascend.
Senior dogs may have lower stamina than younger dogs, and they can also be more greatly affected by changes in altitude, but that doesn’t mean they can’t handle it! Just be sure to keep a close eye on them and climb slowly with plenty of rest stops.
Dog breeds with “smushed” faces, such as boxers, pugs, and french bulldogs, are more at risk of altitude sickness than other breeds. Because of their short muzzle, they have difficulty increasing air intake quickly enough to overcome the effects of elevation compared to other breeds. This isn’t to say that higher elevation hikes are forbidden for short-nosed dogs, but it is important to be aware of the risks and monitor them closely for signs of elevation sickness.
Dogs Best Suited for High Altitude Hiking
Generally speaking, most dogs can adapt to high altitudes if given enough time to adjust while ascending. However, there may be some dog breeds who are better suited to it than others! Breeds like the Saint Bernard, Bernese Mountain Dog, and Great Pyrenees were bred to help shepherds and travelers in mountainous areas, such as the snowy Swiss Alps and the Pyrenees Mountains. Because of this, it’s possible they may have an easier time adjusting to higher altitudes than other breeds! Similar to how thick coats prepare dogs for cooler climates, their genetics may also give them a leg up when it comes to rising sea levels.
In the end, chasing mountains and hiking high elevations can be an amazing experience to have with your pup, but it is important to take the necessary precautions to ensure they stay safe. Be sure to know the warning signs of altitude sickness and prepare ahead of time before setting out on your adventure!