Are you heading off on a mountain hiking or camping trip with your furry friend? Better buckle up Rover’s seatbelt and pack plenty of bottled water cause that high-altitude jaunt may spur a bout of altitude sickness for your pup. When trekking into thin-air environments, man’s best friend can get the same nasty symptoms that leave humans with splitting headaches and queasy tummies.
Like people, dogs can get altitude sickness when traveling to elevations 8,000 feet or higher above sea level. And smaller pups tend to get hit harder than more giant breeds. Thankfully, simple preparations and preventive measures can help ensure your dog stays happy and healthy on your next high-flying adventure. Here’s the low-down on altitude sickness in dogs, from causes and symptoms to treatment and prevention.
What Causes Altitude Sickness in Dogs?
Several physiological factors can trigger altitude sickness, aka acute mountain sickness (AMS), in dogs when traveling to elevations their bodies aren’t used to. For one, the air at higher altitudes contains less oxygen – about 40% less oxygen at 10,000 feet compared to sea level. This drop in oxygen levels leads to hypoxia or oxygen deprivation in body tissues.
Low atmospheric pressure is another culprit. The higher you go, the lower the air pressure. This results in less oxygen diffusing into the blood when your pup takes a breath. To compensate, dogs hyperventilate or breathe faster to take in more oxygen. But this can cause respiratory alkalosis, where heavy breathing makes carbon dioxide levels fall too low.
These atmospheric changes at altitude make it challenging for oxygen delivery and diffusion in the body. Dogs ‘ bodies struggle to function normally when deprived of their usual oxygen supply. Regarding height, what goes up doesn’t always stay in canine bellies.
Do Dogs’ Ears Pop at Higher Altitudes?
Do you know that uncomfortable ear-popping sensations people sometimes experience when ascending or descending in elevation? Dogs can have the same thing happen with their sensitive canine ears.
As elevation increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. This pressure differential can cause a dog’s Eustachian tubes (connecting their outer ears to the back of the throat) to become blocked or restricted. When this happens, the pressure in the middle ear cannot equalize with the lower pressure outside.
The ears feel blocked or muffled, like when you have a head cold or allergy congestion. And the pups may shake their head or paw at their ears, trying to relieve the uncomfortable “plugged” sensation.
Don’t worry; a dog’s ears should gradually pop and readjust to the new altitude after a little while. You can help speed the adjustment by gently massaging the base of the ears or giving them a good yawn. If ear discomfort persists for over a day or two, it’s best to head back down to a lower elevation.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness in Dogs
So, how can you tell if your dog is experiencing altitude sickness rather than being old-pooped from the hike? Watch for these common symptoms:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Decreased appetite or no interest in food/water
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness or disorientation
- Rapid panting or respiratory distress
- Nasal discharge or congestion
- Tachycardia or rapid heart rate
- Bluish discoloration of gums or tongue
Puppies and small-breed dogs experience more severe symptoms than larger adult dogs. Also, dogs that live at lower elevations year-round will be more susceptible than pups accustomed to higher elevations. Greyhound owners take note – these long-legged racing dogs run a higher risk of altitude sickness.
When to See the Vet for Altitude Sickness
In mild cases, altitude sickness symptoms in dogs may resolve on their own once acclimated to the new elevation. But some situations call for an urgent vet visit:
- Symptoms last more than 12-24 hours
- Symptoms appear within the first 4-8 hours at altitude
- Severe vomiting or respiratory distress
- Bluish gums, tongue, or eyelids
- Difficulty standing or walking
- Extreme lethargy or disinterest
- No urine production for eight or more hours
Untreated altitude sickness can progress to life-threatening pulmonary or high-altitude cerebral edema. Getting prompt veterinary treatment is critical if your dog shows any concerning symptoms upon arriving at altitude.
Treatment for Altitude Sickness in Dogs
To treat altitude sickness, vets often recommend:
- Supplemental oxygen – Additional oxygen helps get levels back to normal. This may be administered through an oxygen mask, cage, or tent.
- Acetazolamide – This diuretic medication helps decrease fluid buildup in the lungs and brain. Always follow prescribed dosing instructions.
- Dexamethasone – An injectable steroid that reduces brain and lung swelling. It should only be administered by a vet.
- IV fluids are given to treat dehydration and improve blood oxygen saturation.
- Warmth – Helps dilate blood vessels and improve perfusion.
- Descending in elevation – The most effective treatment is to dip 1,500-3,000 feet to allow the dog’s body to re-acclimate.
Mild cases may be treated with rest and oxygen therapy. At the same time, more severe altitude sickness requires fluid therapy, medications, and quick descent.
Preventing Altitude Sickness in Dogs
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That goes for altitude sickness in dogs. Here are some critical tips for prevention:
- Gradual ascent – When traveling to elevations over 8,000 feet, take an incremental approach to allow time for acclimatization. Limit rise to 1,000 feet per day.
- Avoid overexertion – For the first few days at a new elevation, limit exercise and let your dog rest. Please don’t take them on strenuous hikes right away.
- Stay hydrated – Ensure your dog is drinking plenty of water – more than usual is needed at altitude. Consider bringing some electrolyte water or sports drinks to aid hydration.
- Get in shape – If planning a trek, get your dog conditioned with regular exercise a few weeks beforehand. Fit pups handle altitude better.
- Allow acclimatization – When possible, spend 1-2 days at an intermediate elevation before ascending to a very high peak.
- Maintain warmth – Get your dog a coat or booties to prevent body heat loss. Hypothermia exacerbates altitude sickness.
- Monitor health – Watch for symptoms and be prepared to descend if sickness develops. Consider a trial run at a lower elevation first.
You and your pup can safely venture to spectacular mountain heights and make some rarified memories with proper preparation and precautions. Watch for signs of altitude sickness in your dog and head for lower elevation at the first sign of infection.
Frequently Asked Questions
How high of an elevation can cause altitude sickness in dogs?
- Altitude sickness is most common in dogs at elevations over 8,000 feet. However, some dogs develop symptoms at lower elevations down to 5,000 feet.
What dog breeds are most susceptible?
- Smaller breeds and brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds have increased risk. Greyhounds also tend to be more prone to altitude sickness.
Is altitude sickness in dogs life-threatening?
- Altitude sickness can become life-threatening if pulmonary edema or cerebral edema develops. These conditions require emergency medical treatment.
How long does it take for a dog to adapt to a higher altitude?
- It takes most dogs 1-2 weeks to fully acclimate to an elevation over 8,000 feet. Gradual ascent and light activity during this period help the adjustment.
Can dogs get used to high altitudes by visiting frequently?
- Yes, dogs that regularly travel to or live at high elevations tend to become conditioned over time and suffer less sickness.
Dogs can be affected by altitude sickness, just like their human companions. The lower oxygen and air pressure at higher elevations can cause problems like nausea, fatigue, respiratory issues, and poor oxygen circulation. Small dogs and brachycephalic breeds are most at risk. While mild cases may resolve with rest, severe instances require prompt vet treatment. Stick to gradual elevation changes, avoid overexertion, stay hydrated, and watch your pup closely. With some preparation and TLC, you can beat altitude sickness before it beats your dog.