Altitude sickness can occur in humans at altitudes of 8,000 feet above sea level or higher due to lower levels of oxygen found at these altitudes and changes in air pressure which exacerbate heart and lung conditions and contribute to more serious illness. When heat, exertion, and dehydration are present, the effects of altitude become exaggerated and illness can result. One doesn't normally think about dogs experiencing the same condition--dogs are not often exposed to these exaggerated altitudes, so altitude sickness is not as commonly recognized in dogs. But, dogs experience the same heart, lung, exhaustion, and dehydration conditions as humans and these can be complicated and intensify with lack of oxygen and pressure changes experienced at high altitude. Examples of high altitude exposures in dogs are the same as for humans, such as climbing or hiking at high altitude in mountainous terrain or flying in an unpressurized cabin. Often when altitude sickness occurs in humans, or dogs, individuals are in remote locals far from medical help, and getting prompt medical care to address what can be life-threatening heart and lung disorders complicated by altitude sickness can be problematic. Ensure your dog is in a pressurized compartment when flying and if you are planning on hiking with your dog at high altitude, take precautions to minimize the likelihood of altitude sickness by gradually increasing altitude exposure and keeping your dog hydrated and not overexerted, and be vigilant for signs of altitude sickness. This advice is good for pet owners too!
Can Dogs Get Altitude Sickness?
When exposed to lack of oxygen and changes in air pressure at altitudes exceeding 8,000 feet above sea level, both dogs and humans can experience altitude sickness.
Does My Dog Have Altitude Sickness?
Symptoms of altitude sickness include pulmonary edema, which involves swelling or fluid accumulation in the lungs, making breathing difficult for your dog. Other common signs of altitude sickness include panting/difficulty breathing, drooling, coughing, lethargy, coordination problems, bleeding from the nose, pale gums and vomiting. If allergies, heart, or lung conditions are present altitude sickness is more likely to manifest and have serious consequences. Brachycephalic breeds that are prone to breathing problems may be particularly susceptible. A dog that is experiencing illness, such as infection, at a lower altitude that is not apparent may become very sick when oxygen levels change at high altitude. Before taking your dog on high altitude exertions, ensure they are healthy and do not have any conditions that could predispose them to altitude sickness.
When your dog is exhausted, overheated or dehydrated, changes in oxygen level and pressure at high altitudes are more likely to cause sickness. Sudden changes in altitude when an animal is not properly acclimatized make altitude sickness more likely and more severe.
Even if your dog is healthy and has successfully completed high altitude treks before, there is no guarantee that they will not experience altitude sickness subsequently. Observe your dog for signs of illness whenever they are exposed to altitudes over 8,000 feet.
For more information of how severe oxygen deprivation is treated see: Oxygen Therapy in Dogs.
How Do I Treat My Dog’s Altitude Sickness?
The best way to “treat” altitude sickness is to avoid it by ensuring your dog is rested, hydrated, and gradually introduced to activity at high altitudes when it is necessary. If your dog manifests signs of altitude sickness, discontinue activity immediately, and get your dog to a lower altitude and access to medical help if required. If your dog is in severe respiratory distress, mouth to nose breathing can be performed to aid them until oxygen therapy can be obtained. Oxygen can be administered by the pet owner if it is available on high altitude treks, or from a medical facility. Oxygen may be administered by allowing free flow of oxygen near your dog's nose, in a sheltered environment so oxygen is not carried away by wind. A veterinarian can administer medications that address blood pressure if necessary and if heart and lung problems have manifested, veterinary care is required as soon as possible.
How is Altitude Sickness Similar in Dogs, Humans, and Other Pets?
Altitude sickness in dogs, humans, and other animals is very similar.
Symptoms range from minor to severe, including heart and lung disorders.
Conditions such as heart, lung, allergies, and infection make alltitude sickness more likely
Overexertion, overheating and dehydration complicate altitude sickness
Difficulty breathing and disorientation are symptoms of altitude sickness in all animals
How is Altitude Sickness Different in Dogs, Humans, and Other Pets?
The main difference in altitude sickness in dogs as compared to humans is that they are not able to verbally express they are becoming ill. Dogs cannot associate their illness with their environment and sound the alarm at the first sign of sickness like a human would when put in the same situation. As a result, altitude sickness can go undetected and be at an advanced stage before pet owners become aware. This can result in more serious illness and consequences.
While hiking in Colorado, a pet owner and her two small dogs were staying at 10,000 feet and planning on hiking 14,000 feet trails. On the first hike, the pet owner noticed that her little dog Chester was hiking rather slowly, so she put him in a backpack to carry. The owner’s other dog Gretel was leading the way, but the pet owner started feeling unwell. Due to concerns about altitude sickness, the owner and two dogs returned from their hike. Although both dogs seemed fine while hiking, they were not themselves for a few days afterwards, showing signs of lethargy, and the pet owner had headaches. They drank lots of water for a few days and stayed at a lower altitude until they recovered and then were able to continue their hikes.