Headaches, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, loss of appetite – these symptoms might sound like the after-effects of a big night out, but they can also indicate altitude sickness. As the name suggests, altitude sickness occurs when you travel to a higher altitude too quickly, and the body doesn’t get as much oxygen as it’s accustomed to.
Altitude sickness is unpleasant, but common, and recognizing symptoms in humans is pretty straight forward. However, if you like to climb or travel with a canine companion, things become a little more complicated. To clear up any confusion, we’ve put together this brief guide to canine altitude sickness, including why it happens, symptoms to watch out for, and how to take care of your dog at high altitudes.
Can Dogs Actually Get Altitude Sickness?
In short, yes. Dogs can suffer from altitude sickness in much the same way that people do.
Like us, dogs are mammals. This means they have a very similar cardiovascular system; absorbing oxygen through the lungs and transporting it around the body in the blood.
At high altitudes, the air is less rich in oxygen, which can be difficult for the lungs, blood, and heart to adjust to.
Certain dogs, including brachycephalic breeds, are at greater risk of developing altitude sickness. Brachycephalic breeds include English bulldogs, pugs, and Boston terriers. Because of their ‘squashed’ muzzles, these dogs often develop breathing difficulties, which become exacerbated when less oxygen is available.
Altitude sickness typically occurs at elevations of 8,000 feet above sea level and higher. If your pet travels to these altitudes from a lower starting point, they may develop this condition.
Symptoms of altitude sickness in dogs include:
- Panting and shortness of breath
At high altitudes, the air contains less oxygen. In response, your pet may begin panting as their body attempts to take in as much air as possible, and keep oxygen levels normal.
- Elevated heart rate
By circulating blood around the body more quickly, the heart attempts to compensate for the relative lack of oxygen.
If your dog becomes less active at higher elevations, they may be suffering from altitude sickness. With less oxygen available, dogs will attempt to conserve energy by moving around less.
- Pale gums
When a dog’s blood is low in oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, their gums can appear pale. This can be a sign of anemia as well as altitude sickness.
- Swelling of the face or limbs
This swelling, called edema, is triggered by a lack of oxygen.
- Persistent cough
Some animals develop a persistent cough when suffering from altitude sickness, but it is unclear exactly why.
- Nausea and vomiting
Sudden exposure to high altitudes can also trigger nausea and vomiting in your dog. Dogs who feel nauseated will usually avoid food and be lethargic.
- Excessive thirst
Like humans, dogs suffering from altitude sickness often develop excessive thirst.
If your dog exhibits one or more of these symptoms following a change in altitude, they are likely suffering from altitude sickness.
Being exposed to high altitudes for any stretch of time can also exacerbate existing conditions in your dog.
These conditions include:
- Heart diseases
If your dog’s heart already struggles to transport blood around the body, being exposed to high altitudes can worsen their condition.
- Breathing difficulties
Respiratory tract conditions such as asthma are also exacerbated by exposure to high altitudes. If your dog already struggles to absorb oxygen efficiently, being at a high altitude can make the condition worse.
- Brachycephalic breeds
As mentioned above, brachycephalic breeds are more prone to altitude sickness, because of their tendency towards breathing difficulties. Their often restricted airways can struggle to take in enough oxygen at high elevations.
If your dog suffers from allergies, altitude sickness will likely worsen their symptoms. This is because a stuffy nose and other allergic symptoms make it even more difficult for them to take in enough oxygen. Keep a close eye on dogs with allergies at higher elevations, to ensure they are breathing normally.
When to See Your Vet
Most of the time, altitude sickness is an unpleasant, but temporary condition. By giving your dog some time to adjust to new altitude levels, it can be mitigated, or even avoided altogether.
However, altitude sickness can occasionally develop into more serious conditions. If these occur, you should seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
- Pulmonary edema
When a dog develops a pulmonary edema, this means that their lungs either swell, or accumulate fluid. The condition renders breathing more difficult, and will cause your pet to pant, cough, and drool. They may also experience bleeding from the nose.
- Cerebral edema
This refers to swelling of the brain, triggered by lack of oxygen. Symptoms include weakness, vomiting, confusion, and loss of coordination.
These conditions can result in lasting bodily damage to your pet if left untreated. See your vet as soon as possible if your dog develops these symptoms at high altitude.
How to Keep Altitude Sickness at Bay
If you’re planning to take your dog on a trip involving high altitudes, there are steps you can take to make altitude sickness much less likely:
- Limit the amount of physical activity your pet has as you ascend
- Keep a close eye on your pet for symptoms of altitude sickness, and slow your ascent if they appear
- Make sure your dog drinks plenty of water – consider switching from dry to wet food to boost their water intake further
- Move from a low to a high altitude as slowly as possible
- Help your dog to stay cool, as overheating can trigger or exacerbate altitude sickness
- If moving to a higher elevation permanently, seek advice from your vet before making the trip
- Give your pet plenty of time to adjust to their new elevation, limiting exercise at first. Over time, their body will become more efficient at using oxygen