At our altitude of 5,280 feet above sea level, most Denver residents and visitors don’t experience the debilitating effects of altitude sickness – that is, until they head to the mountains. The nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath that accompany altitude sickness affect approximately 20% of individuals above 8,000 feet, and can really put a damper on a day of skiing, hiking, or sightseeing.

Pets are also susceptible to an increase in altitude, which can include many of the same symptoms experienced by humans. If allowed to advance, altitude sickness in pets can lead to a potentially deadly buildup of fluid in the lungs and brain, especially, if the pet is engaging in any physical activity. 

Enjoying the wonderful outdoor opportunities that our Colorado mountains have to offer with your pets is one of the beauties of living in this area, but safety must be the first priority. For low altitude pet owners, knowing the signs of altitude sickness in pets, and when to seek help, is an important part of keeping them safe while in the mountains.

Know the Signs

Just as with humans, altitude sickness in pets occurs because the concentration of oxygen molecules in the air is lower the higher up you go in elevation. As a pet’s body works to compensate for the decrease in oxygen, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting/nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate
  • Pale gums
  • Swelling of face, limbs
  • Excessive panting or drooling
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Collapse 

If your pet is showing any of these signs of altitude sickness, decrease its activity and offer water immediately, then get your pet to an elevation below 8,000 feet as soon as possible.

If these symptoms don’t improve once your pet is at a lower elevation, your pet will need to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. If not immediately addressed, the symptoms of high altitude sickness can become life-threatening.  

Preventing Altitude Sickness on Hikes

If you’re planning to take your dog on a hike to a higher altitude, it’s always a good idea to have a plan in place to prevent the onset of altitude sickness. First on the list is to be sure that your dog is healthy for physical activity and that you have discussed any medical concerns for your dog with your veterinarian. 

Here are some additional tips for safe and enjoyable hiking experiences with your dog:  

  • Be sure to gradually increase your dog’s exposure to higher altitudes by starting lower and taking short hikes at progressively higher elevations over the course of several weeks. If your dog is adjusting well, increase the distance in the same manner. Over time, a healthy dog’s body should be able to adapt to utilizing oxygen better as the concentrations in the air decrease with the elevation gains. 
  • Dehydration can happen quickly at high altitudes, so make sure your dog gets plenty of water. A good rule of thumb is: Every time you stop for a drink, your pet should drink water, too. Be sure to take more water than you think you’ll both need. 
  • Pack enough of your dog’s food to last for more meals and snacks than the time you intend to spend on the trail. It’s always best to be over-prepared and not need it, than to need it and not have it.  
  • Always closely monitor your pet’s activity levels when above 8,000 feet and watch for any signs of altitude sickness.
  • Dogs with a heart condition or heart murmur should NOT be taken on hikes in the mountains.   
  • Brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds such as boxers, pugs, pekinese, and bulldogs, or any pet with a breathing issue, should be monitored very closely in the mountains, as they are already predisposed to breathing problems that could be exacerbated by increases in altitude. 
  • You should NEVER attempt a high altitude hike with any dog that has not been properly acclimated to elevations above 8,000 feet and higher. Many mountain trails will take you well above timberline to 11,000 – 12,000 feet, and hiking a fourteener means going up to and over 14,000 feet. Only healthy dogs that are well-trained and acclimated for these altitudes and long distances should be taken on these hikes.
  • Take a first aid kit for both you and your dog and know how to use the items in them. We also recommend that you take along a dog carrying harness or emergency canine carrier, just in case your dog gets injured or becomes ill and needs to be carried off the mountain.   

Sharing our mountain experiences with our pets is a wonderful way to spend time, grow as companions, and get fit. With the awareness that pets can and do experience the same effects of altitude sickness as we do, our hope is that you will utilize our tips to make your mountain adventures safer.

As always, your Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center team is here for you and your pet, so don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or concerns you have regarding your pet’s health and well-being.