Can Your Pet Suffer from Altitude Sickness?

By PetMD Editorial on May 4, 2015

By Cheryl Lock

In January of this year, my husband I packed up our little hatchback to make the long drive from New York to Colorado to start a new life amid the mountains… but we weren’t alone.

We brought with us both our cat and rabbit from our former east coast lives, determined for all four of us to become less stressed and more laid back than we found ourselves in Manhattan. (Okay, fine, our rabbit probably doesn’t care where we are, but Penny the skittish cat certainly didn’t love the loud honks and sirens at all hours of the day.)

We thought about everything for our trip out west; the rest stops we’d take, the food and water and treat supplies we’d have, and booking pet-friendly hotels in the places where we would be staying overnight.

The one thing we didn’t think about, however, was the change in altitude. Denver, Colorado, sits at 5,280 feet — or exactly one mile — above sea level. It’s not uncommon for some people to feel versions of altitude sickness here, whether it’s extreme thirst, light-headedness, or even nausea, but animals? Only after we arrived at our new destination did I realize – I had no idea how animals react to altitude.

Lucky for us our pets seem to have fared just fine and everyone is doing well after a couple of months of living here. Still, I wondered what, if anything, our pets had felt with the change; so I decided to ask.

Dr. John Tegzes, MA, VMD, and Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology, answered my pressing questions about animals and altitude adjustment – ones I probably could have thought to ask before we up and moved out here.

For starters, are animals actually affected by altitude?

The short answer is yes, animals like dogs and cats are also sensitive to the harmful effects of high elevation, which can include, in addition to what’s mentioned above, vomiting, headache, and, in extreme cases, a build-up of fluid in the lungs and brain, particularly if they will be active when they reach high altitudes.

What’s interesting is that animals have often been studied to help understand the physiological reactions to high altitude. We know quite a bit about the harmful effects of high altitudes in some animals, and the effects seem to be very similar to what humans experience.

But before anyone becomes alarmed by this, it is noteworthy to emphasize that these effects only begin above 8,000 feet, and most places that high have a population of less than 500 – so the good news is that very few pets are affected by high altitude.

What are some preliminary precautions a person can take if they’re planning to take their pet to an area of high altitude?

General precautions include limiting the amount of physical activity and watching your pets closely. If they seem to tire easily, pant excessively, be less interested in food and/or are vomiting, these are signs that the elevation is affecting them.

Decrease their activity, offer plenty of water to drink, and gradually move to lower elevations if that’s possible. Switching away from dry kibbled foods is important to ensure that they receive adequate moisture. Dogs and cats do not always drink in response to dehydration, so feeding a high moisture food is therefore very important.

If you move to a city at a high elevation, like Denver, your pet may experience these signs over the first few months in their new location. Go gentle with them. Don’t force them to do more activity than they can tolerate. Over time, their blood will adapt to the higher elevation and become more efficient at utilizing oxygen better at lower concentrations in the air.

How can you tell your pet isn’t adjusting to areas of high altitude?

If after moving to high elevation your pet does not go back to its baseline activity level, there could be more going on. Watch for excessive panting or a soft cough. These are signs of heart disease in dogs and cats, and animals with pre-existing heart disease may worsen at high altitudes.

Sometimes at lower altitudes these signs of heart disease may not be obvious, but when they reach high altitudes it may worsen enough that owners notice. Soft coughing, particularly at night, is a sign of heart disease and requires veterinary care.

If your pet already has breathing issues (asthma, etc.), is moving to a place of high altitude an absolute no-no, or are there things you can do to help them adjust?

It’s not an absolute no-no, but you may need to decrease their activity, and then only increase it very gradually based on how well they do when their activity goes up.

Image credit: Greenview

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