Can Living or Vacationing at High Altitude Affect Your Dog’s Health?

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
― Barry Finlay, Kilimanjaro and Beyond

by Jack Sommars

(Reprint from PetsMatter Newsletter – May/June)

Although there is no documented medical evidence, it’s reasonable to assume that pets can suffer from altitude sickness, says Dr. Christopher Orton, professor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“So the best advice would be to use good judgment for yourself and your pet,” he says. “The greater the change in altitude, the more you need to be careful with your activity levels.

“Acute mountain sickness is not pleasant, but if you slow down a little bit and acclimate, you and your dog will eventually adapt and can enjoy being in the high country.”

However, Dr. Orton cautions that humans and animals living over extended periods at altitude are much more prone to develop a chronic lung condition called pulmonary hypertension.

This disease makes it difficult for the body to process oxygen and, in severe cases, can lead to heart failure and death. Pets that are most susceptible to pulmonary hypertension are those with pre-existing breathing conditions or other medical issues.

“Certain breeds of dogs—like bulldogs and others with pushed-in faces—have trouble breathing to begin with,” he says. “They are more likely to develop this consequence of low oxygen and may even require surgery to open their nasal passages.”

Dr. Orton says chronic bronchitis, which is one of the most common diseases of middle-aged dogs, can also lead to pulmonary hypertension when dogs live at higher altitudes. So it’s no surprise that Colorado is the state with the highest incidence of this chronic breathing disease in both humans and pets.

“I used to practice in Las Vegas and had never seen anything like it,” says Dr. Jennifer Tremblay, a veterinarian in Littleton, Colo.

“I’ve had several cases here, including a dog whose family relocated here from Kansas. The dog had a heart condition and deteriorated very quickly. The owner had to move him back to Kansas to essentially preserve his lung life.”

Dr. Tremblay advises clients who relocate to Colorado to prepare like someone training for the Olympics. “You can’t do it overnight and expect your body—and your dog’s body—to work well,” she says.

“You should also be alert to warning signs that your pet might have a problem. These include coughing, difficulty breathing, and refusing to eat.”

“Another symptom is exercise intolerance, especially among dogs that are very active, but all of a sudden, when they go on a walk, they get winded and have to lay down.”

The key to preventing or minimizing the effects of pulmonary hypertension is to diagnose and treat breathing disorders before they get severe, advises Dr. Orton.

So, before taking your “best friend” to experience the breath-taking vistas of Colorado or other high-altitude destinations, he suggests visiting with your veterinarian about any concerns, so make sure to schedule your dog’s regular health exam.