Many humans know little about altitude and the effects it can have when they come into the mountains. Even at 8000 feet in downtown Aspen, newcomers arrive, unpack and hit the bars on the first night. Then they wonder why they get headaches and pass gas like a vegetarian on an all-bean diet. Usually they acclimatize in two or three days, less if they avoid heavy exertion, drink little or no alcohol and most importantly, if they drink a lot of water.
Dogs can experience altitude sickness too, especially at elevations higher than 8000 feet. Some dogs may even suffer from altitude sickness during airplane flights that are typically pressurized to 9000 feet. Altitudes above 11,500 feet are considered extreme for both humans and dogs.
It is a lot easier to diagnose altitude sickness in humans than in dogs. If you’re looking at a friend and they have a furrowed brow from a headache, grayish complexion, blue lips and/or tongue, or show signs of nausea, lack of appetite and energy, they likely have altitude sickness. If it is serious, getting to a hospital is paramount. Otherwise, lots of water, rest and a Tylenol should do the trick in a day or two.
Dogs can experience similar symptoms, but these are harder to see. They tend to push through the symptoms to please their owner. The symptoms of altitude sickness in dogs include panting, dry cough, drooling or vomiting, gray or blue-tinged gums or tongue, lack of coordination or lethargy and refusal to move.
If your intent is to hike a high mountain with a dog, the best precaution is to take the dog on a few hikes to 1000 or 2000 feet lower than the target mountain a few days earlier. This is also good advice for humans for acclimatization.
I watched my dog Emme carefully for symptoms since dogs can’t talk or complain. These symptoms are most likely to occur if the dog gets dehydrated, so always have plenty of extra water and a cup or collapsible bowl for the dog. People tend to drink too little also. A rule of trail etiquette that I learned from experienced climbers is that if someone drops back from the group, don’t look around, they are probably peeing. If you’re not peeing every two hours, you’re probably not drinking enough.
As with humans, the only immediate remedy for altitude sickness in a dog is to turn around and get to a lower altitude. If symptoms persist, the dog should go to a vet.
I often see other dogs on hikes in the mountains, and they are usually fine. On occasion I have come across a dog owner who did not have enough water for their dog or a cup in which to put water for a dog to drink. In those situations, I have never been able to restrain myself from sharing my opinion of their irresponsibility. Of course, that never goes over well, but I don’t care. In my view they are heartless idiots and deserved my tongue lashing.