People sometimes get altitude sickness when they reach an elevation of 8,000 feet or higher. I knew it was a possibility that someone would get sick on our recent trip to Colorado. People who live in Colorado are used to the altitude. People who travel there, especially sea-level dwellers like us, can get quite a shock to their system. It can take anywhere from a couple days to several months of living at higher altitude to fully adjust.
The main goal of our trip was to visit Leadville and hike couple of 14ers – peaks that exceed 14,000 feet. The town of Leadville itself sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet, which is already above the elevation threshold where altitude sickness can occur.
We planned to climb one of the “easiest” 14ers – Mt. Sherman – and the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States – Mt. Elbert. Mt. Elbert is the highest peak in the contiguous United States that dogs are allowed on.
I was curious if Chester and Gretel could get sick too so I researched it before we left. It turns out that dogs CAN get altitude sickness.
Signs of Altitude Sickness in Dogs
Altitude sickness happens because the air is is “thinner” at elevation and the or dog can’t get enough oxygen. Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us when they feel bad and will often push themselves to please you. It’s important to know the symptoms of altitude sickness so you can recognize when your pup may be in trouble.
The symptoms can vary but include:
- Excessive panting
- Excessive drooling
- Dry Cough
- Pale gums
- Increased pulse
- Swelling of feet and possibly the face
- Dizziness and lack of coordination
- Lethargy and refusal to move
- Headache (not usually a visible sign in dogs but their head can hurt)
- Bleeding from the nose and retina (only in extreme cases)
What to Do if Your Dog Shows Signs of Altitude Sickness
Prevention is the best medicine but it’s not a guarantee that your dog won’t get altitude sickness. To prepare, it’s best if you can stay for several days to weeks at higher elevation to acclimate before the hike. That is not always realistic if you are on a quick trip.
Other things you can do to prevent altitude sickness in your dog are:
- Hike at a slower pace to make the ascent more gradual
- Make sure that your dog is drinking enough water
If your dog is showing signs of altitude sickness, you should:
- Immediately hike to a lower elevation
- Give them plenty of water to rehydrate (you might have to pour it down their throat using a syringe from your first aid kit)
- Rest until their behavior and respiration/heartbeat returns to normal
If something still seems off after you do the above, get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. There may be something else going on.
Our Experience Climbing Mt. Elbert with the Dogs
We had been in Colorado for a couple of days, but at a lower elevation than Leadville, when we attempted to hike Mt. Sherman. Right away, Chester was hiking super slow. We chalked it up to his old age and put him in my backpack. Gretel wanted to charge to the top as usual so we let her hike.
It’s turns out that this “easier” 14er wasn’t easy at all. Once we crossed the initial meadow, it headed straight up this boulder field and scree slope. It was STEEP! I started feeling weak. I was staying alert for signs of altitude sickness but, at that point, I figured most of my difficulty was due to the extra 15 lbs in my pack. We continued to follow Gretel up the mountain, stopping for a breather every few hundred feet. In less than two miles I started feeling a little sick to my stomach and getting a bit of a headache. Shawn took over wearing Chester and we decided to turn around.
I know that altitude sickness can be bad. I also know many people that have pushed themselves to a point of being physically sick – like my little brother who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro – and been totally fine once they hiked down. However, I also knew it is something that should be taken seriously and that it can take some people over a week to recover. Since we were only going to have 4 more days in Leadville to try and climb Mt. Elbert, I decided quit while I was ahead.
Up to this point, neither of the dogs had been showing signs of altitude sickness. I wouldn’t really expect it from Chester since he was getting a lazy ride up the mountain. Gretel seemed unphased too. It was a different story for the next few days though.
While Gretel never showed any severe signs if altitude sickness, she was definitely acting different. She was squinting more. Now, she has sensitive eyes, and sun at higher elevations can be ore intense, so it could have been that except that she wasn’t like that for the previous 3 days in Colorado. Someone suggested that she might have a doggy headache but, honestly, it’s hard to prove that. It could have been. The biggest thing was how exhausted and sluggish she was. She slept way more than usual. When she was awake, she always looked like she was just waking up from a deep sleep.
We took it easy around town the next couple of days. Everyone told me that drinking lots and lots of water – “so much that you are drowning” to be exact – would help so I made sure to hydrate as much as I could. I tried taking my severe headache medicine but it wasn’t helping. So I did what you do and took to Mr. Google to see if something else would help. It turns out that plain ol’ ibuprofen can help with altitude sickness.
I made sure that Chester and Gretel got extra water. I even mixed a little Gatorade in some water to flavor it and add electrolytes (I don’t recommend this on a regular basis but, after checking that there was no xylitol it in, I figured that the benefits were worth incorporating it short-term).
We used our down-time to drive the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway and look at all of the old, abandoned mine ruins. We took a day trip to Aspen to see the famous Maroon Bells and had a wonderful lunch. We spent a day catching up on emails and wandering around Leadville. My stomach continued to feel a little icky.
By the third day of rest I was feeling a lot better. Gretel seemed back to her normal self too. We attempted Mt. Elbert on our final day in Leadville… and made it!