Breathing and other bodily function differently at higher elevations, and owners should be aware of these effects on their pets. Human athletes put in extra training to prepare for events at high altitudes, and your dog should also be prepared before running in the mountains. A little extra conditioning will give your dog an edge and make his high-altitude experience much more pleasant.
What Happens at High Altitudes?
Hypoxia, commonly referred to as mountain sickness in humans, can also befall your furry friend. While not as common in dogs as it is in people, it can still affect your dog’s ability to run. Hypoxia occurs when oxygen levels in the blood drop to uncomfortable levels. The air at high altitudes is thinner than that at sea level, and the dog must breathe more frequently to compensate for this lack of oxygen. The heart pumps harder in an effort to circulate smaller amounts of oxygen, leading to increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Dogs suffering from hypoxia may seem lethargic and uninterested in his surroundings. He may also pant excessively and have dark purple or blue tongue and gums.
Conditioning your dog to run at altitude is a slow process that should begin with a trip to your vet. Explain your goals to your veterinarian, who will examine your dog for any health concerns that would be aggravated by high altitudes. The focus is to build his endurance at lower elevations and slowly expose him to higher altitudes to acclimate his body to lower oxygen levels. Start with a 5 minute jog through your neighborhood once a day for a week; as long as your dog seems rested and isn't winded at the end of the one, extend it by an additional 5 minutes per week. Once the dog is comfortable jogging for 30 minutes at low elevation, take him on a short run at a higher altitude. Don’t jump from sea level to 5,000 feet; take it slow and increase the elevation in small increments until the dog is jogging comfortably at your desired altitude.
The weather is another factor in running at altitudes with your dog. The cold is colder, the sun is more powerful, and the wind feels more uncomfortable the higher up you run. The weather can change dramatically over the course of a few hundred feet, so pack warm clothes for yourself, and plenty of water for you both you and your dog. If your dog is a light color, such as white or cream with pink skin, slather on a little pet-safe sunscreen before hitting the trail. An ideal piece of equipment would be a satellite phone in case there is poor cellular signal, but keep your cell phone with you at all times.
When to Call the Vet
Keep an eye on your dog as you run; even a well-conditioned running partner may experience problems on the trail. If your dog suddenly stops running or starts coughing, turn around and head back down the trail. Give him a few drinks of water, and allow him to relax for a few minutes before continuing down the mountain. If the dog refuses to stand up, seems confused or has difficulty walking, call your vet, carry the dog off the trail and head straight to the clinic.
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