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Bringing animals to altitude

JULIE SUTORsummit daily news

SUMMIT COUNTY – You packed up your family (all species in tow) and headed to Summit County for a High Country holiday. Now, you have a throbbing High Country headache.You pound water and ibuprofen, toss and turn through a few sleepless nights and gulp for air as you ascend flights of stairs.Your altitude sickness and its symptoms are obvious to you – and to anyone within earshot of your huffing and puffing – but there may be other family members suffering silently from the effects of montane elevations: your pets.”We don’t see it,” said veterinarian Vince Tharp of Alpine Veterinary Practice in Dillon. “They don’t complain like people do, at least not enough that the owner can pick up on it.”The headaches and shortness of breath that afflict about 20 percent of flatlanders vacationing in Summit County can pester dogs and cats, too. But there are precautions pet owners can take to minimize the symptoms among their canine and feline companions.”Just like us, they should drink plenty of water and take it easy the first few days. And no alcohol. Ever,” Tharp said.High altitude has the most dangerous impact on animals with pre-existing heart problems. At low altitudes, a pet may have a heart condition mild enough to have gone unnoticed. At 9,000 feet, however, mild can become major.”When they come up here, it’s a huge thing. We’ve had some die within 24 hours of coming to altitude,” said Tharp, who sees about five cases per year of altitude-related heart problems in his clinic.Signs that point to heart trouble include heavy breathing, lack of stamina, coughing or fainting. An animal may also turn cyanotic – bluish around mucus membranes, particularly on the tongue and whites of the eyes – if it’s not getting enough oxygen.If a pet owner notices any such symptoms, the animal should see a vet as soon as possible.”It’s the same thing that happens to people. Sometimes (owners) pay attention to the symptoms, sometimes they don’t and the animal dies,” Tharp said.Depending on the severity of the case, a vet may treat an animal with medication, a salt-free diet, oxygen or orders to head to more oxygen-rich climes.”If they get up here and they’ve got a heart condition, we’re going to treat them for a short period of time and get them out of the mountains. If they stay, they’re not going to make it,” Tharp said.Local animals that develop heart conditions are not at as great a risk from altitude as those visiting.”We’re going to start finding their heart problem in its early stages, and we’ll be monitoring it all along,” Tharp said.Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 203 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.


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