New Mexico pet hazards: ENVIRONMENTAL!
Santa Fe is high! The city limits are at around 7000 feet above sea level (about 50% higher than the "mile high city" of Denver), which can pose problems for people and pets. If you are a recent arrival to Santa Fe, you might notice that you become short of breath after climbing a few sets of stairs that normally would not give you any trouble at all. This is because the atmospheric pressure at high elevation is lower, resulting in thinner air. So, while the concentration of oxygen in the air is basically the same in Santa Fe as it is at sea level (a shade under 21%), there are fewer oxygen molecules in every breath for your body (or your pet's body!) to use.
We often see patients with heart or lung disease who have recently moved or traveled here from a different location and are all of a sudden having trouble breathing. This can be really alarming for pet owners and for us- the sight of animal in respiratory distress, gasping for breath, is scary! Sometimes, the patient''s owners do not even know that he or she has a health problem until the family travels to Santa Fe and the pet ends up in the hospital.
Finding a solution to this problem is complicated. We can provide supplemental oxygen to patients while they are in the hospital, and sometimes a jolt of oxygen plus some medications are enough to manage the disease, but not always. Owners have purchased supplies of oxygen and oxygen tents for their pets, but this is not an option available to everyone. The best solution can be to simply take the patient back to some thicker air where he or she can breathe more easily. In fact, we have also had long-time patients develop heart or lung disease and move to lower elevation, where they are able to have a much-improved quality of life without extensive medical intervention, just due to the increased availability of oxygen in the atmosphere!
If you are thinking of traveling to Santa Fe or another high-altitude destination and your pet suffers from heart or lung problems, check with your veterinarian first!
Santa Fe is (or can be) hot! You might know that dogs and cats cannot cool themselves as effectively as humans, largely because they are mostly unable to sweat. If a dog or cat becomes overheated, he or she is basically limited to a) panting or b) finding a cool place to relax. They have some ability to sweat through their paws, but it is not very effective.
Just like people, if pets become overheated, they can get very sick. Signs that your pet may be overheated include lethargy, panting, drooling, red (as opposed to pink) gums, decreased urine production, and a rapid heart rate even when resting.
During the warmer parts of the year, it is best to spend time outside with your pets in the morning and evening, when temperatures are more moderate. If you have a particularly fuzzy (Husky, Malamute) or short-nosed (bulldog) breed, precautions are even more important, as these dogs are more susceptible to overheating.
Treatment for overheated pets generally involves cooling them down with a variety of methods, as well as IV fluid therapy, because when a pet is overheated, he or she is also likely to be suffering from...
Santa Fe is dry! It is a desert, after all, but not everyone is accustomed to living and owning pets in such an environment. Whether you are moving here or just visiting, you will have to get used to being a lot more conscious about the amount of water you drink, and the same goes for your furry friends! Make sure you have cool water available for them at all times, and be extra-conscious about bringing enough water for you and your pet when you are out on a walk. The combination of heat and dry air can become problematic more quickly than you might expect.
The signs of dehydration are similar to those for heat exhaustion- lethargy, panting, reddened gums, gums that are sticky or tacky as opposed to being slippery and moist. In extreme cases, you may also notice a "skin tent"- that is, if you pinch some of your pet's loose skin, it will stick in that position for a minute before subsiding- and his or her eyes may also appear sunken. If you notice either of these last two signs, your pet needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately, as severe dehydration can cause kidney failure and other health problems.
Again, the treatment for DEhydration is generally REhydration, ideally with IV fluids. Depending on the extent of the dehydration and any complicating factors, the patient may have to be hospitalized for a period of time while he or she recovers.
Santa Fe is sunny! In fact, that is probably one of the factors that makes it so appealing as a place to live- very few days here are cloudy or overcast. Unfortunately, the combination of few clouds and high altitude mean that we get quite a bit more solar radiation than people and pets living in lower and cloudier places. The atmosphere does quite a bit to protect people at sea level from the sun's rays, but 7000+ feet less of it means we can all get sunburned pretty easily.
Dogs and cats do have fur, but some breeds have very thin fur that does not do much to protect them from the sun. Additionally, dog and cat noses, eyes, and sometimes bellies lack even a thin covering of fur, and are susceptible to damage from solar radiation. If they are white- or light-colored pets, they are at increased risk due to lack of pigment in the skin. We do see pets in the summer with sunburns on their bellies and on the skin at the edges of their eyes, so if your pets spend a lot of time outdoors, make sure they have a shady spot to which they can retreat when necessary.
To avoid sunburn (and dehydration, and heat exhaustion- sorry to sound like a broken record), take your pets outside in the early morning and evening, when there is less sun to worry about. There are also pet-safe sunscreens out there, as well as- no laughing!- pet sunglasses.
On the subject of pet sunglasses, there is also an eye condition called "pannus," seen more frequently in Santa Fe (and other high-altitude places) than usual.
Pannus is a corneal inflammatory disease, and its symptoms can include discoloration of the eye, blood vessel overgrowth, and eye haziness. One of the risk factors for pannus is exposure to large amounts of ultraviolet radiation, which is definitely a consequence of living at high altitude. There are also some breeds who are thought to be predisposed to pannus. Check the link for more information, and if you are concerned about your pet's eyes, please bring him or her to a vet! Pannus is a progressive disease, so early detection is best.
Of course, the purpose of all this is not to convince people that Santa Fe is a terrible place to bring your pet or yourself. It is a beautiful place with wonderful warm, dry, sunny weather. We are just trying to make sure that you pet owners have as much information as possible so that you are well-equipped to keep your pets as safe, healthy, and happy as possible. Thank you for reading!