Stray dogs gather around a monk at Wat Kroen in Pathum Thani district in Thailand. The spread of rabies has led the temple to ask officials to vaccinate the dogs urgently. Photo: AFP/Bangkok Post/Apichit Jinakul

As the winter months drive foreigners from their chilly homes in the West to the attractions of Thailand, more and more people are returning home a bit traumatized from visiting the tropical paradise.

Too often the quaint Thai philosophy of mai pen rai, or never mind, is proving to be the cause of dog attacks, too often requiring hasty retreats to hospitals for painful and expensive – for foreigners – rabies treatments.

My wife and I have been visiting Thailand regularly for the past 10 or so years. Now we do so more consistently as a result of our son marrying a Thai. Being semi-retired, we have adopted a prolonged lifestyle approach to our visits rather than the simple joys of tourism.

As we have become more socialized, we have been discovering the pluses and minuses of Thai society. Most notable of late was when my wife was attacked by an unprovoked dog, resulting in serious leg wounds.

The dog in question normally sleeps in front of two shops, since each evening one of the shop owners provides a plastic bag of food scraps. The dog lacks a collar and license and whoever supports the dog is not motivated to legally adopt it as the registration and medical fees are greater than the conceivable fines for failing to do so.

Temple dogs

This incident caused us to focus on Thai attitudes towards dogs. Their outlooks are unsurprisingly Buddhist. In fact, there are few dog pounds in Thailand, but Buddhist temples take in unwanted dogs where the monks feed them.

In some temples, monks even provide canine discipline training for a donation. In other temples, dogs simply die and their corpses are disposed at the end of the day.

Outside the temples, there are four types of dogs. The first sort are truly pet dogs, often pure breeds or special cross-breeds, which can be expensive and they get pampered as family pets. The next group are not particularly valuable dogs, but are registered as owned animals and serve as guard dogs for the homes and businesses of their owners, and like pet dogs, are often considered to be family members.

The next two types share a fuzzy definition as both are essentially stray animals. Together, they overwhelming form the largest block of dogs. Some of these mutts are semi-domesticated since they hang out where they are fed daily. But most Thai dogs make up the fourth category as free-ranging feral animals that survive on their own and sometimes in roving packs.

Many Thais look kindly on all dogs as spiritual beings who did not quite make it to being human during their last round of reincarnation. Who knows? That mutt just could be one’s deceased relative who didn’t seem well poised to come back as a human.

In any case, it is always good karma to provide care and food to animals – with dogs and a few other animals, such as elephants, being on the higher end of the multi-life spiritual journey hierarchy.

All of the above may seem interesting and even quaint. That is, until some past grandma, now in a dog’s body, decides to take a serious bite out of you.

Rabies untreated

Once bitten, one needs to recognize the high rate of rabies among these wild creatures. During our online research, we found unrealistic citations of rabies infestations among Bangkok dogs ranging from 0.03% to as high as 40%. However, the coincidental rough average of these extremes of 15% seems reasonable.

Of course, untreated rabies is always fatal, but there are wild puppies being born hourly, some of which somehow survive to adulthood. Many end up becoming rabid.

In neighboring Islamic nations, feral dogs appear to be not much of a problem as the Muslims regard dogs in general as dirty animals and have few problems with the eradication of unclaimed canines.

In Thailand, the police are accommodating of reported dog attacks, but our observations suggest that the matter is treated less seriously than in other nations, probably since occurrences are not uncommon and often the reported dog is not actually rapid.

In our case, the attacking dog ended up being muzzled – at least for the time being.

Even in indulgent Thailand, however, there are limits. This is especially the case when a dog attack draws international attention to a major tourist destination, as was the case last February when a five-year-old Finn was badly mauled by a pack of wild dogs on the beaches of Krabi.

Before then, in October 2018, a Christchurch teenager was nearly attacked by a pack of 12 dogs, after being bitten on her bottom by a single dog. She escaped a mauling by diving into the sea and treading water until the dogs lost interest.

These are just two of the most infamous recent examples. Checking a South Korean web site dedicated to visiting Thailand, my Korean wife found many examples of dangerous run-ins with feral dogs.

So, what to do? Obviously, the first order of business is not to get bitten. Dogs will attack when frightened, challenged or sometimes amused.

The New Zealand teenager who survived an attack gave some advice: “Especially in the mornings, this is their hunting period, so don’t run because they might see you as prey.”

When confronting an unknown dog, avoid contact and give enough room for both you and the dog without you acting fearful. When challenged, you need to appear big and powerful in any way possible. Running away is the worst tactic as that triggers the chase mechanism on the dog’s part.

What to do if bitten

If bitten, the first priority is to quickly determine and note who may be the dog’s owner, if there is one. Immediately, one should wash the wound and if possible, apply a disinfectant. Then, without delay, go to a medical facility, preferably a well-regarded hospital, for inoculations against rabies and tetanus.

Unfortunately, be prepared to be charged substantially more if you are not a Thai. Why foreigners are charged more is simply because hospitals are allowed to get away with it and there is a thin alibi of the extra concerns of dealing with non-Thai-speaking clients. Rest assured, even if you are bilingual in Thai, as a foreigner, you will be charged more.

For safety sake, since rabies is such a dangerous disease, I would not be too concerned about dropping the first 12,000 baht. But for the follow-up shots, etc, there can be less expensive alternatives.

One such place is Thai Travel Clinic within the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, Mahidol University, about a 10-15 minute walk from the Victory Monument BTS station.

Next, one should report the biting incident to local police. Law number 377 stipulates up to one year in jail and a fine of 10,000 baht for dog owners who allow their animals out to attack people. In addition, owners are liable for the medical bills.

However, when police investigate, too often all they find are friendly, tail-wagging mutts with no one accepting ownership of the dogs. Consequently, don’t be surprised if the police are polite but not particularly alarmed when you file your report.

So, should the visitor to Thailand get a rabies vaccine? The general answer is probably no. A more complete answer is that it depends. The compelling factors in favor of pre-exposure rabies vaccine may be for those travelers who will travel in a rural or remote area where standard medical care is not available, participate in high-risk activities, such as cycling, backpacking, etc; and plan to stay in remote areas longer than two weeks.

The advantages of getting a rabies vaccine before travel is having some protection which could give you some peace of mind, and you are not required to get the painful and expensive immunoglobulin shot – found in only major cities, which may require emergency air travel – when you are bitten. However, you will still need to get two shots of rabies vaccine on Day 0 and Day 3.

In other words, there is more to Thailand than surf, sun and elephant rides. Like any place, there are potential dangers, but the best safeguard anywhere is being forewarned.

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