Where the hell is that flyer from the health administration? Slightly panicked I desperately roam through my backpack looking for my travel papers and a clean pair of pants. A shock of pain shoots through my calf. My travel companion tries to put my mind at ease as she hands over my passport. ‘The taxi is here, lets go’ she says. We arrive at the first aid centre 15 minutes later. To take my mind of all the scary ideas popping up in my head I focus on the voice calling out the patient numbers. They call out my number and I head over to the patient room. While fighting my tears I show the wound on my leg and explain I am not vaccinated. The doctor shrugs his head and tells me to stay put for another 24 hours. He argues a dog’s bite wound in the calf isn’t that great of a risk anyway.
In South America encounters with stray dogs are unavoidable. Stray dogs are dogs that live on the streets and do not have an owner. In my experience most dogs on the street are almost as adorable as my dogs back home. However, stray dogs can be dangerous in some situations as they carry diseases. Moreover, as a result of traumatic experiences stray dogs can be aggressive towards humans. I have first hand experience with an aggressive stray dog that bit me in Ecuador. As it turned out I was highly unprepared for the situation and in hindsight I was very lucky. To prepare other travellers I have listed some points to pay attention to deal with stray dogs while traveling.
1. GET YOUR VACCIN
It is recommended that you get vaccinated for rabies before departure. Rabies is transmitted by dogs to people through a dog’s saliva or by scratching or biting. To protect yourself against rabies get two vaccinations before departure with at least a week between vaccinations. Please note these vaccination do not fully protect you against rabies. After exposure to rabies it is highly recommended to see a doctor immediately to get two more vaccinations.
After exposure to rabies without vaccinations, you must get five vaccinations abroad and an anti-serum. It is risky to travel without vaccinations because the anti-serum is not available in remote destinations. For that reason it can be dangerous to travel without vaccinations. Please contact a specialist before departure for more information.
2. PREPARE FOR ENCOUNTERS
In Western destinations it is not very likely to encounter dogs living on the street. In case one does encounter stray dogs there are organisations that can organise shelter for the dogs. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in many destinations in the world and also in South America. It is very important to realise this before you start your journey. It is heartbreaking to see our furry friends roam the streets with hunger and wounds, but unfortunately not all dogs can be saved during your trip.
In South America better treatment for dogs living on the street is developing but there is still a long way to go. The best way to help fighting poor living circumstances of stray dogs is to donate money to a local foundation that vaccinates and or shelters stray dogs. It is not recommended to feed stray dogs because this can lead to violent conflicts between dogs and dependence.
3. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM AGGRESSIVE DOGS AND AVOID EYE CONTACT
As a result of poor treatment by humans some stray dogs may be traumatised and act aggressively towards people. There are a few characteristics of aggressive dogs that are easy to recognise. An aggressive dog often shows its teeth and growls. There is also a good chance that aggressive dogs will look you in the eye and its hair are standing up straight.
Especially in smaller villages, suburbs of cities or along popular hiking trails, you are more likely to encounter aggressive stray dogs. Try to prevent a confrontation with these dogs by avoiding them and avoiding eye contact. Protect yourself by bringing a dog whistle or stone to risky areas. A dog whistle makes an ultrasound that scares dogs and you can use the stone to threaten the dog. Please only use these measures in the extreme case that an aggressive dog approaches you. Certainly not if it is not necessary.
4. TAKE A HOT SHOWER AND INFORM OTHERS AFTER A RISK OF FLEAS
5. KEEP YOUR HEAD COOL WHEN A DOG ATTACKS YOU
An encounter with stray dogs that poses a risk to your health can happen to anyone. When I got bitten by a dog there was barely anything I could’ve done, except for getting vaccinated before departure. The dog came running towards me from the back and bit my leg before I noticed the dog in the first place. When you are attacked by a dog it is best to remain standing and try to focus on where the dog bites you. Particularly, try to prevent the dog from biting your hands, feet or face. The risk of transmission of diseases is greatest in these parts of your body. After you have been exposed to saliva of a stray dog, have been scratched or bitten, it is important to thoroughly wash the area of contact with water and disinfectant soap. The next step is an immediate trip to the hospital, with or without vaccinations.
There is no need to worry about stray dogs when you start your trip prepared. Remember that unfortunately you cannot save all stray dogs during your trip. There is always a small possibility that you will have an unpleasant experience with stray dogs like I did. But, the chances are much greater that you have a nice experience with a cutesy dog accompanying you on the beach or during a hike. Try to recognise the signs of aggressive dogs or dogs that carry fleas and avoid confrontation with these dogs at all times.