Just a mention of Thailand is usually enough to conjure images of impossibly white sands, craggy limestone cliffs, gold-glimmering Buddhist shrines, and uber-friendly people. But if you’re lucky enough to have ever set foot in The Land of Smiles, one thing that will have stood out from the walking streets of Pai to the beaches of Koh Tao is the large stray cat and dog population.
Yep, there are thousands of street animals wandering Thailand. Bangkok alone is estimated to have up to 300,000, with something in the region of 800,000 across the whole country. That’s a whopping eighth of all the canines in the country as a whole. And things are likely to get worse, with some projections showing that the home of sticky mango rice will have close to a million strays by the late 2020s!
This guide takes a closer look at stray dogs in Thailand so you can find out how to act around aggressive dogs, how dogs fit into Thai culture, and what’s being done to manage the overpopulation. You’ll also find out what you can do to help with the stray dog epidemic in this beautiful nation. So, let’s get into it…
Why are there so many stray dogs in Thailand?
As is the case in most of Southeast Asia, the stray dog problem in Thailand comes down to two coinciding factors: Pet owners failing to sterilize their animals and dogs being abandoned once they no longer serve a purpose or can be taken care of.
Many dogs are deemed undesirable once they’re no longer puppies. Puppies are effortlessly cute and amuse children and guests. But older dogs prove less fun to play with, and once dogs reach adulthood, they can sometimes develop aggressive traits. Dogs are also costly to take care of and having an extra mouth to feed can put a real strain on a family’s resources in this part of the world. If acquiring a dog has not been adequately thought through, Thai families have to prioritize their livelihood over their ownership of the animal.
With limited restrictions and resources regarding adoption and rehoming in Thailand, thousands of dogs are cruelly abandoned on the streets every year, regardless of their age and nature. Many dogs are dumped at Buddhist temples assuming that monks will feed and care for them, but this is often far from the truth. The uncontrollable stray population affects everyone, and unwanted pets are seen as an annoyance to most resident monks.
Unneutered or unspayed stray dogs will freely mate on the streets and so the problem exacerbates. That can lead to birthing puppies on roadsides and exponential growth in the stray populations.
What is the role of dogs in Thai culture?
There are around 8.5 million dogs in Thailand, close to one million of which are strays and 730,000 believed to have been abandoned. Thai people love pets and enjoy pampering, dressing, and treating dogs like children. But responsibility for animals is often forgotten in Thai culture. Dogs can be seen as domestic entertainment, toys, or a marker of wealth, rather than a member of the family as is common in the Western Hemisphere.
While many Thais are compassionate animal lovers, and some even go out of their way to feed street dogs, this often doesn’t lead to adoption. It’s easy in Thai culture to turn a blind eye to the homeless dog population as they appear to live in harmony with society. Still, many street dogs face miserable fates and die of starvation or disease on Thailand’s streets. They can also attack other dogs and humans and spread disease.
Dog bites account for as much as 95 percent of all human rabies-related deaths in Thailand. Dogs can also spread rabies to other species like cows and cats, with which the Thai population interacts regularly. In fact, rabies cases have more than doubled in Thailand in the last three years, and that’s largely down to the stray dog population. Yet, many stray dogs remain unvaccinated and unmanaged.
Should you be careful of stray dogs in Thailand?
In the Western world, dogs are usually not to be feared and have gentle temperaments, developing beautiful relationships with humans. The same is actually true of the stray dogs in Thailand, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wary when interacting with them on the street.
As mentioned, stray dogs can carry a number of diseases, many of which go undetected and can be transmitted to humans. Stray dogs can also be ridden with fleas and ticks and are often unclean. Contact with stray dogs can expose you and your pets to lice and harmful bacteria.
It’s best to keep a safe distance from stray dogs, and if you come into contact with their fur, wash your hands and skin as soon as possible. Stray dogs will often approach tourists and dwellers in the hope of food and do so in a friendly manner. But if you want to feed a stray dog, do it away from restaurants, hotels, and other dogs.
Business owners can become annoyed and link stray dogs to a lack of trade if you feed them nearby. They can even take this out on the dogs, so failing to consider your environment when feeding a dog could do more harm than good.
Groups of dogs are likely to get territorial or aggressive over food, which could lead to alienation or even dog fights. Always exercise caution and look out for aggressive behavior before interacting with stray dogs.
How do you deal with aggressive stray dogs in Thailand?
Most stray dogs in Thailand are well-natured and loving. If they’ve been abandoned, then they’re likely to be familiar with humans and desperate for love. This means you’re likely to have many fond memories of interactions with stray dogs from your trip to Thailand.
Still, many street dogs will have experienced hardship, neglect, and even abuse from humans. Fear and trauma in dogs often manifest as hostility and anger. A sudden change in temperament is also a common side effect of diseases like rabies and other ailments like injuries, skin irritation, pregnancy, or anything that makes the animal feel vulnerable.
It’s always advised to be cautious of unknown animals. So how do you identify an aggressive dog, and how should you react?
Before approaching, or even in passing, look out for the dog’s body language. If a dog’s tail is high and wagging, this is a sign of friendliness. Bright eyes, an open, relaxed mouth, relaxed ears, and a non-defensive stance are all signs that the animal is fine to approach. However, low or slowly wagging tails and a crouched stance can be signs of apprehension or intent to attack. Showing teeth, low growling, flat ears, and barking are all signs of hostility too, so keeping your distance is a must.
Street dogs are very territorial and could be protecting something without you knowing. Street dogs often dwell at housing complexes, and while homeless, they defend the land, children, and their puppies. If you’re approaching for an unknown reason or you’re an unfamiliar face, the dog will likely see you as a threat and be ready to put up a defense. So make sure you never scare, confuse, or aggravate stray dogs.
If you do encounter an aggressive dog or get yourself into an unpleasant situation, make sure you do the following:
- If possible, don’t make sudden movements and stop walking in the dog’s direction.
- If you can’t leave calmly, stay still and display relaxed body language; dogs can interpret human fear as threatening.
- Avoid making eye contact and don’t aggravate the animal.
- Consider showing your intentions by making calming and affectionate noises or slowly bending down, so you appear less intimidating.
- Ask a local or passerby for help.
To avoid getting in negative situations with stray dogs in Thailand, always follow these tips:
- Don’t turn up unannounced or make sudden loud noises when arriving somewhere, for example, with a noisy motorbike.
- Move slowly and calmly around stray dogs and avoid looking at them in the eyes.
- Let dogs approach and sniff you without showing fear.
- Avoid poorly lit areas and unfamiliar alleyways where you might spook a dog or they might spring upon you.
- Don’t feed stray dogs or cats from your restaurant table, especially if other dogs are around.
- Be aware of dogs around you; never step over or on a dog, especially in a driveway.
- Don’t run from stray dogs.
Can you adopt a stray dog from Thailand?
Adopting a stray dog in Thailand could save its life, and it’s positively encouraged by animal charities across the country. Still, you can’t just take dogs off the street.
There’s actually no formal adoption requirement in Thailand, but street animals aren’t always homeless, and it’s best to go through an official shelter or consult local authorities before adopting.
Unlike Bali, where dogs legally aren’t allowed to leave the island, you can adopt dogs both in and from Thailand, and you don’t have to live in Thailand to do so. Many charities and shelters will even help arrange for your dog to be flown back to your home country with willing volunteers to facilitate the adoption process. But adopting from Thailand when you’re not in the country is decidedly harder.
Most countries require preparation, medical checks, and paperwork to accept dogs from other countries, so make sure you’ve done all the research before committing. Some countries strictly prohibit foreign dogs, so ensure that where you live isn’t one of these before setting the ball rolling.
If you do live in Thailand, adopting is much easier and as simple as signing a piece of paper claiming you won’t abandon or harm the animal. You can also foster animals to look after them before finding a forever home. This can be a great way to get the dog familiar with people and advertise the dog’s availability for adoption. However, you and the dog are likely to form a connection, which can complicate things emotionally for both dog and human when you come to separate.
Wherever you are, adopt and don’t shop. There are millions of stray dogs worldwide in need of loving homes, and you should avoid buying puppies that will easily otherwise find homes.
There are loads of organizations in Thailand with more information on dog adoption, which can help connect you with rescue dogs in need of love. Here are just a few to get in touch with:
- Soi Dog Foundation
- JAI Dog Rescue
- Rescue Paws Thailand
- Lanta Animal Welfare – A dog and cat sanctuary on the island of Koh Lanta.
- Forget Me Not – Thailand – A Facebook community that organizes dog rehoming.
- The Adoptable Puppy Café – Another Facebook community for dog adopters.
Other ways you can help
If you’re unable to adopt, you can sponsor a shelter dog, send donations, and volunteer at shelters across Thailand to do your bit for the stray dog population. The organizations that run these shelters have launched several initiatives to get homeless dogs vaccinated and neutered if they can’t get them off the streets, and they always need extra hands.
Always contact shelters in advance and don’t just turn up offering your services. It’s not uncommon for volunteers to be vetted and have to prove their commitment to volunteering. You should also be prepared to pay a fee to volunteer, this often covers your food and accommodation if you’re lodging with a charity, but this also goes towards the dogs you’ll be caring for.
Make sure your vaccinations are up to date before volunteering, and experience with dogs is always advised as you could be working with hostile animals. Some work is very hands-on, so don’t commit to volunteering if you can’t keep up with the physical demands. Also, know what you’re getting into. Rescue dogs are often in a bad way, and their stories of suffering can be heartbreaking. Still, exposing yourself to this can be an excellent way to feel less helpless and become more active in ending the suffering of street dogs.
Check out these rescue centers doing groundbreaking work across Thailand if you want to donate, lend a hand or learn more:
Koh Lanta Animal Welfare – Lanta Welfare is a non-profit dedicated to reducing the suffering of dogs and cats in Koh Lanta and beyond. The organization rehabilitates sick or endangered animals and takes on regular volunteers for two to eight week periods. If you can’t offer your services, you can turn up and play with the cats or even take select dogs out for walks around the island.
Koh Phangan Animal Care for Strays (PACS) – PACs is a charitable veterinary organization dedicated to controlling the stray dog population in Thailand. They launched a widespread sterilization initiative on the island that has stretched to Koh Tao and Koh Samui shores. Founded by Irish Vet Sevaun Gallwey in 2001, the charity wants to put an end to the rabies epidemic in Thailand.
Phuket Soi Dog Foundation – Soi Dog is southeast Asia’s largest rescue organization for vulnerable dogs. Their shelter in Phuket takes volunteers, donations and encourages foreign and local adoption. They’re also committed to ending the dog meat trade by boycotting dog ceremonies and rescuing sacrificial dogs in Thailand and worldwide.