Dog bites on the rise in 2022 as JDWNRH records more than 100 dog bite cases per month in Thimphu

6,873 dog bites recorded nationally in 2021

The Emergency Department in Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) has recorded 20 cases of people bitten by stray dogs from 1 to 7 July 2022 in the capital. In the June month alone, more than 100 dog bites have been recorded in the Emergency Department. On an average, JDWNRH receives more than 100 dog bite cases every month.

The Clinical Nurse in Emergency Department said the number of dog bites has increased compared to the past. The department receives up to 10 cases of dog bites in a day, with few cases where people are bitten by pet dogs, and some rare cat bites too. The severity of the cases range from minor to severe.

Incidents and rising numbers

A month ago, when Yenten Thinley was returning home from office, a dog from a pack of stray dogs roaming near his neighborhood had bitten him on the calf of his left leg.

He said the dogs started barking at him, and just when he thought he had stood his ground and chased them away, the dogs came silently from behind him to bite.

“The same pack of dogs has bitten many passersby,” he said.

In May 2022, a seven-year-old child was mauled to death by feral dogs in front of her house in Genekha.

Karma Tshering from Thimphu said that he is regularly attacked by dogs while he is jogging and even when he is biking, and he was treated for a dog bite last year.

“Even neighbourhood dogs have started running after cars, joggers and cyclists, especially in the early mornings. It is a new trend and very dangerous,” he said.

A couple of years ago, a drunk woman had passed out on the streets in Jungshina, and was set upon by stray dogs who attacked and tore out a chunk of her inner thigh.

The Department of Livestock (DoL) recently received multiple calls from people complaining about a pack of semi-feral or feral dogs on the upper Sangaygang road who are aggressive towards people walking, running or cycling in the areas. Action is being taken to relocate them.

The dog problem, however, is not confined to Thimphu alone. Recently an Nun of the Dra Karpo Monastery in Shabha, Paro was set upon by a stray dog that tore her ankle and her clothes too. She required multiple stiches to treat her wounds, and she now has difficulty walking and has to use taxis to move around. The same stray dog that had bitten the Anim was known to attack other people too.

Tandi Wangmo of UNDOC said that the issue is worse in Phobjikha, Wangdue where two packs of dogs numbering 14 and 9 each live in the protected Ramsar area and attack livestock and people.

The Annual Health Bulletin reports that in 2021, there were 6,873 dog bite cases up from 6,430 cases in 2020. These are again the medically reported cases only, and do not include those who have not sought medical treatment, especially in remote areas. For a population of around 700,000 Bhutanese, this is almost equivalent to one in every hundred Bhutanese being bitten by dogs every year.

Threat to wildlife and livestock

Unvaccinated dogs and feral dogs are not just a threat to humans, but also to wildlife and livestock in Bhutan.

In March 2018, the social media was agog with a tiger walking along the main road in Kabesa, Thimphu as cars drove by. It was a deep mystery as to why a tiger previously spotted in the wild tiger range areas only would move into an urban area.

However, the tiger died a few days later, and when forest officials looked for the cause of death the tiger’s brain was found to be riddled with a species of tapeworm that are specific to dogs and feral dogs. Forest and livestock officials concluded that the tiger must have eaten some feral dogs in the forest, and this is how the tape worms entered the tiger’s head, first disorienting it to move into an urban area and then killing it slowly.

An adult Black-Necked Crane was rescued from a group of stray dogs in Langthel, Trongsa in December 2020. Forest officials from Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park transported the rescued crane to Phobjikha and put it in the crane rehab facility at the Black-Necked Crane Visitor Centre. 

Stray and feral dogs are a major threat at Black-Necked Crane landing areas.

Similarly, farmers across Bhutan, including those raising yaks in the highlands, have seen stray or feral dogs hunting and even killing their livestock.

The Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer of DoL, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Dr Karma Wangdi, said that in 2021, a total of 1,310 dog bite cases in domestic and wild animals were reported in veterinary hospitals, and livestock extension centers in the country.

Reasons behind increased attacks

When asked why dog attacks are going up in recent times Veterinary Superitendent, Dr Kinley Dorji, of DoL said that there are two reasons.

He said one reason is because people and organizations are feeding stray dogs. He said dogs get very protective of their owners or those who feed them, and they end up attacking other people around.

Dr Kinley said that other reason could be because the dogs are being caught for sterilization or tagging, and that may also be triggering them.

He said under the Livestock Act, there are rules and regulations which forbids people from feeding stray dogs. He said if people want to feed stray dogs then they should also take ownership and care of them, and get them registered and microchipped.

He said when stray and feral dogs get access to waste or food from people, their numbers go up and then they become a problem.

He said there are laws, whereby if a pet owner’s dog bites people, then the pet owner can be held legally liable. In the case of stray or dogs, he said, if they become a nuisance then there are legal provisions to deal with the matter too.

As a word of advice, Dr Kinley said people must not immediately pick up a stick or stone to counter a barking dog approaching them, as it can make the dogs more aggressive.

Dog population and rabies control

He said that there is a lot of concern that the exploding numbers of stray and feral dogs in Bhutan are not only a danger to people and can even lead to their deaths, as in the recent Genekha case, but it is also a major challenge for livestock, especially in the highland areas.

He said another concern is that the dogs can transmit diseases to the wildlife and impact them.

Dr Kinley said these are the concerns that led to the partnership between the DoL and DeSuung in the National Accelerated Dog Population Management and Rabies Control Program where around 51,000 dogs have been sterilized, of which around 47,000 are stray dogs.

As of 7 July 2022, a total of 27,754 pet dogs have been microchipped and registered in the country to promote responsible dog ownership.

These chips are part of the Digital Identification and Traceability System (DITS) for pet dogs where the owned dogs are registered in a central registry maintained with DoL.

 Dr Karma Wangdi said that, especially with the feral dogs settling in isolated places and waste dumping sites, DoL in collaboration with DeSuung Office and the Department of Forest and Park Services are using dart guns to sedate these dogs to catch them, take them to the clinics to sterilize and rehabilitate them if necessary. 

These feral dogs also predate on livestock animals and wild animals. He said that free-roaming dogs can also pose the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as rabies transmission to humans through dog bites. 

In Bhutan, between 2006 and 2020, 18 human deaths due to rabies were recorded in the country. One death reported during 2020 was of a three-year old child.

Dr Karma said that DoL is advocating for people who own pet dogs to be responsible pet owners, rehome free-roaming dogs and advocate the adoption of the free-roaming dogs by the general public and community.

 The department is engaging local government, communities and relevant stakeholders to support the program on the ground, and also to enforce legislation (impose penalties on irresponsible pet owners) and targeting to sterilize 100 percent free-roaming dogs, and make Bhutan free from free-roaming dogs and control the increasing free-roaming dog population.

 He said that getting public support in Thromde areas, especially with supporting dog catching teams on the ground in identifying the un-notched dogs and catching them is a challenge.

“Catching aggressive and elusive dogs is also difficult. Some people mask un-owned free-roaming dogs as pets by putting collars around their neck,” he said.

Annually, the government spends approximately Nu 9.3 million on Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP can effectively prevent a productive viral infection) to prevent rabies after dog bites.

Children under the age of 15 years are at higher risk of experiencing dog bites and rabies deaths in Bhutan.

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