Dangers of bites in south-east Asia: Dogs, monkeys and mosquitoes

Don't pat the dogs. Don't cuddle the monkeys.

This seems to me like good advice. In fact, it feels like a no-brainer. Why would you pat a dog when you're travelling in a developing country? Why would you pick up and cuddle someone's pet monkey? Why would you intentionally come into contact with any animal, in fact, that has teeth or fangs or claws?

And yet, people do. I see this insanity all the time on the road. Dog lovers can't help themselves – they want to make sure all of the cute animals are getting enough love. They pat them, they feed them, they scratch them. I even met an Australian guy in India who'd adopted a stray dog he'd named Charlie.  The man was riding around the country on an Enfield motorbike with his new pet pooch tucked into a satchel on his chest.

Cat lovers, too, have a tendency to want to pat stray felines they discover in dodgy places. I also travelled with a friend in Laos who spent a few hours one day with someone's pet monkey hanging around on her shoulder. It was a pet, after all, so perfectly harmless. Right?

Actions like these are probably part of the temptation Western travellers have to assume that everything in other countries is as safe as it is in our own. Dogs are dogs. And monkeys are awesome. Obviously, you'd want to give them a pat when you see them. Maybe throw them a few scraps of food.

But you're putting yourself in danger. Unnecessary danger. One bite from a dog or a monkey or any other animal and you've just committed yourself to a series of five anti-rabies injections. That is, if you can find someone who can administer them. Otherwise you're in even bigger trouble. One scratch from a cat and at the very least you've got a visit to the doctor to arrange.

This might all sound a bit obvious, but it happens. A lot. And mostly to travellers heading to south-east Asia.

In 2016, Cover-More Travel Insurance paid out more than $400,000 for claims related to bites from various animals. Those bites, admittedly, weren't just for monkey-cuddlers and dog-petters. That $400,000 accounted for people bitten by snakes, by lice, by spiders, and by one of the big ones: mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes carry malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and a litany of exotic tropical diseases that can barely even be classified. There's not a whole lot you can do about mosquito bites when you're travelling, aside from the usual advice to cover up and use repellent. And even if you do, it could still happen, particularly in south-east Asia.


I'd say pretty much every traveller who's ever been to south-east Asia has been bitten by something nasty, even if they've avoided the monkeys and the dogs and the need for an insurance claim. I've been munched by bed bugs on several occasions – these insects love hot, humid weather, and countries such as Thailand and Indonesia are perfect. I've also been bitten by plenty of mosquitoes. Everyone has.

And then there was the time I came very close to something much, much worse. In Thailand I was almost bitten by a three-metre-long king cobra, and that would have been curtains. I was swimming in a river in a jungle near Khao Lak, and only realised I was sharing the space with a huge snake when it reared up in the water just near me and hissed. Ian Thorpe has never swum as fast as I did to get back to the riverbank. I was lucky – others, though, aren't.

Going by Cover-More's stats, Indonesia is the place you're most likely to be bitten by something. In an 18-month period over 2016 and 2017, the company received 167 bite-related claims from travellers in Indonesia – the highest of any country by a fairly significant margin. And that included a $9000 claim for a monkey bite.

Next highest was Thailand, with 87, and the Philippines, with 33. There were also 33 bites claims from the USA. Rounding out the top 10, you then had Australia (28), Vietnam (19), Cambodia (11), South Africa (11), Sri Lanka (10), and Malaysia (8). Clearly, south-east Asia is the hotspot for getting munched.

So, what can you do? You can take the previously mentioned precautions against mosquito bites. You can carry a silk sleeping sheet to help protect against bed bugs – though some hostels and hotels won't allow you to use them. You can hope not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to things like spiders and snakes (wearing closed shoes is not a bad place to start for the latter).

Mostly, however, you can rely on good fortune, and you can follow that fairly simple rule: don't pat the dogs; don't cuddle the monkeys. Done.

Have you been bitten by anything overseas? Did you need medical treatment? Is this something people should be worried about? Share your stories in the comments below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater 

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