Fox: frequent questions


I saw a fox out in daytime; should I worry?
It isn’t unusual for foxes to hunt for food in daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs. Or, to take a nap in the warmth of the sun, like the one above.

Is it OK to feed foxes?
In a word, no. The Humane Society of the U.S. gives us several reasons for not feeding any wild animals, except birds and squirrels:

• “People food” isn’t nutritionally suitable for wildlife.
• Animals lose their fear of humans, which isn’t safe for the animal: Not all humans are lovers of wildlife and, from fear or dislike, may kill a “tamed” animal who’s innocently approaching them for food.
• It isn’t safe for humans because some bold animals may not take “no” for an answer and become aggressive.
• Feeding encourages larger numbers of animals to gather. This can incite fighting, as well as the spread of disease, sometimes to pets and humans.

If you’re going to feed them, anyway, give them canned dog food, which is a better diet for them than dry food, which is over-processed. (There’s a fox rescue organization that sometimes scatters slices of bread in a nearby field. They report that the foxes retrieve each slice of bread, stack them one atop another and then take the entire stack away, just as we might do.) Never feed them chocolate. Chocolate, that delectable we humans enjoy with little more to worry about than a guilty extra pound, is a deadly poison to canines. In fact, most animals are sickened by chocolate.

Encountering a fox
Enjoy the experience. Foxes don’t attack humans — even small children. (Thirty thousand foxes live without incident among the densely crowded population of London, and have done so since the 1930s.) The fox’s true size is deceptive, because of his thick coat. He barely weighs 10 pounds. Foxes are hunters of squirrel-sized animals. We’re at greater risk of being bitten by dogs or cats. In the U.S., about 5 million people are bitten each year — by dogs! Another 400,000 are bitten by cats. The number of fox bites, on the other hand, is statistically insignificant. Though humans have little to fear, foxes will defend themselves, if necessary. If you inadvertently corner one, turn and walk away.

If you notice a fox observing you, she may be keeping a lookout to protect her maternal den, or is simply curious. Ignore her, or take the opportunity to watch her. Don’t approach, however, as she’ll defend her den. If a fox enters your yard and you feel uncomfortable about it, just yell, stamp your feet, wave your arms, or spray him with water — he’ll leave the scene. If he appears ill, stay far away from him and contact Animal Control.

If you discover a mother fox using a maternal den in your yard, give it a wide berth if you want her to stay. Observe from a distance. If she feels insecure, she’ll move her kits. Worse, if you corner her, she’ll defend her young. If you remain non-threatening, she’ll tolerate your presence and allow you to watch. As one writer says, she can’t be your pet, but “you can become a fox’s pet.”

How can I keep foxes out of my yard?
First, consider that Red foxes are beneficial animals. They prey heavily on rodents, rabbits and insects. Must they be barred from your yard? If so, here are some suggestions.

First, though, check to see if a mother fox is raising her young: Red foxes den from about March to late-June, while raising their young. You might find fur and feathers at a den entrance, indicating that food is being brought to youngsters. If possible, wait — the family will leave as soon as the pups are fully weaned.

If a family of foxes simply must be removed, try becoming more active near the den periodically through the day. Make lots of noise. Bang, shout, run motors. Leave yard tools near the entrance. Move the birdbath or other objects near the den and change their positions daily. The goal is to make them feel insecure. Stuff rags in all the holes to the den. Do this every day until you see the rags haven’t been moved for a couple of days. This will be the sign that the fox family has moved. Alternatively, you can sprinkle fresh flour at the entrance and look for footprints each day. After the fox(s) has left, block off the holes.

To discourage other fox activity:

•  Remove temptation. Feed pets indoors or bring the food bowl inside after each use.
•  If you have caged rabbits or chickens, make sure all cages are fox-proofed: heavy mesh wire, wire or solid floor, a secure latch that can’t be worked loose.
•  Is your trash container lid secured? Use a heavy strap to hold the lid on. If necessary, use a chain.
•  Use a lidded composting bin or enclose your compost pile on all sides with welded mesh wire (chicken wire isn’t fox-proof.)
•  Try planting “scaredy-cat plant” (Coleus canina,) an annual with a foul odor detectable by canines (and cats), but not by humans. It’s available on the internet.
• Check under porches and sheds for a den. Seal all openings, first ensuring no animals will be trapped inside.
•  If you have a dog: Walk your dog around the perimeter of your yard, allowing him or her to scent-mark it. Do this regularly and also criss-cross the property so it will seem to the fox that your dog has free-run of the area (and perhaps she does). This might discourage a fox from crossing into your dog’s territory.

Foxes and rabies
Foxes can have rabies, but it’s rare. Rabid foxes are found mostly in the eastern and southern U.S. It’s even rarer in the Midwest.

It’s commonly mistaken that a fox seen in the daytime might be rabid. But, foxes leave their resting areas when they’re hungry. It isn’t unusual for them to be out in daytime. If, however, a fox is acting aggressive without provocation, is listless, disoriented or paralyzed, call Animal Control for help. Don’t touch him. Should you be bitten or scratched by even a healthy-seeming fox, you should immediately undergo a series of rabies vaccinations. The rabies virus is deadly; only one person in the U.S. has recovered (that was from a bat bite) without taking the vaccines. The injections (which now go into the upper arm, not the stomach) are no more painful than a flu shot. Always err on the side of caution.

Foxes can carry several diseases common to canines, like mange and distemper, as well as parasites and worms. This affects only a small fraction of their population, however.

Are my pets safe from foxes?
Foxes are small, not much larger than a large house cat. Your cat is probably more of a danger to fox cubs than the other way around. (In at least one case, an urban fox and feral cat foraged together until the cat was trapped and relocated.) Still, don’t leave rabbit-sized pets outside alone, unless they’re fenced in, especially after dark. Even a fence may not keep foxes out: Foxes have justifiably earned some infamy for finding ways into hen houses and rabbit hutches, even when it means chewing through chicken wire. They’re smart and can also claw and leap a six-foot fence. Smaller foxes can crawl through an opening as small as 4 inches square. The Gray fox, a much shier U.S. species, can even climb trees.

If you have animals caged in your yard — rabbits, for example — ensure they’re securely protected on all sides, including the bottom, with wire heavier than chicken wire and latches that cannot be knocked open.

Keep your pets vaccinated against rabies — the risk to them isn’t high, but it exists. Physical contact with foxes also can spread parasites, mites or worms to your pets.

How will I know if a fox visits my yard?
Watch for foxes at dusk and dawn, or at night. Some folks set up video recorders or a motion-sensing flash camera. If you see movement in the dark, shine a flashlight on it. Look for signs of digging under a shed or fence. If you uncover buried food items (except nuts), it’s probably a fox’s cache. If your yard sometimes smells faintly skunk-ish, it’s fox urine. You may be able to detect a fox by looking for his footprints in soft dirt or mud.

You might be able to tell just by listening for them. Red Foxes communicate vocally through sharp barks, yaps, yells, raspy “chirps,” howls, purrs, trills and screeches. Some of their sounds are rather plaintive, but the tiny bark of young foxes are much like the sounds of our own happy puppies. You can listen to fox vocalizations here.

How to help an injured or orphaned fox
Don’t try to touch an injured adult fox. Foxes have needle-sharp teeth and will bite you, badly. Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.

As for young foxes, it’s normal for kits only a month old to start exploring the area around their den. If you spot one, he’s probably doing just that. If he’s in danger or isn’t well hidden, then move him to a sheltered spot nearby. Wear gloves and handle him as little as possible.

His parents are probably busy trying to find food for themselves and their family. Observe from a distance — 30 feet or more — so the parents will approach their baby. Kits make barking/crying sounds when they get hungry, trying to command their parents to feed them. If the kit is crying and a parent hasn’t arrived to feed him within three or four hours, then a tragedy has occurred — not only for the parents, but also for the baby who now faces growing up without their guidance. Continue to observe from a distance while contacting a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.

If you find kits who appear to be cold, place them in a box with low sides and with a warm blanket or towel or on a hot water bottle (about the temperature of a warmed baby’s bottle). Leave them where you found them or in a safer place nearby. Stay well away. If the kits haven’t been rescued soon after dark, then you’ll need to take them in.

Inside, keep them warm, in an enclosed box (with air holes!). You can use a heating pad set on low, but place in under half the box; that way, they can move away from it if they get too hot. Place the box in a quiet, darkened place, safe from pets, until you can get them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you must keep them overnight, feed them only Pedialite, for rehydration, with an eyedropper or pet-nursing bottle. Do this every 3-4 hours, followed by a gentle rubbing of their tummies until they urinate, defecate or both (this must be done for their health’s sake.)

Foxes don’t make good pets. They’re smart and have a “personality.” But, even when hand-raised from birth, their behavior can be unpredictably wild and they aren’t happy in captivity. They need lots of space for exercise; produce a very strong, unpleasant odor from their scent glands; will dig up your yard, sofa and carpet; and gnaw on your furniture. Most fox pets die young or have to be gotten rid of because of behavior problems. It’s also against the law in most states to own wild animals. If authorities discover you with one he’ll be confiscated and probably killed.

Can I keep an orphaned fox as a pet?
He won’t be a good pet. He’s wild and has “wild” genes. Although your intentions are good, he should be taken to a qualified wildlife rehabilitator so he can be raised to survive in the wild and someday released.

On the subject of “pet” foxes: For 40 years a research project in Russia selectively bred foxes to try to domesticate them. From each generation of foxes only the tamest, most non-aggressive, least fearful-of-humans were allowed to breed. The scientists’ purpose was to observe a speeded-up version of how wild animals evolve into domesticated ones, as when the wolf became a dog over the course of thousands of years. The experiment succeeded after 45,000 foxes were raised.

The scientists now have a few hundred domesticated foxes in their care. So, what’s the result? It took 35 generations of foxes to do it, but the foxes now want to be around humans and to be pets. They’re sweet as your average pet dog, wagging their tails and jockeying for a pat on the head. But, their color is different, their tails and legs are now shorter, some have floppy ears and curled tails, and the shape of their cranium has changed. As a matter of fact, they look like, well, dogs. The fox, alas, is gone. They look like Corgis, the dog breed much loved by Queen Elizabeth.

Are foxes smart?
People use the phrase “wily like a fox” or “sly as a fox” for a reason. Foxes are very smart in ways that matter: finding food, surviving in weather extremes, outwitting predators, protecting their young. They’re smarter than most, but not all, dog breeds. Here’s an example of their cleverness: There’s a fox rescue organization that sometimes scatters slices of bread in a nearby field. They report that the foxes retrieve each slice of bread, stack them one atop another and then take the entire stack away, just as we might do.

*Top photo: Neuro74 / Flickr;  cc by-nc-sa 2.0