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October 3, 2009

What to Do About Foxes

Both grey and red fox are well adapted to urban life and provide important ecological services by keeping native mice in check

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

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    The red fox is the most widly distributed wild canid in the world. iStockphoto.

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    Gray fox tend to be smaller than the red. John Harrison.

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    Curious red fox kits. iStockphoto.

  • Look carefully as you walk through the woods and you may see a fox dens like this. The HSUS.

To many people, the fox is the animal they least expect to see in the city when, in fact, foxes are well adapted to urban life.

Like most other successful urban mammals, foxes  use a wide range of habitats, exploit a wide range of natural and human-produced foods, and alter their activity schedules, if necessary, to be primarily active when humans are not.

The reward for this is a longer life than their rural counterparts and a death that is more likely to come from disease or accident than by predation, hunting, or trapping.

 Common problems and solutions

Public health concerns
Resources

Common problems and solutions

You may be surprised, and even frightened, to discover that foxes live in your neighborhood, but these fears are almost completely groundless.

Foxes aren’t dangerous to humans, except when they are rabid (which is very rare) or are captured and handled. Even then, it takes a lot of handling for a fox even to defend himself by biting. Quite the opposite: the fox’s natural tendency is to flee rather than fight.

Red foxes occasionally prey on small house cats or kittens and will take small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and poultry when they are left outside unprotected.

Both red and gray foxes will eat cultivated grapes, raspberries, and other fruit, but they usually don’t bother garden vegetables.

In all, foxes do such little damage and cause so few conflicts with people that we hesitate to characterize them as a problem at all. Nonetheless, thousands are killed every year because they are perceived as threats.

Do foxes eat pets?

People are frequently concerned about their pets being outdoors when foxes are around. The best way to avoid encounters between foxes and pets is to keep pets indoors, especially at night. If pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs are kept outside by day, they should be housed in structures that are secure from predators (birds and mammals).

By and large, foxes seem to pay little heed to adult cats, recognizing that they’re dealing with an animal often almost their same size, with a well-deserved reputation for self-defense. Smaller adult cats and kittens, however, could be easy prey for a fox. So may dog toy breeds.

The Bold Fox
Sometimes red foxes will exhibit a brazenness that is so overt it is disconcerting. A hiker along a woodland trail may encounter a fox who does not retreat but rather sits and watches the human approach. Likewise, a homeowner hanging laundry may watch a fox walk through the yard, going about her business, seemingly oblivious to the human nearby. Why this occurs is any human’s guess, and the foxes aren’t telling.

Tolerance

Sometimes foxes are blamed for damage they never caused.

For example, a trash can knocked over by the neighborhood dogs may attract a fox, who is then seen eating and then blamed.

Foxes may also cut through yards when moving from one hunting area to another, and a homeowner may become unreasonably concerned about their presence.

In fact, the fox is not a bother at all. If left alone, he will probably do most  homeowners a service by performing a little free rodent control as he passes by.

Exclusion

Poultry should be protected with secure hutches or pens built to withstand any effort by foxes, raccoons, or dogs to break in.

Because predators can dig under fences, it is important to make sure that an L-shaped footer  is buried around the outer perimeter.

Fencing

Electric fences can also exclude foxes, but they work best in conjunction with other permanent perimeter fencing.  Place a single-strand electrified fence about four inches off the ground in front of a chain link or other fence.

Repellents

No repellents are registered expressly for use on foxes, although the many products sold to repel domestic dogs from yards and gardens undoubtedly will have a similar effect on a passing fox.

Scare devices

There are several scare devices that are both humane and effective at keeping these extremely sensitive animals out of areas where they are not wanted.

  • Noise-making devices, ranging from transistor radios to motion-sensitive alarms, work well when combined with  repelling and harassing strategies. 
  • A motion-activated sprinkler can be an effective deterrent in lawns or gardens. 
  • Using a loud voice or banging on a pot or pan can frighten foxes.

Harassment

Fox dens under porches and decks are one of the most commonly reported issues with these animals.

As with any wild animal who is denning or nesting in an inconvenient spot, we recommend you tolerate the family until the young are old enough to follow the parents on nightly forays and the family moves on.

When they are gone, exclude them from reusing the den.

Fox kits will spend time playing outside the den just before they are able to go out with their parents, making this one of the most enjoyable wildlife viewing experiences people can have.

Still, some people will want the family to move sooner rather than later. In these cases, mild harassment may make the parents uncomfortable and encourage them to move their litter to a more secure location:

  • Start by placing objects, leaves, soil, or mulch in the den openings to disturb the residents.
  • Used kitty litter or almost anything with a strong human scent will also alarm the foxes. (Try a sweat-soaked T-shirt after a good jog.)
  • People claim success in getting fox families to move simply by mounting Mylar® balloons two to three feet off the ground, just outside the entrance to the den.

Note: After you think the foxes have moved, make sure all the kits are out of the den before permanently excluding them.

Remove sources of food

Food lures foxes so to reduce the likelihood of their visiting your yard be sure to...

  • Never compost meat scraps.
  • Store trash  securely or place it outside only on the morning of collection.
  • Don’t leave pet food outside.
  • Never deliberately feed wild animals such as foxes.
  • Keep area under birdfeeders free of spilled seed.

Is that fox rabid?

It’s not all that unusual to see a fox out during the day. Foxes prey on squirrels and birds, who are only active during the day. So if you see a fox out during the day, he’s as apt to be looking for a meal as sick and disoriented.  Take time to observe the behavior of the fox before calling for assistance. Look for:

  • Partial paralysis of limbs.
  • Circling.
  • Staggering as if drunk or disoriented.
  • Self-mutilation.
  • Signs of unprovoked aggression.
  • Acting unnaturally tame.

Don’t approach the fox yourself. Call your local animal control officer, wildlife rehabilitator, health or police department, if you see an adult fox showing any of these signs. 

Beloved in Britain
In Britain, foxes are not only welcomed when establishing dens under sheds in backyards but are also fed regularly to make sure they feel accepted and appreciated. Here we discourage this practice, no matter how benign it may seem, because the fox that is used to getting handouts in one yard may be perceived as a threat in another, sometimes with lethal results.

Public health concerns

Foxes are the primary carrier of a strain of rabies that infects them as well as other animal species.

In some parts of the country, foxes carry the echinococcosis tapeworm, which can cause a serious and sometimes fatal disease in humans.

Sarcoptic mange is a very serious problem in some fox populations, but it is not a health concern for humans.

Resources

What species of urban wildlife has been more studied than any other? If you guessed the red fox, you are right.

Thanks to work in Europe and Great Britain, there is a body of research publications, ranging from population and behavioral studies to reviews of injury and disease, devoted exclusively to urban foxes.

In the United Kingdom, Stephen Harris’s Urban Foxes (Whittet Books, 1994) summarizes many years of fascinating natural history.

A more personalized account is David MacDonald’s Running with the Fox (Facts on File, 1987), which describes a graduate career focused on these animals.

» The Fox Project in the United Kingdom has information on deterrence and other natural history facts about foxes.

» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors in our shop. 

» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife conflict resolution service. Learn More

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