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September 18, 2014

What to Do About Foxes

Foxes out during the day are no cause for alarm—but if you need to send a fox family on their way or are worried about rabies, here's what you need to know

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

Both red and gray foxes live among us in cities and towns, where scavenging for food makes life easy. They generally avoid people, but the lure of easy food, such as pet food or unsecured garbage, can result in backyard visits. Usually, the best thing to do is leave foxes alone, but here's what to do about the most common fox concerns:  

Foxes out and about during the day

Foxes have a natural fear of people. If you see one outside during the day, it's no cause for alarm. He will usually run away from you as soon as he detects your presence.

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    There's no need to worry if you see a fox outside during the day—he is most likely just looking for food. John Harrison

If not, the fox has probably learned to associate people with food (likely because someone has been feeding him), and may exhibit a boldness or even approach you. These foxes can easily be scared away by making loud noises such as yelling or blowing whistles, dousing them with water houses or squirt guns or throwing objects such as tennis balls toward them. For more tips about hazing, see our tips for hazing coyotes

Here are a few facts to put the presence of foxes in your yard in perspective:

  • Foxes are not dangerous to humans, except when they are rabid (which is very rare) or when they are captured and handled. Even then, a fox’s natural tendency is to flee rather than fight.
  • Foxes may prey on small pets or livestock (such as rabbits, guinea pigs or chickens), so pets should be kept indoors or housed in sturdy structures.
  • Foxes will also eat various fruits, but they usually do not bother garden vegetables.
  • Sometimes foxes are blamed for damage they did not cause, such as when they are spotted eating from spilled trash when neighborhood dogs or other animals were responsible for the overturned trashcan.
  • A fox cutting through your yard is probably just passing through on his way between hunting areas and no action is necessary on your part.

Fox den under a porch, deck or shed

Both red and gray foxes dig dens mostly for raising kits, but also to use as shelter from severe winter weather. 

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    The use of a remote camera confirms a red fox has made a den under this shed. Humane Wildlife Services

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    Next, fox kits are seen playing and exploring outside of the shed den. Humane Wildlife Services

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    After humanely evicting the fox family, Humane Wildlife Services installed an L-shaped footer to prevent foxes or other animals from moving back in. Humane Wildlife Services

Dens under porches, decks or sheds are not uncommon in urban areas. If you find a fox family in an inconvenient spot, consider allowing them to stay until the young are old enough to begin accompanying their parents on foraging outings.   At this point they are nearly ready to say goodbye to the den site and move on for good.

Fox kits are born in the spring, usually in March or April, and you’ll see them emerge from the den four or five weeks after birth.

At nine weeks, they will begin to hunt with their parents. That’s the moment to watch for, as it is then safe to encourage them to leave the den site if there is reason to hasten their departure.

Mild harassment (scare them away)

If you need a fox family to move on sooner rather than later, harassment may encourage an earlier move. Here are a few humane harassment options once the kits have emerged:

  • Loosely pack leaves, soil, or mulch in the den openings to disturb the residents.
  • Place urine soaked kitty litter, a sweat-soaked T-shirt, a pair of smelly sweat socks or old sneakers in or near the den opening.
  • Mount shiny party balloons or 12-18 inch lengths of Irri-tape mounted on sticks or poles two or three feet off the ground, just outside and around the den entrance.
  • Spread a non-toxic granular repellent that is capsicum based around the den entry. 

These tactics are most effective when they are used in concert as part of a comprehensive plan to encourage the foxes to move on. The purpose of these techniques is to make the parents uncomfortable enough to move the litter to a more secure location. Once the den has been abandoned, make sure all the kits are out of the den before any permanent exclusion is put in place.

If the den site is under a porch, deck or shed then it will remain an attractive denning area, and not just to foxes. Foxes are excellent diggers, so the best defense is to bury an L-shaped footer of hardware cloth around the perimeter of the area you are trying to exclude.

Scare devices and repellents

If you want to prevent future denning activity in certain areas where foxes are not welcome, try one or more of these humane, yet effective, approaches:

  • Using noise-making devices, such as transistor radios or motion-sensitive alarms.
  • Installing a motion-activated sprinkler.
  • Using a loud voice or banging on a pot or pan.
  • Applying products sold in garden and hardware stores to repel domestic dogs from gardens and yards, as they will have a similar effect on a passing fox.

Foxes and pets

You may be concerned about your pets being outdoors when foxes are around. With a few exceptions, the precautions you should take are the very same things that are appropriate to do for your pets even if foxes were not around.

  • Although foxes are not likely to confront an adult cat, we don't recommend allowing cats outdoors unsupervised. Robert Baillie

Keeping cats safe: A typical adult cat is almost the same size as a fox and has a well-deserved reputation for self-defense, so foxes are generally not interested in taking such cats on. Kittens and very small (less than five pounds) adult cats, however, could be prey for a fox.

The best way to avoid encounters between foxes and cats is to keep your cats indoors—a practice that will keep your cats safe from other hazards as well, such as traffic, disease and fights, to mention only a few.

What about dogs? Most dogs are not at risk from an attack by a fox unless they have threatened its young, but they still should not be left outside unattended for a host of safety reasons, including harassment or dog-napping.

Miniature dogs are especially vulnerable to harm from any number of predators, though, including foxes, so they should be even more closely monitored when outside.

Protecting small animals: Pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs should be kept indoors for their health and safety, especially at night. If kept outside in the day, they should be housed in structures that are secure enough to keep out both bird and mammalian predators.

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

Fencing: As foxes and other predators can dig under fences, you should bury an L-shaped footer around the outer perimeter of an enclosure for animals who will be left unattended. Electric fences may be useful when combined with other permanent perimeter fencing. Place a single-strand of electrified fence about four inches off the ground a foot or so in front of a chain link or similar fence. Always check on local ordinances when considering electric fences.

Repellents: No repellents are registered expressly for use on foxes, but the many products sold to repel domestic dogs from yards and gardens will have a similar effect on a passing fox. Examples include “Get Off My Garden,” which is sprayed at or below ground level or directly on plants, and “Scoot,” which is sprayed on lawns or foliage where a fox has been digging or leaving calling cards.

What if a pet is bitten by a fox? Immediately take any pet who is bitten by any wild animal to your veterinarian for an examination and an assessment of any need for vaccination. Contact your local animal control agency or public health department and follow applicable state laws or local ordinances for monitoring your pet at home or in a veterinary clinic.

A rabid fox may act unnaturally tame. A mangy fox may seem unconcerned about the presence of humans. How can you tell the difference? We have some quick tips to help determine if it is rabies or mange.

Rabies and mange in foxes

Foxes aren't dangerous to humans, except when they are rabid, which is very rare. Although foxes sometimes succumb to rabies, the good news is that the fox strain of the disease has rarely if ever been transmitted to a human in this country. Luckily, post-exposure treatment is 100% effective if promptly administered. Having your domestic animals vaccinated is the most important thing you can do to protect them, yourself and others against rabies.

It’s not all that unusual for a fox to be seen out and about during the day, so that is not cause for concern. Foxes prey on squirrels, birds, chipmunks and other animals that are only active by day, so they may simply be looking for a meal at that time. Before calling to report a fox or ask for assistance, take time to observe the fox's behavior, and look for these signs:

  • Partial paralysis or the inability to use his limbs well.
  • Circling or staggering as if drunk.
  • Self-mutilation.
  • Acting aggressively for no reason.
  • Acting unnaturally tame.

If you observe these signs, do not approach the fox—remember exposure to rabies is primarily through bites or saliva. Contact your local animal control agency, police department or health department if you see a fox showing the above signs.

What if I am bitten by a stray or wild fox?

Thoroughly wash the wound with soap and water and seek immediate medical attention. Prompt medical care will prevent a rabies infection. Be sure to report the bite to your local animal control agency, police department, or health department.

  • Mangy foxes like this one are often mistaken for being rabid. Howard Shoenberger

Mange

Mange is an extremely debilitating affliction caused by microscopic parasites called Sarcoptes scabiei mites, that result in either patchy or entire hair loss.

The disease causes intense irritation of the skin to the point where foxes have been known to chew their own tails off trying to relieve the itching. At advanced stages, infected foxes are often seen wandering around during the daytime, seemingly unafraid.

Mange or rabies: which is it?

A mange-stricken fox may be mistaken for a rabid one because of their sickly appearance and seeming lack of fear. Mange-afflicted animals try to maintain their body temperature seeking any warm places they can find. Death may arise from a wide variety of causes, including starvation and hypothermia.

Foxes need an intact winter coat to survive winter's weather extremes, yet the mites prefer skin with little hair. So as the condition worsens and more hair is lost, the mites will eventually take over the animal's whole body.

Mange is a treatable condition. If you see a fox that you suspect is infected contact a local wildlife rehabilitator.

Resources

» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighborsthe go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife. 
» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, contact Humane Wildlife Services, our wildlife conflict resolution service.

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