In Britain it is not illegal to keep a Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) as a pet. It is, however, ill-advised as wild-caught foxes typically do not make good pets. They can be boisterous, destructive and posess a very strong smell.
During the late 1960s and early 70s, the UK experienced a trend of people keeping exotic animals, including various hybrids, as pets; this fuelled a growing concern for public safety. On the 22nd July 1976, the UK Parliament voted in “An Act to regulate the keeping of certain kinds of dangerous wild animals”. This legislation was called the Dangerous Wild Animals Act and, under Section 5, it prohibits the keeping of “any dangerous wild animal except under the authority of a licence granted in accordance with the provisions of this Act by a local authority.”
Chapter 38 of the Act sets out a list of the animals for which a licence must be obtained; it covers various species of bird and mammal, along with the crocodilian reptiles, snakes and several genera of lizards, spiders and scorpions. Among the mammals, the list covers all members of the Canidae (dog family), with the exception of the foxes (genera: Alopex, Dusicyon, Otocyon, and Vulpes), raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) and, of course, the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). To this extent, one could freely keep a fox as a pet without the need to obtain a licence from your local council.
The fact that a licence isn’t required to keep a Red fox does not mean, however, that you are without any legal obligation. Foxes brought into captivity fall within the constraints of the Protection of Animals Act of 1911 (with various amendments). Under this legislation, it is a criminal offence to cause “unnecessary suffering” to any animal in your care – this can include a failure to provide suitable food, water, shelter or veterinary care. Successful conviction under this Act can result in a £5,000 fine, up to six months in prison, or both.
Any animal under the care of a human also falls within the remit of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act – the Act was created in November 2006, but didn’t become law in the UK until the spring of the following year. Sections 1 and 2 of the Act consider a person to have committed an offence if “an act of his, or failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer”; this means that even watching someone else cause an animal 'unnecessary suffering' and failing to do something about it is treated as an offence under this Act. Section 9 of the Act sets out the duty of care a person has towards an animal in their possession, stating that:
“A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.”
The Act considers “an animal's needs” to include:
- its need for a suitable environment
- its need for a suitable diet
- its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
- its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
This legislation also covers the mutilation of animals, causing animals to fight and even tail-docking of dogs. In addition to fines up to £20,000 and prison sentences of up to one year, Section 35 of the Act states that any person convicted under the legislation can be disqualified from owning, keeping, or participating in the keeping of animals. The Protection of Animals Act and Animal Welfare Act work in conjunction with a third law, the Abandonment of Animals Act, which we shall look at in a moment.
Not your average “pooch”
Despite being legal, keeping wild foxes—those bred and sold by the pet trade are a different case—as pets should be strongly discouraged. Raising a rescued wild fox is not the same as caring for a domestic dog. Foxes can be very boisterous and destructive as they grow. They will require some form of containment (i.e. a cage or pen) to prevent/minimise potential damage to the house or garden. They’re insatiably curious and have a considerable amount of energy that needs to be taken into consideration.
The extremely potent anal gland secretion and urine, which are employed to scent mark the animal’s territory, mean that foxes also have a very strong smell. Technically, it is possible to have the anal glands surgically removed and/or have the animal spayed or neutered, the latter being an attempt to modify the fox’s behaviour, although such operations rarely achieve the desired result. Foxes can be very difficult to house-train and, while they can be trained to a limited extent, levels of obedience can be considerably lower than for domestic dogs, which have been selectively bred for their servile demeanour.
The provision of veterinary care is a consideration that must be addressed to ensure the fox remains healthy. Most veterinarians in the UK are probably capable of dealing with a fox – many already deal with wildlife casualties and, I suspect, most would treat a fox as though it were a domestic dog. The fox would need to be vaccinated against the various diseases contracted by domestic dogs, including canine distemper, Leptospirosis, infectious canine hepatitis, rabies and canine parvovirus (‘parvo’).
Parvo is a highly infectious disease caused by viruses of the Parvoviridae family that typically manifests in two forms: intestinal parvo, which attacks the immune system, destroying rapidly dividing cells such as those in the lymph nodes and bone marrow; and the less common cardiac parvo, which as the name suggests attacks the heart. Dogs can contract the virus through contact with infected surfaces and material, including infected faeces and soil. Thus, it is important to ensure a pet fox, just like a pet dog, is vaccinated against parvo. Between 1991 and 1995, a team of biologists led by Uwe Truyen at the University of Munich’s Institute for Medical Microbiology collected blood sera from foxes in Germany to test for canine parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus and herpesvirus. The biologists found that 65 (13%) of the 500 samples they collected tested positive for parvo and, in their 1998 paper to the journal Epidemiology and Infection wrote that:
“… the sudden emergence of canine parvovirus in the domestic dog population may have involved the interspecies transmission between wild and domestic carnivores.”
Thus, foxes can contract parvo from domestic dogs and dogs can catch parvo from foxes – especially when we consider that many dogs display a penchant for rolling in fox scat.
I have heard stories from people in Britain who have kept foxes as pets suggesting these animals can make excellent companions, but these have typically been victims of toxoplasmosis, which alters a fox’s behaviour. There are also many cases where foxes have invariably failed to live up to their owner’s expectations and were either given up to a wildlife centre, dispatched or abandoned. In the UK (excluding Northern Ireland), the Abandonment of Animals Act of June 1960 makes it a criminal offence to leave an animal “in circumstances likely to cause the animal any unnecessary suffering”. While one might be inclined to argue over the term “unnecessary”, abandoning an animal that is unable to ‘look after itself’ is also treated as an act of “cruelty” as set out by Section 1 of the 1911 Protection of Animals Act.
Unfortunately, cases of pet foxes being abandoned are not uncommon. To the best of my knowledge there are no official figures on the number of foxes kept as pets in the UK, or the number abandoned each year, but Vale Wildlife Hospital founder and manager, Caroline Vale, told me:
“… every year we have to take in at least one cub that has been hand-reared and then discarded when it gets older and starts to smell or becomes aggressive.”
Indeed, on their website, Vale used to have short profiles of several foxes that had been taken in after apparently being kept as pets before being dumped. Seven-year-old dog fox “Bart”, for example, was taken in by the centre after being found wandering in Birmingham’s Sutton Park wearing a collar.
A big problem for Vale, and many other rescue centres, is that foxes taken in as cubs and raised to adulthood as pets often become imprinted. Imprinting, as Arizona State University’s John Alcock described it in his 2005 book Animal Behavior, is the process by which: “a young animal’s early social interactions, usually with its parents, lead to its learning such things as what constitutes an appropriate sexual partner”.
Imprinting, which is now often lumped together with what behaviourists refer to as “associative learning” (despite the latter generally involving a reward), was first described by ethologist Konrad Lorenz. In his 1952 book, King Solomon’s Ring, Lorenz described how he was able to imprint himself on greylag goslings (Anser anser) such that they followed him everywhere thinking that he was their parent.
Numerous studies, especially on birds, have shown that when animals fostered by a different species reach sexual maturity, they typically try to mate with members of the fostering species. Between 1998 and 2000, for example, a team of biologists at the University of Oslo in Norway led by Tore Slagsvold studied the effect of cross-fostering on blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tits (Parus major). The researchers put blue tit eggs into great tit nests and vice versa – actually, they put the eggs into coal tit (Parus ater) and pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) nests too, but it’s the great tits we’re really interested in. The male great tits raised by blue tits tried to pair with female blue tits, while blue tits found mates with other blue tits regardless of the species that fostered them.
These data provide a superb example of how imprinting can have different consequences for different species. Recent neurological studies of imprinting have suggested that it may be a two-stage process: there is a ‘critical period’ during which the initial imprinting occurs, followed by a period of stabilisation involving courtship attempts during which changes happen in the animal’s nervous system. The end result is that the problem of imprinting can be a significant one, as Caroline Gould went on to explain:
“Whether or not an imprinted cub can be released depends on exactly how imprinted it is. If it is passed on to us when it is under 6 months or so old, then it will almost certainly revert once mixed with other wild cubs, but when we get them at, for example, 12-18 months old, which is not uncommon, it is virtually impossible to get them back into the wild and then they do have to spend the rest of their lives in captivity (or the alternative is euthanasia).”
So, while you may not be in breach of any laws—and I should point out that the above applies only to the UK and the situation is different elsewhere in the world, so please check with your local authority—I would urge you to think very carefully before you attempt to take on a fox as a pet. Perhaps arrange a visit to your local wildlife rescue centre, which will be able to provide a first-hand account of what it’s like raising a fox. Similarly, should you come across a fox in need of your help, the advice would always be to take it to your local wildlife centre – if you want to offer your help and support, consider donating something towards its upkeep or sponsoring its rehabilitation. Please remember that caring for any animal is a serious commitment and should not be undertaken lightly.