The first problem is to decide whether the cub
you have found really is orphaned. Each year many of the fox cubs rescued as orphans are
not orphans at all and should never have been taken into captivity. Remember, it is rare
for a vixen deliberately to desert her cubs. Below are a number of common scenarios and
the best methods of dealing with each problem. Most can best be resolved by NOT taking
the cub into captivity.
1. A cub can be left behind when
a vixen moves the rest of her litter to another earth. If the cub is left alone, she will
usually return for it the following night. So if the cub is in an earth where it will be
safe for the day, leave it there. You may wish to leave it some food if it is old enough
to eat solid food, or some hay for bedding if it is a very young cub.
It is extremely important to handle cubs as
little as possible.
If you think that the site is insecure and
that it is important to take the cub in for the day to protect it from people or dogs, it
is most important not to handle the cub more than is absolutely necessary. Leave
it in a suitable box with some clean wood shavings or straw rather than old clothes which
will impart a strong human smell to the cub. Offer it a small amount of water or a
proprietary puppy milk. In the evening (preferably around dusk) take the cub back to the
earth and leave it there for the vixen to find. Check the following morning; usually the
cub will have been found and removed by the vixen. Only if it is still there should
captive rearing be considered.
2. Sometimes a young cub can
become trapped or lost when out exploring. When this happens, the cub usually tries to
hide in the nearest cover to wait for night to fall. Lost cubs may enter houses or
garages, shelter under some bushes or hide in a roadside ditch or drain. Sometimes a cub
can be trapped in a building, or get into some predicament in which it requires help.
Occasionally, fox cubs fall into car
inspection pits or find themselves in similar situations where they may become covered in
oil, or other chemicals. Do not let the cub groom itself. Advice on cleaning such an
animal can be obtained from RSPCA Headquarters (tel. 0870 010 1181) or the Society's Wildlife
Field Unit (tel. 01823 480156).
If you are able to find the animal's earth,
return the cub to it straight away or as soon as possible after cleaning; only take it in
for the day as described above if really necessary. If you do not know where the earth is,
take the cub back to exactly where it was found. This is very important,
since a young cub will not travel far and so, if released on familiar ground, will usually
be able to relocate its earth. Such a release is best made around midnight since there is
little traffic and there are few people or dogs around. The cub will usually find
its own way home, or will be located by one of the adult foxes in response to its contact
Inspect the area first thing in the morning to
check that the cub has moved on. Usually everything will have gone as planned and the
problem will have been solved. Occasionally, however, the cub will still be there and then
captive rearing may be considered.
3. The habit of vixens lying up
away from their cubs, only returning at night to feed them, leads many people to suspect
that the cubs are orphaned. This is a particular problem in urban areas, where people will
frequently see the cubs out playing in the day or sunning themselves, but never see an
adult fox. So they telephone an animal welfare organisation to report that the cubs are
Before accepting that this is so, inspect the
earth carefully, taking care not to trample too close to the entrance holes or disturb the
cubs, which may cause the vixen to move them to a less secure site. If the adult foxes are
still alive and feeding the cubs, there will be lots of food debris around. When the cubs
are seen, they will be playing or sleeping and look contented.
If the cubs really are orphaned, there will be no
fresh food remains about and the hungry (and often lethargic) cubs will be seen regularly
waiting around the entrance of the earth for food; they may sometimes be heard making
plaintive contact calls or be seen wandering aimlessly about. There will be little play
and the cubs will tend to look rather dejected.
If you are sure that you have found a litter of
cubs that really is orphaned, it is best if at all possible not to catch the cubs but to
leave them where they are and start to feed them. This is by far the best thing to do for
cubs that are more than six weeks old (ie, largely dependent on solid food) and in a safe
or secure place. The cubs will have to be fed regularly until the end of June, and then
with decreasing amounts of food thereafter.
The exact amount of food will depend on the age
and number of cubs, and can be determined by trial and error - if it all goes, give more
and vice-versa. Try not to feed the cubs on too much tinned dog food - meat bones,
household scraps, bread soaked in fat, and carcasses of road-killed birds and mammals are
all much better. Litters of cubs reared in this way have a good chance of survival; they
will start to explore the area as they grow older, and as the summer progresses they will
learn to hunt. Most importantly, they will not be habituated to man. The other adult foxes
in the family group (the dog fox and possibly a non-breeding vixen) may even help with
feeding the cubs.
Once the cubs have survived to July, they may
well move away from the immediate area of the earth and lie up in hedgerows, bramble
patches or other cover. By then it is no longer necessary to feed them regularly, since
they are largely self-sufficient, but occasional food supplements left near the original
earth will help the cubs while they practise their hunting skills. Although this may sound
like a lot of work, in fact it is far less of a problem than trying to rear the cubs in
captivity, and they ultimately have a far better chance of surviving in the wild.
By following the procedures
outlined above, many fox cubs can be successfully reared in the wild. Many others can be
returned to their litters and so need not be taken into captivity. Inevitably, in a few
cases, it is not possible to rear a litter of orphaned cubs where they are, and some cubs
cannot successfully be returned to their litter. Problems are most likely to occur when an
animal is kept in captivity for a few days before an attempt is made to release it.
action is important. If all else fails, you may have to resort to rearing a fox
cub, and the following sections describe the best way to do this and how to rehabilitate
the cub to the wild once it is full-grown and capable of an independent existence.