In the UK, there is little or no danger of contracting disease from foxes. The last case of canine rabies, once widespread in the UK, was in 1902, since when the disease has rapidly receded over most of Europe. Neither parvovirus nor distemper have ever been conclusively recorded in UK foxes, and there is virtually no possibility of serious health problems arising from the presence of foxes.
So what diseases can foxes carry? Doctors routinely warn pregnant women of the dangers of toxoplasmosis, a parasite found in most species of animals and birds and which can affect the eyes, kidneys, blood, brain and nervous system of any species it infects. 50% of humans are infected with toxoplasmosis at some time in their lives, usually with no more than mild flu-like symptoms. Once infected, humans are immune to further infection. Infection is transmitted when the parasite’s eggs are excreted in animal faeces, but these are non-viable until exposed to the air for 24 hours, so swift disposal of faeces removes the likelihood of infection. The primary host for toxoplasmosis in the UK is the domestic cat. All infections, both to humans and other animals, are derived from that source. It cannot be contracted from foxes.
Toxocara is a nematode roundworm for which most dogs are regularly treated, and It can also be carried by foxes. As with toxoplasmosis, early disposal of faeces removes the potential for transmission, as the eggs are not harmful until exposed to the air for 10-14 days. Annually, only around 20 people are diagnosed with toxocareasis in the UK, the last significant infection being 27 years ago. No case has ever been ascribed to a fox. Both pet cats and dogs may carry toxocara (respectively, cati and canis) and the greater potential for human contraction is from those sources.
Despite a highly inaccurate article in the frequently inaccurate Daily Mail, lungworm cannot be contracted from foxes. Fleas are found on all animal species and those found on foxes are usually cat fleas. Even then, wildlife rescue groups report they seldom encounter a healthy fox with a significant flea burden.
Foxes may suffer from sarcoptic mange, one of two types of canine mange present in the UK. The other is demodectic mange, almost never found in foxes but more common than sarcoptic mange in domestic dogs. Sarcoptic mange is sometimes referred to as ‘fox mange’ – misleading terminology and factually incorrect. It is simply canine mange. The mite may produce a mild allergic reaction similar to nettle rash in humans and other species and is much more likely to arise from contact with an affected pet dog than from a fox, with which few humans have direct contact.
A fox bite is painful but offers less potential for infection than a domestic cat bite or scratch – cats being regarded in animal rescue circles as the animal most likely to transmit serious infection. It is always wise to seek antibiotic cover for any animal bite, plus vaccination against tetanus, but this begs the question – how many people are bitten by foxes?
The answer is – unless you are a wildlife rescuer – hardly anyone. Foxes are not aggressive by nature and sensationalist media stories of foxes biting people are usually unfounded, exaggerated or invented as a means of diverting attention from a more embarrassing truth. Of the three high profile ‘fox bites baby’ stories reported over the past 15 years, one was discounted by medical evidence and subsequently ascribed to the family’s own dog; despite numerous offers of assistance, wildlife experts were denied access to the second, where rumours persisted about a family dog that ‘suddenly went missing’; and some within the media have privately informed us they remain dubious about the circumstances surrounding the third.
Unfortunately, nipping of householders does occasionally take place. This is often connected with that person foolishly encouraging a fox to take food from hand. When the animal fails to receive the expected food, it sometimes takes the initiative. It is also conceivable a fox suffering with concussion or toxoplasmosis could exhibit aggressive behaviour.
To give some sense of proportion, up to a quarter of a million people are injured each year in the UK by pet dogs, over 6000 of them requiring hospital treatment. Twenty five people, predominantly young children, have been killed by dogs since 2005 and in the first eight weeks of 2016 alone, four people were killed by domestic dogs. Thousands more people are treated annually for cat bites and scratches. A few are even killed by bee stings and stampeding cattle. No-one has ever been killed by a fox and, should any situation arise where a human is provenly and seriously bitten by a fox, it would still remain insignificant compared with the casualty figures relating to other animal species.
Where small pets are concerned, one must remember the fox is a predator. If rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens etc., are housed outside, a good quality pen is vital – and a legal requirement on the owner’s part – because these are all natural prey to a fox. However, such concerns need not be felt for cats and dogs, most of which out-weigh – and ‘out-gun’ – the average 5kg adult fox (despite nonsensical scare stories involving foxes weighing 17kg), and where rare aggression is more often caused by a fox’s defence of young cubs rather than from other motivation.
In any event, many more householders contact us with stories of ‘chumming-up’ between a fox and the caller’s cat, dog or, rather more mysteriously, their rabbit (!) than with situations involving aggression.
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