Foxes and dogs are remotely related but the wild animal carries a number of diseases harmful to our gundogs, says David Tomlinson
Disease from foxes
All dogs, including gundogs can get the following disease from foxes:
- Sarcoptic mange
Dogs and foxes do suffer from the same diseases, though, of which the most worrying is rabies. We have been rabies-free in Britain for 98 years — since quarantine for dogs was introduced in 1922. However, there remains a reservoir of rabies in the European fox population.
Rabies can be found in many different wild animals, but the fox is the only European mammal that is able to both maintain and spread the virus.
A major killer of foxes
Sarcoptic mange is a major killer of foxes. The mange is caused by a tiny mite, Sarcoptes scabei, that buries itself beneath the skin. It’s clearly exceedingly irritating for dogs who catch it from foxes. Fortunately, most of the flea and tick prevention treatments available for dogs also kill these unpleasant mites.
Sarcoptic mange is probably the biggest controller of foxes there is in this country, at least in urban situations. The most mangy fox I’ve ever seen I caught in my back-garden Larsen trap: presumably it fancied my decoy magpie. The unfortunate animal had little fur left and its hairless tail bore no resemblance to a healthy fox’s brush. It posed a question as to how to put it out of its misery. I despatched it instantly with a shot to the brain, at close range.
Foxes can also transmit lungworm
Another disease from foxes which dogs can suffer from is lungworm, which is a relatively new problem. Lungworm, Angiostrongylus vasorum, is a parasite found in slugs and snails. Foxes pick up the parasite by eating these creatures. The first record of lungworm in the UK was in 1975 and it is now widespread. If left untreated, lungworm is a killer, as it leads to breathing problems and internal bleeding. Foxes eat both slugs and snails and spread the worm larvae in their droppings. Dogs become infected by eating or rolling in fox scats.
A dog suffering from a lungworm infection is likely to cough due to the presence of the worms in its lungs, while blood in the urine or vomiting blood are also indications. Other signs include depression, weight loss, poor appetite and lethargy. Early diagnosis by a vet is essential for a complete recovery.
A study made in 2015 found that 18.3% of foxes were infected. Dogs of all ages and breeds are susceptible to the parasite, though spaniels are reported to be one of the most commonly affected breeds.
A fox lifespan
In view of the number of diseases to which foxes are susceptible, it seems remarkable that they are such a widespread and successful animal. Their average lifespan is short — only around a year for a London fox — while few live longer than four years. The secret of their success is breeding prolifically, plus the ability of young animals to disperse widely.
Dogs and foxes are only remotely related, and though I’ve seen some foxy looking dogs, you can disregard dog-fox hybrids as the biology of the two species is very different. Dogs have a gestation period of 63 days, while that of a fox is 52 or 53 days. Most dogs I’ve known would rather kill a fox than mate with it, so the chances of a dog actually coupling with a fox seem extremely remote.
Some questions about dogs catching disease from foxes
Q: We have foxes in our garden and one has a lot of bald, sore-looking patches, especially over its head. A friend suggested that the foxes have mange, which could be passed onto our dogs. What do you suggest we do?
A: Foxes can suffer various types of mange and what you describe sounds like sarcoptic mange which is common, especially in the urban fox population. It is caused by a tiny mite called Sarcoptes scabiei that burrows into the skin. Different species have their own specific sarcoptic mite; in people it causes scabies. Though dogs have their own sarcoptic mite, they can still contract the fox mite – particularly if they are in close contact with foxes or their dens. The fox mite causes a less severe form of the disease mange in dogs, but will cause skin irritation and affected dogs will scratch and bite themselves.
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Itchiness and skin infection
Sarcoptic mange usually starts on the ears then spreads to affect the elbows and chest until eventually, unless treated, it will affect the entire body. Once the disease becomes more generalised, affected animals suffer from severe itchiness and secondary skin infection. People can be bitten and develop a rash, though the mite can’t live on us.
Mange in dog
Fortunately sarcoptic mange is easily treated and there are several products that your vet can prescribe for your dogs. Foxes, however, are more problematic.
The problem in getting rid of “your” foxes is that other foxes will almost certainly move into the vacated territory, where they will likely access the source of infection so all you will do is perpetuate the problem. Unless they can be trapped, veterinary treatment is difficult, but the National Fox Welfare Society claims success in treating the condition using a homeopathic remedy containing arsenic and sulphur.