Fennec Foxes: Facts, Photos, Videos, and Exotic Pets
What Is a Fennec Fox?
A fennec fox is a diminuitive, huge-eared, and appealing little animal that is adapted for desert life. It's the smallest member of the dog family. An adult weighs from two to three and a half pounds and has a body length of only nine to sixteen inches, not including the tail. The fox has an attractive tan and cream-coloured coat and a small, pointed face.
Fennec foxes live in the desert and semi-desert areas of North Africa. Their outsized ears contain numerous blood vessels near the surface of the skin and are used to radiate heat out of the body. This helps to keep the animals cool in their hot environment.
The foxes are sometimes kept as exotic pets and are bred for this purpose. Owners say that keeping a fennec fox as a pet can be rewarding but requires a lot of work. Although fennec foxes are bred in captivity, they aren't domesticated animals.
Fennec foxes belong to the family Canidae and have the scientific name Vulpes zerda. The members of the genus Vulpes are considered to be true foxes.
The most noticeable feature of a fennec fox is its amazing ears. The ears contain long, white hairs that help to prevent sand and insects from entering them. The fox also has very dark eyes and a small, narrow muzzle.
The animal has an overall sandy to white colour, but there are a few darker patches on its coat. A reddish brown streak runs from the inner corner of each eye downwards over the side of the muzzle, ending at the mouth. The fox's long and bushy tail is tipped with black. There is also a black patch on the base of the tail near the body.
A male fox is called a reynard or a dog. A female fox is known as a vixen. The youngsters are known as kits or cubs.
Adaptations for Desert Life
Wild fennec foxes are mainly nocturnal creatures. They hunt at night when the temperature is cooler than during the day. They sometimes come out of their burrows during the daytime, however. Their dense coat helps to keep them warm at night, when temperatures sometimes fall below freezing. The light colour of the coat camouflages the foxes against the sand when they're active during the day. It also reflects sunlight, helping to keep the foxes cool.
Fennec foxes have thick hair on the pads of their paws. The hair helps to protect the paws when a fox is travelling over hot sand or rock. It also provides traction when the animal is moving over loose sand.
The Den of a Fennec Fox
A fennec fox generally spends the day in a burrow that it has dug in the sand, but it may come to the surface to explore, play, and sunbathe. The burrow, or den, is often located at the bottom of a slope such as a stable sand dune and is lined with soft fur, feathers, and sometimes plants. The foxes prefer to build their den in an area that has vegetation nearby. This vegetation is generally sparse in the desert.
The den is large and may be occupied by as many as ten animals. These animals include the male and female, which mate for life, and their offspring of various ages. Older siblings help to take of younger ones. The den has several entrances, long tunnels, and different sections that connect to each other. The dominant male marks the territory around the den with urine and feces.
A community of foxes in the wild is known as a skulk, a leash, or an earth. The word "earth" also refers to a fox den.
Arnold the Fennec Fox Goes Exploring
Daily Life in the Wild
Fennec foxes are very social animals within their community and have a variety of vocalizations, including squeals, yaps, and barks. Despite their social lives in their dens, they are solitary hunters.
The animals have an omnivorous diet. At night, they hunt for rodents, lizards, birds, bird eggs, and insects. They also eat plants, including leaves, fruits, and roots. Their large ears are very sensitive to sound and enable them to hear small prey animals moving underground or over the sand. Their kidneys are adapted to conserve water, enabling them to go for long periods without drinking. They get some water from the food that they eat, however.
The foxes are excellent diggers. They can dig into loosely packed sand so quickly that it sometimes seems to observers that they are disappearing by magic. The ability to dig is one of the factors that owners of pet fennec foxes need to keep in mind.
Scout the Fennec Fox
Fennec foxes are monogamous and generally mate with the same partner for life. In the wild, the foxes mate in January or February. The babies are born after a gestation period of about fifty days, which means that they are born in March or April. The litter consists of two to five kits.
At first the kits' eyes are closed and the babies are helpless. The eyes open when the kits are between ten days and two weeks old. When the babies are very young the female fox will not allow the male fox into the den, but soon both parents help to rear and protect the kits. The babies are weaned at between sixty and seventy days of age. They reach reproductive maturity at around ten months of age.
Threats and Population Status
Fennec foxes generally live for twelve to thirteen years in captivity. Their lifespan is likely shorter in the wild. Their population size isn't known for certain, but since they are often seen in the wild it's assumed that they aren't endangered. They do have some predators, however. Humans catch them to obtain their fur and to display and sell them to tourists. Some wild animals hunt the foxes for food. These animals include the caracal (a type of wild cat), jackals, striped hyenas, and eagle owls. Luckily for fennec foxes, they are difficult animals to capture.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies the fennec fox population in the "Least Concern" category of its Red List for endangered species. It appears that the threats to the fox population are not serious enough to significantly affect the population size, at least at the moment. It's unknown whether the population is decreasing, remaining stable, or decreasing, however.
Work on captive populations is encouraged, but an in-depth study of the species, with particular emphasis on habitat use and population dynamics in the wild is overdue.— IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
A Fennec Fox Plays With a Cat
Fennec Foxes as Exotic Pets
Many people are attracted to fennec foxes by their adorable appearance. People who keep the animals in their home say that they can make good house pets, but they must be well socialized when they are young. They are energetic, playful, and curious animals. They are also friendly and often enjoy being stroked. In addition, they like playing with other household pets. They can be trained like a dog to come when called and fetch items that are thrown. They also like to play with toys.
Some people take their fox for a walk outside the house with their pet securely attached to a leash and harness. Fennec foxes can run very fast, however. If they escape from their leash, they will be very hard to catch as they eagerly rush away to explore and hunt. Some fox owners believe that it's just too risky to take the animals outside if they're not in a secure pet carrier.
The foxes love to dig and need a digging area to play in. They are also excellent jumpers and can leap over barriers. It's often reported that they can leap to a height three times greater than their body height and over a distance four times longer than their body length. They are also said to be able to dig twenty feet in one night in their natural habitat. If a pet fox has an outdoor enclosure the walls must be extended below the ground or the fox may dig under them. This is one reason why most fennec foxes are kept as indoor pets.
Fennec foxes can be trained to use a litter box, but some foxes use them more often than others. Many have "accidents" even when a litter box is available.
An Excited Scout Waking Up
Fennec Foxes Are Not Domesticated Animals
Although videos of pet fennec foxes playing are very cute, the foxes are not domesticated animals. Domestication of a wild animal takes many generations of selective breeding. At the moment, fennec fox breeders have to remove the kits from their parents at a very young age—usually before their eyes open—and hand rear them in order to socialize them to humans.
A pet fox must get regular attention from humans. Daily exercise is also very important. The fox's high energy and urge to dig may be hard to deal with. Its bursts of energy also may overwhelm other family pets. Fennec foxes are considered to be "escape artists". Enclosures, harnesses, and leashes need to be designed with care and their condition checked regularly.
A Very Energetic Pet Fennec Fox
Before getting a fennec fox as a pet, it's important that the prospective owner makes sure that they have access to a veterinarian who is experienced in treating the animals. An experienced breeder who is willing to keep in touch and answer questions is also a valuable resource.
Research Is Important
It's illegal to keep fennec foxes as pets in some areas. Even when it's legal, prospective owners need to do a great deal of research into integrating the animal into the family and home. Keeping an exotic pet is a big undertaking and requires a lot of work and patience. Anyone who wants to purchase a fennec fox needs to forget about the animal's cuteness and seriously consider whether they are prepared for the responsibilities involved.
"Fennec Fox". Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/fennec-fox (accessed August 12, 2017).
"Vulpes zerda". International Union for Conservation of Nature. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41588/0 (accessed August 12, 2017).
Strat, Deanne, DVM. "Fennec Foxes" Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital. http://www.exoticpetvet.com/fennec-foxes.html (accessed August 12, 2017).
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton