Pet Fox Guide: Legality, Care, and Important Information
The lowdown on foxes as pets
Has the idea of owning a pet fox peaked your interest? That’s not a surprise. The iconic animals have graced popular media for hundreds of years while pet foxes have been trending on social media lately (Archer, the laughing arctic fox/ This is why you need a pet fox).
They bear a strong resemblance to the domestic dog, begging the question; can they also be kept as pets? The short answer is yes. Many animals one might only expect to find in a zoo can be privately owned and some even as house pets. The practice of keeping so-called exotic pets is controversial but to anyone who approves of owning pet cats, the arguments against it don't hold water.
Unfairly criticized as it may be, prospective fox owners need to be aware that owning a fox is unlike owning dogs and cats. Most exotic pets lack popularity because the general public is unwilling to tolerate their traits and needs that pertain to activity level, house manners, and housing requirements. If you are adaptable and do not have unreasonable expectations for foxes to behave like calmer domesticated pets, perhaps a fox can be for you.
What species of fox can be owned as pets?
In captivity in the U.S., pet fox species are either African desert foxes or species with ranges that extend throughout the Northern Hemisphere. More specifically, the very popular fennec fox from northern Africa and the red, arctic, and grey foxes are the most commonly owned. Less common but sometimes available are the swift, pale, and bat-eared foxes. The popular fennec fox is one of the few, or perhaps the only species that can reasonably be kept as a house pet. Their smaller size and lack of offensive odor makes them uniquely suited for the indoors, while the larger foxes can be expected to require some form of outdoor housing.
- 6 Exotic Wild Dogs (Non-domesticated) that are kept as Pets
All about pet exotic canines, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and more.
Fox Species in Private Ownership
- Arctic Fox (Arctic tundra habitats of Northern Europe, northern Asia, and North America)
- Bat-eared Fox (Africa)
- Corsac Fox (Asia)
- Grey Fox (North America to Northern South America)
- Red Fox (Arctic Circle to North Africa, North America and Eurasia, introduced to Australia)
- Swift Fox (North America)
Some red fox color variations: marble, champagne, silver, silver cross, albino, piebald, cinnamon
What about domesticated foxes?
You may have heard that Russian researchers once pioneered an experiment where they selectively bred red foxes for tameness and this resulted in animals that were significantly more ‘dog-like’.
Some people claim to have had them, like Alayna Sitterson, who ran a blog about her fox, Swiper (more on that story later in this article). Many are mistaken or fooled, however. Her pet was likely a fox domesticated for the fur trade.
True Russian domesticated foxes are quite rare, and only a limited number of them have been shipped to the U.S. for private citizens. There is more information on this in the video below.
Domesticated Red Fox
Domesticated foxes often have unique coloration, such as in the above photo, but Russian foxes can also come in the classic 'red' color that is found in the wild. Regardless of domestication, red foxes will not be a good match for people expecting a dog-like temperament.
Aren't Pet Foxes Wild Animals?
Unless one of these scenarios apply: the fox was taken from the wild from a sub-adult age or more, the fox was found as a pup, rehabilitated with the intention of release, and returned to the wild, or the fox has had little to no human contact while in captivity.
Wild animals come from and are raised in the wild. A captive human-imprinted or socialized animal is different from a wild animal. The subject of domestication is a complex one; the take away message from this brief comment on the subject is that domestication is a process of a means but not an end. There is little if any set criteria to define what a domesticated animal is, and the animal's adaptability to living with humans is the only thing needing to be taken into consideration.
On Halloween in 2010, Alayna Sitterson set out to Reston Town Center in Virginia with her pet silver fox Swiper, who was wearing a dog skeleton costume. The outdoor venture ended when Fairfax County animal control officers confiscated the animal and charged Sitterson with unlawful possession of wildlife. “I started crying. I was very emotional,” Sitterson said. The traumatic event ended when the police returned Swiper after consulting with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, whom determined the fox was legal due to his silver coloring, proving he was a 'domesticated' fox, which is legal in Virginia.
“I started crying. I was very emotional”
The incident sheds light on some serious issues with pet foxes and other exotics. First and most importantly, do not take your exotic pets out in public places. Especially carnivores and primates.
Sitterson obviously naively saw her pet fox as good as any 'normal' pet. In a perfect world, this would be the case, but despite Swiper's legal status, the knee-jerk reaction that the public will have to such a shocking sight can invite trouble. It is interesting to note that had Swiper's fur been red he would have been illegal to own. This makes little sense. As previously mentioned, Swiper is most likely a ranch-raised fox, not a Russian domesticated fox. These are distinctly different sets of genes. Domesticated foxes in the U.S. have been selectively-bred for the fur trade, not as pets. The animals of breeders who sell foxes as pets descend from these.
In Virginia there is a (currently being contested) loophole in the law created for the noble people who breed and slaughter foxes solely to sell their fur. So-called domesticated foxes are legal to own and are defined by their coat color. A 'domesticated' fox can also be red, but perhaps this proves to be too complex of a concept for Virginia's wildlife officials. It's easier to write 'red=bad' as a law. Does this arbitrary and mostly useless domestication status for foxes make them 'safer' to exist in captivity?
The exemption to the fox law was never intended for pet owners, which is why one day there may be an amendment to it to eliminate pesky pet owners that want to enjoy the same freedoms as fox slaughterers.
Foxes are rabies vectors, and since there will never be an approved rabies vaccine for them (in order for a vaccine to be approved, expensive research must be conducted, and this will only be done for extremely popular pets like dogs, cats, and ferrets) therefore in most jurisdictions, if a pet fox or other exotic mammal bites someone and they report it, the animal will be euthanized so it can be tested for rabies.
Alayna Sitterson learned this later and determined that foxes shouldn't be kept as pets until a vaccine is created (which will never happen). This is an extreme position, but foxes which aren't house pets can be an extreme burden when it comes to laws. You must determine with concrete certainty that foxes are legal in your state, county, and residential association. Even then, as with Swiper, foxes invite negative attention, so keep their existence quiet.
Native foxes are illegal in the majority of states, as are many native animals. The fennec fox, one of the more popular exotic pets, might be legal in more states, but they are often banned when the family canidea or exotic carnivores are ignorantly listed as 'dangerous wildlife'. One atypical exception is New York State. Successful lobbying by fennec fox owners have kept the 3 pound canid legal in what is considered a 'ban state'.
"Many fennec fox owners living in New York protested by writing letters to senators and taking their animals in to see them in person. This activism resulted in fennec foxes being one of the only exotic pets not banned in New York State" (T.geder, 2015)
With the exception on New York, I can not say with certainty whether or not a fox is 'legal' in a state.
This is because legal has different meanings. In some states, like North Carolina, you can obtain a USDA license for exhibiting (you must 'exhibit' the animal to get this license such as doing library shows) and keep foxes, but they are otherwise illegal to pet owners. Some states might technically allow foxes but prevent you from importing them, making obtaining them impossible. Other states may surprisingly only allow you to keep foxes you caught yourself, or ideally, require proof a fox is captive-bred. Nevada prohibits all foxes but allows lions and elephants. Many states that had a fox species legal last month might be different now. You will pull your hair out trying to make sense of exotic pet laws.
A Fox Species (might) Be Legal in..
- Arkansas (red, grey)
- New York (fennec)
- Virginia (ranch red foxes)
- Florida (fennec)
- Indiana (fennec, red)
Tragedy: Vader the Fox
The story of Vader the fox is a good example of the consequences that could occur if your pet isn't legal. In North Dakota, following an anonymous bite report most likely fabricated by animal rights activists that did not agree with exotic pet ownership, the silver pet fox was confiscated from the home of Eric and Tara Hiatt by animal control. During the confiscation, Vader unsurprisingly bit one of the officers whom did not use the proper means to restrain the animal, despite repeated warnings from the owners that he could bite. Vader was taken to the pound, and the Hiatts received his color the very next day, as he was euthanized immediately.
Pros and Cons of fox ownership
Foxes are undoubtedly a unique and interesting pet. There probably isn’t a better conversation starter. Like all uncommon exotic pets, their unique traits and behaviors will keep their owner interested and captivated. Having the opportunity to live and bond with an animal like fox is an amazing experience. For such a positive experience to persist however, you will need to overcome the drawbacks of fox ownership.
- Foxes are loud. Red foxes are notorious for their 'skunky' urine, and most will scent mark. The smell is said by owners to be impossible to remove. If you are sensitive to the idea of your house having a permanent odor, an indoor red fox is not for you. The non-desert foxes will generally require an outdoor enclosure, minimally around 10'x10'. The enclosure must have a double-door entrance and be triple-checked to be escape proof! Their behaviors might frustrate a person expecting the adaptability of a socialized dog or cat. Foxes can be flighty. They may not often want to cuddle with you!
- Foxes are individuals, and just because your friend's fox acts a certain way or was easy to litter train does not mean the same will happen with yours.
- Foxes are illegal to own in most states and activists are eternally fighting to make it so in all states.
- If a bite report from a fox (or other exotic mammal) is made the animal will likely be confiscated to be tested for rabies (killed) unless the bite recipient volunteers for rabies treatment. Medical professionals are mandated to report such bites to the CDC.
- Foxes are crepuscular and will tend to be awake in the evening and night. If they don't have an outdoor enclosure, an outlet for their energy and a training-savvy owner, they may destroy furniture.
Red foxes are notorious for their 'skunky' urine, and most will scent mark
Litter box training
Various success is reported with foxes using the litter box. For fennec foxes, the litter box is intermittently used, however being desert foxes, urination is not excessive and the droppings are dry.
Red and grey foxes may use the litter box with up to an 100% success rate, but this does not include scent marking behavior. Mammals often mark their territory with urine, and this cannot be trained out of them.
Red foxes will need an outdoor enclosure
Foxes can eat similarly to dogs and cats, although fennecs have a higher need for taurine (found in cat food), so based on your species, research which diet is appropriate. Choose a 'high quality' and nutritionally complete (AAFCO) commercial food as the base of the diet. Many websites will model their fox diets off of what the species consumes in the wild under the logical fallacy that 'natural' is best. This is not the best route for foxes (or even domesticated pets) because relying on raw foods likely will result in the diet being nutritionally incomplete, as well as introducing unnecessary bacteria that can be harmful to the owner and in some cases, even the animal.
Feeding similar foods to what foxes get in the wild can be helpful as supplementary variety in the diet. Fennec foxes can consume various insects that are readily available. Whole prey for foxes such as mice and chicks can provide more variety and enrichment. Diet is a complex issue and should be investigated further, although always follow the evidence. You will find that most care sheets online are basing their recommendations off of myths and emotional speculation.
All exotic pets will benefit from some form of comfortable interaction with their owners for enrichment purposes. Exotic pets in general will also substantially benefit from training procedures so when it comes time for them to be transported to the vet, or if you need to examine their body condition when you suspect there is a change in their health, it will be done with the least amount of stress possible. Clicker training is a recommended method for use with all warm-blooded animals. A good book to start learning how to train all animals which is recommended by beginners and zoological professionals alike is Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor
Harness Training: Condition your fox to accept the use of a harness by starting the training early in life. However, many foxes have escaped from harnesses of all types (jackets, H-shaped), so use extreme caution when utilizing these.
Fennec Fox Energy
Captive-bred baby fennec foxes as of 2016 typically sell for $2500-3000. The price range is increasing. A few years ago, the range was $800-$1000. The uncommon bat-eared fox will be towards the higher end of the fennec fox range.
Red foxes are significantly less expensive, typically in the hundreds. The same is likely true of arctics and greys.
Where can I find more information about pet foxes?
Much of the information in this article comes from Sybil's Message Board, an excellent place for people thinking about exotic pets to search for and read articles from experienced owners. You can also ask questions about legality, licensing, and other essential information. The link to the fox section is provided below.
- Red Fox Family Care Sheet
Caring for a pet fox, what to feed a fox, understanding their behaivior and much more fox information.
- FOXES - TOPICS ON EXOTIC, DOMESTIC, FARM AND REPTILE ANIMALS
Where do I get a fox?
If you've read through this information and read both positive and negative testimonials from fox owners and can't shake the desire to pursue getting one, a good place to start looking up breeders is exoticanimalsforsale.net. I've created a few sensible guidelines for using that site and other classifieds on the internet.
- Exotic Animals for Sale: Dos and Don’ts
Many websites allow you to shop for exotic/wild animals online. This is important information for those who are new to the process.