Black Foxes UK

Environmental Enrichment

Every good animal keeper strives daily to enhance animal well-being through the application of sound welfare practices. A critical component in supplying high standards of care and welfare for exotic pets is attention to their whole environment, including their;

  • Physical Environment (such as the primary enclosure or any temporary holding areas. Includes the need for adequate; temperature, humidity, air flow, lighting and noise levels, as well as adequate sleeping and exercise areas, adequate toileting and feeding stations, and good hygiene practices)
  • Physiological Environment (the need for sensory stimulation, adequate sleep cycles, quality exercise, good nutrition and regular health checks)
  • Psychological Environment (the need for choice, for reward, the opportunity to learn and develop skills, to perform species-specific behaviours and the need to exercise a reasonable amount of control over their lives)
  • Social Environment (the need to be housed with, or apart from other animals, the need for positive interactions, comfort and emotional connections, the need to develop social learning)

The process of providing enrichment ensures captive animals find their environments stimulating and rewarding, ensures they are able to behave in species specific ways, and allows them the ability to exercise an element of choice and control over their environment; which all aid in enhancing both physical and mental well-being.  

"Enrichment is a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals behavioural biology and natural history. Environmental changes are made with the goal of increasing the animal's behavioural choices and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviours, thus enhancing animal welfare (1999 AZA Behavior Scientific Advisory Group)” 

Enrichment Overview - The Shape of Enrichment

The primary goals of environmental or behavioural enrichment programmes are to promote optimum welfare standards and to provide a holistic approach to preventing unwanted behaviours, by supplying animals with the option and ability to engage in species specific behaviour,through the use or application of structural, social and activity based opportunities.

"Animals in their natural habitat encounter a rich spectrum of environmental stimuli every day, as they carry out the tasks essential for survival. They are "busy" all the time. For the survival of the individual, they must find food and shelter, and avoid predators and other hazards. For the survival of the species, they engage in mating and infant-rearing activities. Practically from the moment of birth, animals in the wild develop and refine the skills essential for survival.

Captive animals have the same instincts, and the same energetic need to respond to their environment, as do their counterparts in the wild. However, in the absence of the need to engage their environment and struggle for survival, their instincts and energy can express themselves in obsessive, stereotypic, counter-productive and even self-destructive behaviours...

No matter how ideal, a captive environment can never duplicate the vast range, challenging terrain, or dietary authenticity and variety an animal encounters in its natural habitat"

Environmental Enrichment - Safe Haven Wildlife

Provision of environmental enrichment is just as critical to captive animal welfare as nutrition and veterinary care - environmental enrichment is a necessity, not a luxury. 

Experiments have shown that enriched environments are vital for not only mental-well being, but also for memory, learning and navigation, aiding in the development of neuronal growth in the hippocampus (part of the limbic system; which regulates behaviour, emotion, motivation and olfaction). 

"Gerd Kempermann raised ageing mice in enriched environments, filled with mice toys such as balls, tunnels and running wheels, for only 45 days... Kempermann... found they had a 15 percent increase in the volume of their hippocampi and forty thousand new neurons, also a 15 percent increase, compared with mice raised in standard cages... 

When the team tested older mice raised in the enriched environment for ten months... there was a five-fold increase in in the number of neurons in the hippocampus. These mice were better at tests of learning, exploration, movement, and other measures of mouse intelligence than those raised in unenriched conditions... proving that long term enrichment had an immense effect on promoting neurogenesis...

Next the team looked at which activities caused cell increases in the mice... the most effective contributor to increased proliferation of new neurons was the running wheel. After a month on the running wheel mice had doubled the number of new neurons in the hippocamus... theory is that in a natural setting, long term fast walking would take an animal into new and different environments that would require new learning, sparking... "anticipatory proliferation" [of neuronal pathways]".

The Brain that Changes Itself -Norman Doidge

It is also important to remember the enrichment provided must ultimately address the specific physical, physiologic and psychological needs of the animal in order to be effective. 

The main aims of most zoo animal enrichment programmes are to;

  • Increase the behavioural diversity of the animal
  • Increase the range of species specific behaviours
  • Reduce the frequency of any abnormal behaviours
  • Increase the animal's use and exploration of the environment
  • Increase the animal's ability to deal with challenges
  • Increase the animal's ability to develop and utilize it's cognitive skills
  • Allow the animal the ability to exercise choice and control over their environment

Maladaptive behaviours are an indicator of stress which can potentially be caused by inadequate environment and enrichment. Signs of stress in foxes include, but are not limited to;

  • Decreased activity and or appetite
  • Increase in digging, chewing or scent marking (compulsive behaviours)
  • Increase in vocalisations and agonistic behaviour
  • Piloerection (hairs standing on end)
  • Excessive grooming, licking or scratching (self-soothing behaviours)
  • Fur chewing/tail biting (self-mutilation)
  • Rough coat (cessation of grooming)
  • Strange eating habits (pica)
  • Lethargy or loss of interest in normal activities
  • Circling, pacing or restlessness (stereotypies)
  • Sleeping too much/too little
  • Infanticide

Note: Always consult a veterinarian before adapting the environment or providing enrichment in response to clinical signs of stress, as sick animals can also exhibit such symptoms. 

Stimulating the senses

Enrichment includes the design of stimulating natural enclosures, as well as the presentation of novel scents, sights, sounds, tastes, tactile sensations and situations. Animal training and "behavioural engineering" should also be part of a comprehensive enrichment programme, assisting to ensure experiences are positive and enriching. The goals being to promote;

  • Activity that stimulates the muscles and helps maintain healthy bones and joints, as well as aiding in normal brain function. 
  • Positive experiences that promote confidence and build trust, enhancing welfare
  • Opportunity to play and explore, allowing them to release tension or excess energy in a positive way, reducing the development of unnatural and unwanted behaviours

While humans share similar senses to foxes, our capability and the mechanisms by which our senses operate differs, making it hard for us humans to truly understand the best way to keep a fox physically and mentally stimulated. 

Animal and human senses can generally be grouped into 5 categories, which are all interconnected;

  • Audition (Hearing) - A foxes ears can move independently and hear sounds outside the range of human hearing, which enables them to pinpoint the source of sounds with great accuracy and from some distance. Unlike most mammals they can hear low frequency sounds (such as those sounds made by rodents digging underground), right up to the higher frequencies . 

"We determined the absolute hearing sensitivity of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) using an adapted standard psychoacoustic procedure. The animals were tested in a reward-based go/no-go procedure in a semi-anechoic chamber.

At 60 dB sound pressure level... red foxes perceive pure tones between 51 Hz and 48 kHz, spanning 9.84 octaves with a single peak sensitivity of -15 dB at 4 kHz. The red foxes' high-frequency cutoff is comparable to that of the domestic dog while the low-frequency cutoff is comparable to that of the domestic cat and the absolute sensitivity is between both species.

The maximal absolute sensitivity of the red fox is among the best found to date in any mammal. The procedure used here allows for assessment of animal auditory thresholds using positive reinforcement outside the laboratory"

A Behavioral Audiogram of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) - E.P. Malkemper, V. Topinka & H. Burda, 2015


  • Gustation (Taste) -  Studies have shown that food palatability influences caching behaviour in the fox. Foxes find highly palatable food (such as freshly cooked chicken), something to be rapidly consumed and less palatable food tends to be cached.  Unpalatable food sources are not consumed and are often buried or marked (as opposed to being cached for later use).  Fox's have a preference for warmer foods (around the temperature of freshly killed prey), which provides stimulation for their sense of smell and ability to detect temperature. In general, what a fox finds palatable will vary depending on energy needs and nutritional requirements. While foxes do eat a wide variety of food sources it is thought their sense of  taste is not as developed as our own. Their tongue is similar to that of cats; like fine sandpaper, about 2cm wide and around 12cm in length, suggesting they have similar taste preferences, with less sour-sensing taste buds than we possess.

Differences in Detecting Salt and Sugar between Foxes, Dogs and Rats:

  • Somatosensation (Touch) - The sense of touch also encompasses the sensing of pain (noinception), temperature (thermoception), vibration (proprioception) and body position (equilbrioception). A fox has whiskers on their face and legs that assist in determining touch sensations such as vibration. A fox's tail or "brush" is an adaptation that aids in maintaining balance when hunting and pouncing and their ability to detect temperature changes and seasonal variations assists in the development of their thick winter coats, which enables them to survive quite happily throughout cold winter months. 
  • Olfaction (Smell) - While people often consider a fox's keen sense of smell is their most valuable hunting asset, it is slightly weaker than that of dogs. Two studies in the fox investigated the role of olfactory, auditory, and visual cues when hunting; the findings demonstrated how visual cues are the most important for red foxes when hunting, which appears to align with their unique magnetoreception abilities (see below). Their keen sense of smell is most useful in aiding communication rather than with hunting, assisted by the vomeronasal organ, which aids in detecting specific pheromones and regulating hormonal reflexes in response. 
  • Vision (Sight) - A fox's sight is it's most important hunting tool. Their vision is geared towards the detection of movement, which acts as a trigger for activating of their "seeking circuit" (see below). Their vertical pupils are similar to those of cats, and are a typical feature of predators that are most active at night or in low light. They have specialised cells that reflect light back into the eyes allowing them to see a much more intense image than we can in the same light, this is partly the reason a fox's eyes will glow yellow, green or red (depending on the angle), when light is shone into them.  It is now believed that foxes also use the Earth's magnetic field, along with their acute hearing and pouncing abilities, to align prey within their centre of vision, which allows them to successfully ambush their prey from above.

Fox Mousing Principle:

It is also important not to forget the other, more enhanced sense of foxes, such as;

  • Magnetoreception (Sensing the Earth's magnetic field) 

Magnetoreception is a sense documented in several animals species that allows an animal to detect the Earth's magnetic field, in order to perceive direction, altitude or location.

In 2011 a study was released by the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, that found foxes utilize magnetoreception when "mousing" (ambushing prey they cannot see with a high pounce). It is the first case of magnetoreception being used in animals to hunt prey and potentially the first cases of animals using magnetoreception to judge distance, rather than direction. 

The researchers "found that the foxes tended to prepare for their jumps in long vegetation or snow with their body aligned in a roughly north-easterly direction (around 20° clockwise from magnetic north)" and had a 75% success rate as a result. They also noted that in short vegetation, where the foxes were more able to see their prey, there was no bias towards any particular direction (having no need to use others senses to pin-point the location of a prey animal they can clearly see). 

The research suggests successful hunting practices were enhanced and more successful with magnetic alignment.  

  • Hunting senses and the "Seeking Circuit"

Studies have shown that when animals go into "hunting mode" dopamine is released in the brain, helping to create strong feelings of engaged curiosity, intense interest and eager anticipation. This process is known as the "seeking circuit" and drives the animal into taking action towards reaching it's goals. 

When this circuit is activated a fox will seek or "hunt down" the things they need and want (such as, food, shelter, comfort... or even your mobile phone - because they want to know why you find it so interesting!). It is the reason foxes have so much fun hunting, playing and generally looking for trouble, and it is what drives them to ultimately go after their prey or perceived reward.

When the "seeking circuit" is activated animals are more confident, in a positive frame of mind and feeling stimulated. Opportunities to experience such anticipation and exploration are important for maintaining well-being and the provision of environmental enrichment allows keepers to ensure they provide such opportunities. 

  • The Vomeronasal Organ and Sensing Certain Pheromones

The vomeronasal organ is located in the mouth cavity close to the nasal bones. It contains sensory neurons that detect chemical stimuli. In mammals it is mainly used to detect things like; the pheromones of prey animals, the marked territory and scent trails of individual's of their own species, and the reproductive state of females.

Unlike the fox' main olfactory system (it's sense of smell), the vomeronasal organ sends neuronal signals to both the main olfactory system, and the hypothalamus (the brains major neuroendocrine centre) which may explain how certain scents initiate specific behavioural reflexes, such as; increasing mating behaviours and aggression.

When an animal detects certain pheromones, nerve signals from the brain pass this sensory information to the hypothalamus, which detects seasonal changes and mate availability and adjusts hormone regulation accordingly. This is important for foxes, as the hypothalamus regulates the release of reproductive hormones required for breeding, as well as those hormones required for seasonal coat development.

Natural Behaviour & Adaptations

Animal behaviour is used as a means to measure animal welfare and while animal welfare is an extremely difficult subject to define and measure, an animal that is displaying several different naturally occurring behaviours is generally considered to be under a better standard of care and welfare than an animal that just display's one, for example. 

It is also important to take note of a fox's natural activity pattern when looking to provide the highest standards of care and welfare. Despite common assumptions, wild and domestic animals tend to invest similar amounts of time in regular daily activities. This is also true for western humans in comparison to remote tribes people (who do not have access or need for technology and modern conveniences).

The activities a fox will engage in daily include;

  • Resting - Unlike humans, foxes don't sleep in one long session, instead they take several naps throughout the day. Being nocturnal (with a tendency towards more crepuscular behaviour), foxes tend to be most active between dusk and dawn. Like dogs and other canines, they need a total average of around 10-12 hours of sleep a day.
  • Foraging and Hunting Activity - Adults spend about 1/3 of the waking life hunting for food (approx. 4 hours a day). The amount of time spent hunting increases when they are rearing pups or during those times when food is scarce. 
  • Feeding - Foxes do not eat one or two large meals a day to sustain health like humans do. Instead they are opportunistic feeders, adjusting their diets according to seasonal abundance and availability in order to ensure "the greatest energy returns for the expenditure of effort".  

"The activity patterns of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes L.) living and breeding in urban areas of Oxford, and the interactions between individuals, were analysed from detailed radio-tracking data on 17 adults. Foxes were nocturnal and active during the night for a mean of 6h 52 min, irrespective of the time of year.

The number of active/resting periods increased in autumn and winter, and in winter and spring the night was characteristically divided into several short cycles of activity of 2–2 1/2 h each, interspersed with similar periods of rest.

The foxes occupied mutually exclusive group ranges and group members remained within 50m of each other for up to one-third of the time spent active at night"

Activity Patterns and Interactions of Red Foxes (vulpes vulpes) in Oxford City - C.P.Doncaster and D.W.Macdonlad, 1997

Fox Forgaing Session goes Wrong, Swimming Skills to the Rescue:

Physical Abilities and Adaptations of the Red Fox:

It is important when considering enrichment options for foxes, to take into consideration, not only their senses and natural activity patterns, but also their physical abilities;

  • A foxes long legs and slender, light frame allow it to run at maximum speed of around 30 mph. They are capable of long-distance running and can cover vast distances when expanding territory.
  • Foxes are good swimmers, this allows them to expand and explore new territories, it also comes in handy when "foraging sessions go wrong", as in the video above.  
  • Foxes have semi-retractable claws that allows them to grip onto their small mammal prey, the ability to grip also makes them very good at climbing. 
  • They can jump a height of 4 feet when pouncing prey and can make light work of getting over a 6 foot fence. 
  • Foxes walk on their toes, which accounts for their feline-style gait, helping them to manoeuvre and grip when hunting prey. 
  • Foxes are active diggers. They can dig down to a depth of 4 ft, which enables them to build secure dens during cubbing season. They also hunt ground dwelling prey that they have to dig out, and will cache excess food by burying it. 

With such an array of senses, needs and abilities that need to be stimulated and flexed, it becomes easier to see how and why the provision of an effective environmental enrichment plan is so important. Imagine having all those senses and abilities and never being able to use them... it would be very frustrating, I'm sure!

Fox Demonstrating Jumping Skills on "Cue":

Enrichment Categories

Enrichment can be grouped into 5 categories (which are all interlinked and can overlap). Each of these categories should be individually addressed when designing an enrichment programme for your pet;

Social Enrichment:

Foxes are curious social creatures and enjoy interacting with others of the same species, they also tolerate the company of other species and are capable of forming strong bonds with man and other animals.

Social enrichment includes;

  • Contact - Same Species and non-prey species, can include cats, dogs and humans.
  • Non-contact: The sights, sounds and smells of other animals, and cooperative devices.

A strong group composition of happy healthy animals is important for successful social interactions, but environment and captive breeding practices can suppress the development of normal interactions between members of the same species and others if not done sympathetically to the natural behaviour of the animal in question. Training or behavioural engineering may be necessary to help promote positive behaviours between animals of the same species, between different species and between humans and animals.

When providing animals with such social learning opportunities, it is important to bear the following in  mind;

"Shepherdson provides a detailed framework using observable behaviour as an indicator of well-being. He notes that most animal welfare researchers would agree that enhanced well-being requires that the animal have a reasonable level of choice and control in their lives and that they are "behaviourally contempt and empowered to act on their own behalf." He suggests that animals experiencing enhanced welfare should be free of behaviours that are abnormal or indicative of fear and frustration. They should actively explore and interact with their environment and demonstrate diversity of behaviour similar to that typically observed in the wild. Finally, they should demonstrate behavioural flexibility and appropriate responses to changing circumstances. 

The Animal Welfare Forum: The Welfare of Zoo Animals - Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2002

Studies regarding the social preference of farmed foxes has also shown how providing choice and control over social contact reduces aggression and increases grooming and play activities;

"To investigate the strength of social motivation and the motives underlying social contact in farmed silver foxes... we housed six young vixens continuously... and measured their ‘maximum price paid’ when required to perform a task to obtain unrestricted social contact or food.. both test and stimulus foxes could decide their own visit durations to a shared compartment...

We conclude that young silver fox vixens were motivated for social contact, and that this contact was beneficial for welfare due to the low level of aggression and the occurrence of grooming and play."

Anne Lene Hovland, Et. Al., 2007 

Social Activity with Other Animals:

Social Activity with New People and Situations:

Social Activity with other Foxes:

Social Activity with Owner's:

Occupational Enrichment:

Foxes love to test and explore their environment. They are great problem-solver's, with a capability of learning through observation. Providing opportunity for foxes to learn and play allows them them to develop their skills and keeps them mentally healthy and stimulated. Occupational enrichment includes;

  • Cognitive activities - Puzzles, Toys, Remodelling projects (things to chew, manipulate and move).
  • Physical activities - Enrichment that encourages movement by providing places to go and activities to do (such as climbing, jumping and foraging opportunities).
  • Training and behavioural engineering - The use of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to keep animals activated and stimulated. Basic training can include; litter training, bite inhibition, obedience training, agility, training to assist potential veterinary visits, harness training and lead walking, and handling sessions. Positive reinforcement must be used at all times. As with cats (and unlike dogs), foxes do not have the natural instinct to co-operate with others for survival, so training sessions must provide a positive experience in order to be successful. A negative experience can have a serious impact on any progress made, and on any trust that has developed. 

The provision of physical and mental stimulation, the provision of a reasonable amount of choice and control within the environment and the provision of opportunity to earn rewards, are important for maintaining your fox's well-being, however, it may not always come naturally to your fox to interact with man-made enrichment or to participate in certain activities. This is where training and behavioural engineering can help, by providing you opportunity to teach your fox how to utilise and enjoy the enrichment products or social activities you provide.

Remember the toys and devices you provide must be safe and your fox must have choice as to whether to participate or not. Always allow your fox the opportunity to explore new toys and devices in their own time (to encourage more participation you can always try upping the reward value).

What is Behavioural Engineering?

Behavioural Engineering is used as the term given to the process of increasing activity in animals through devices and activities that ensure they spend a sufficient amount of time working to earn a food reward. The purpose is to ensure animals are provided with the opportunity to engage in the naturalistic foraging, hunting and feeding activities that stimulate the senses, provide a purpose, and promote a sense of well-being. 

"The first person to suggest the use of the behaviour engineering approach was great primatologist Robert Yerkes. In 1925 he suggested that devices could be installed into primate enclosure that would encourage play and work. This suggestion was later repeated by Hediger in 1950 (Shepherdson et. al., 1998) but it was not until the 1970's that this approach was championed by Markowitz (1982). The behavioural engineering approach seeks to restore natural contingency between emission of appetitive behaviour (e.g. foraging) and the performance of consummatory behaviour (e.g. feeding). In 1988, Hughes and Duncan pointed to the fact that captive animals often have a need (they termed it a "behavioural need") to express appetitive behaviours. Furthermore, they suggest from their review of literature that if such a behavioural need is thwarted the welfare of the animal will suffer."

Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals: Behavioural Engineering - Rober J. Young, 2003

An example of behavioural engineering being used to encourage the use of natural hunting and foraging skills in a Komodo dragon;

Physical Enrichment:

Foxes are highly adaptable and are perfectly designed to live in a naturally challenging and complex environment. As a result, they have great agility and dexterity. The physical environment and activities you provide must attempt to recreate some of the options and choices of living in a natural environment.

The physical enrichment for use with foxes includes;

  • Structural enrichment such as an enclosure that promotes natural behaviours (size, structure, lighting, temperature, ventilation), substrate and places to play, eat, groom, sleep and  exercise (houses, hides, tunnels, climbing platforms, play areas, trees, branches and plants) - You must also provide reason to utilise these structures; by using them to present other forms of enrichment or by cleaning them to remove scents etc.
  • Enrichment products that encourage movement and use of balance (rope bridges, swinging platforms, hanging toys or feeders, treat balls, treat holes in logs, lead walking).
  • Enrichment products that promote cardiovascular activity and natural behaviours such as, pouncing, chasing, caching and digging (lures, pet laser pointers, fetch games, tug games, sand pit for digging etc).

"An increasing number of zoos keep their animals in natural-looking enclosures, but it is often unclear whether or not the species’ behavioural and ecological needs are being adequately met. For species that suffer predation in the wild, structural enrichment in captivity can play a crucial role in connection with enclosure use.

Firstly, we examined the effectiveness of structural enrichment in modifying enclosure use in an opportunistic carnivore, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). In a test enclosure, we placed both long wooden and cover structures that simulated natural habitat in predetermined sectors.

A group of four foxes were exposed to four treatments:  structural enrichment in location 1, structural enrichment in location 2, structural enrichment removed  and  structural enrichment again in location 1. Sectors containing long wooden structures were preferred significantly compared to the rest of the enclosure. Sector use was selectively shifted to those in which cover structures were present. Structural enrichment had no significant effect on activity.

Secondly, in a new outdoor enclosure, we compared the use of sectors with cover or elongated structures with that of corresponding sectors without structures. All individuals showed a significant preference for sectors containing structures.

In the course of the three-week observation period, there was a significant decline in preference for structures and a significant increase in activity. These results suggest that in medium-sized carnivores, structural enrichment is beneficial when natural features with a net-like distribution over the habitat are simulated."

Structural Enrichment and Enclosure Use in an Opportunistic Carnivore - The Red Fox - C. Kistler, 2010

Sensory Enrichment:

Animal sensory systems are species specific, playing a crucial role in their survival. Sensory enrichment should be tailored to the fox's specific senses, in order to elicit a species-specific response. Varied, natural planting and the provision of food enrichment are two ways to ensure the physical environment also provides full stimulation of the 5 senses. Other sensory stimulating enrichment examples include;

  • Smell - Natural predator pheromones and prey scents, fragrant animal safe planting and novel scents such as herbs, spices and essential oils.
  • Touch - Enrichment products that can be manipulated and explored, providing different materials and textures (dry leaves, soft toys, blankets, newspaper, bubble-wrap, plastic bottles, frozen fruits and veg, boxes or wood).
  • Sound - The presentation of preys sounds (such as locusts in a box buried in a sand pit, or bird callers and whistles), novel sounds like music, animal and nature recordings, squeaky toys, wind chimes or obedience training (following verbal commands).
  • Sight - Different coloured enrichment products, movement of water and plants, toys that move (vibrating cat toys or feather lures), provision of new and novel objects, being able to see other animals and environments, being able to see perceived signs of reward (such as a nest in high branches).
  • Taste -Provision of a varied diet and food enrichment items that provide adequate nutrition, as well as new and novel taste sensations (such as whole foods, cooked, raw or frozen foods, flavoured sprays or beverages, and "recipes" - blends and mixtures of different tastes).

Studies have shown that providing sensory enrichment, while beneficial if applied correctly, is not straightforward;

"In the wild, animals are exposed to an ever-changing array of sensory stimuli. The captive environment, by contrast, is generally much more impoverished in terms of the sensory cues it offers the animals housed within. In a bid to remedy this, and promote better welfare, researchers have started to explore the merits of sensory stimulation (i.e. stimulation designed to trigger one or more of an animal's senses) as a potential method of environmental enrichment for captive animals...

[We review] the research in this area, focusing specifically on auditory, olfactory and visual methods of sensory stimulation. Studies exploring the efficacy of each type of stimulation as an enrichment tool are described, where appropriate, making a distinction between those that occur in the animal's natural habitat, and those that do not.

Overall, it is concluded that sensory stimulation harbours enrichment potential for some animals housed in institutional settings, although the specific merits gained from these enrichments are likely to depend upon a wide variety of factors including, for example, species, sex, age and housing conditions.

Programmes of sensory enrichment that target the dominant sense for the species under scrutiny, using harmless, non-stressful stimuli, are likely to result in the greatest benefits for animal welfare. Stimuli specific to a species’ natural habitat should not always be considered meaningful, or advantageous, to an animal's welfare; in some cases stimuli that do not occur naturally in the wild (e.g. classical music) may offer more in the way of welfare advantages."

Sensory Stimulation as Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals: A review - Deborah L. Wells, 2009

Food Enrichment:

Foxes are skilled problem solvers that enjoy the search for food and while their diet consists primarily of small mammals, they can (and do) eat a wide variety of foods, so when presenting food enrichment, both delivery and type food need to be considered.

Food can be presented to foxes in a variety of different ways;

  • Hanging Feeders
  • Automated Feeders
  • Puzzle Feeders
  • Treat Dispensing Toys
  • Home-made Insect Dispensers
  • Fishing/Bobbing Ponds
  • Hidden, Scattered or Buried
  • Live Food (Locusts, crickets, wax worms, wax moths and earthworms)
  • Whole Food (Whole birds and prey items, whole fruits and vegetables) 
  • Frozen, Raw, Dried, Smoked, Cooked, Puréed, as Food Mixtures or in the form of "Recipes"
  • As a Reward for Training or for engaging in Behavioural Engineering Activities

The goal of food enrichment is illicit the natural foraging, hunting and scavenging behaviours that will keep your fox active and stimulated. Food enrichment is one of the best ways to engage your foxes five senses and studies have shown that animals are happier and healthier when they have to work for their food. 

Note: When using food enrichment, remember to ensure the contents are part of your fox's daily food requirement, as over-feeding will reduce interest in enrichment devices, will increase caching behaviour and has the potential to create health problems.  You can do this by taking your foxes total daily food allowance and portioning it out for different uses throughout the day. 

"In captive carnivores, species-specific behaviour is often restricted by inadequate feeding regimens. Feeding live prey is not feasible [or legal] in most places and food delivery is often highly predictable in space and time which is considerably different from the situation in the wild. As a result, captive carnivores are often inactive, show little behavioural diversity and are prone to behavioural problems such as stereotypic pacing. Using artificial feeding devices to substitute for natural food resources is a way to address these problems.

In a group of four red fox (Vulpes vulpes), we compared a conventional feeding method to four different methods through the use of feeding enrichment that were based on natural foraging strategies of opportunistic carnivores. Feeding enrichments consisted of electronic feeders delivering food unpredictable in time which were successively combined with one of three additional treatments: a self-service food box (allowing control over access to food), manually scattering food (unpredictable in space), and an electronic dispenser delivering food unpredictably both in space and time.

The aim of administering feeding enrichment in this study was to stimulate appetitive (food searching) behaviour and to increase time spent feeding. Compared to conventional feeding, diversity of behaviour and overall activity were significantly enhanced in the presence of electronic feeders in all four foxes...

Behavioural diversity was highest when the foxes had control over access to food... while the manual scattering of food... and the electronic dispenser... enhanced food searching behaviour. These results indicate that in opportunistic carnivores natural foraging and feeding behaviour can be stimulated by simple feeding enrichment strategies, and that foraging behaviour is stimulated most when food delivery is unpredictable both in space and time."

Feeding enrichment in an opportunistic carnivore: The red fox - Claudia Kistler, 2009

Developing an Enrichment Plan

When considering applying a daily enrichment plan it is important to remember that enrichment is a process; planning, commitment, consistency and regular re-evaluation are required for success.

The whole environment must be considered, individual needs must be met, and the action taken should be pro-active, rather than reactive (in other words, don't wait until problems start, prevent them from ever occurring). Enriching environments are those that present animals with choice, are based on the animals biological, social and cognitive needs and involve all members of the household. 

"Enrichment programs for small mammals and exotic pets generally lack goal-based strategies such as those designed for captive animals in zoos or research facilities. Because environmental enrichment is designed to promote species-normal behaviours, the best enrichments are those that are appropriate to the animal’s natural history. For example, burrowing animals enjoy plastic tubes for exploring, while arboreal animals prefer branches to climb. Constructing a natural history based enrichment chart for specific species is helpful for planning enrichments"

Enrichment for Small Mammals and Exotic Pets - Bob Church, 2007

The American Zoo and Aquariums Association Accreditation Guide and Standards (2003) recommends that an enrichment program be based on current information in behavioural biology and have developed the S.P.I.D.E.R Framework to help zoo's ensure they meet their animal enrichment objectives;

  • Setting Goals - Why are you doing it? What do you hope to achieve? When do you hope to achieve it?
  • Planning - How are you going to reach your goals and what are the risks? What materials and resources will you need?
  • Implementation -  Where are you going to do/put your enrichment? How will you fit your enrichment plan into your daily routine?
  • Documentation - How will you record the process and response?
  • Evaluation - Do you reach your goals? Were there any hidden problems/added benefits? Did enrichment increase/reduce any other behaviours?
  • Readjustment - Is there can you do to improve on your current plan? 

"A successful program is goal-oriented, self-sustaining, and integrated into the daily management of the animals – just as veterinary care and adequate nutrition are integrated into daily management. We suggest here that a successful enrichment program is not only integrated into the daily management of the animals, but a successful program is dependent upon three important components: a solid framework; staff perspective, attitude and training; and perhaps most critically, leadership [from Sevenich MacPhee & Mellen, 2000]."

Animal Enrichment - Disney Animal Programmes, 2009 

What to Consider when Planning Enrichment Stratergies:

  • Natural history and welfare needs of the animal
  • Potential risks
  • Cost of installation and maintenance
  • Ease of application and amount of input required
  • Maintenance - cleaning, safety checks, repair and replacement of parts 
  • Need for rotation so animal doesn't lose interest

Example of Enrichment Planning for Foxes;


Behaviour


Natural History of Behaviour

Category

Enrichment Example


Equipment


Digging

When hunting earthworms and ground dwelling rodents When building dens, When caching food

Physical
Occupational
Food
Sensory

Provision of digging site

Sand pit and soil, earthworms and insects, toys and food rewards that can be cached

Pouncing

When hunting prey, when playing

Physical
Occupational
Food
Sensory

Toys, games and live food

Squeaky toys, flirt poles, vibrating toys, trampoline and insects

Caching

When storing food. Increases when young present and if there is an abundance of food

Physical
Occupational
Food
Sensory

Eggs and dog treats

Several eggs and a large handful of small bite dog treats, safe places for caching food

Walking

When moving across territory, when searching for food

Social
Occupational
Sensory

Lead walking

Securely fitting harness, x2 chew-proof leads (double lead until confident), collar and I.D tag, GPS tracker (optional), preferably micro-chipped.

Scent Marking
Used as a form of communication, when marking territorial boundaries, the claiming ownership
Social
Occupational
Sensory

Deep cleaning enclosure, re-arranging enclosure, adding new or novel objects, scent sprays, visitors Cleaning products and equipment, new and novel objects, scent sprays - animal scents, herbs, spices, essential oils, objects with the scent of others,

Example of a Weekly Enrichment Schedule for a Pet Fox;

Below is an example of a weekly enrichment schedule for a pet fox. The use of a key allows for ease of alteration.

Key;

A - 1 hour of lead walking

B - Treats hidden in enclosure

C - Insects for digging up

D - Deep clean enclosure

E - Pet-safe pot plants or flowers

F - Boxes sprayed with novel scents

G - Leaf litter in a box

H - Grooming & Play session

I - Whole rabbit or pheasant

J - Old dog toys and blankets

K - Empty Fast-food tubs

L - 2 eggs both wrapped in paper

M - Rice box or noise shaker

N - Assortment of rubbish

O - Treat ball with dog treats

P - locusts in a holed, sealed box

Q - Prey vocalisations

R - Baby food smeared on logs

S - Dirty old sock in a plastic bag

T - 15 mins of basic training

U - A bath

Evaluating Your Enrichment:

To evaluate the effectiveness of your enrichment, you must know what objective you were trying to achieve (such as; increasing foraging behaviours).

You must also be aware of how frequently the behaviours were occurring before providing the enrichment and how frequently they occurred after provision of the enrichment. 

Not all enrichment provided will work as expected, or at all. In such cases, it is not that enrichment has failed, but that the changes provided just didn't equate to being enriching. This is why evaluation is important. It allows you the opportunity to learn what does and doesn't work, and to re-approach the task with a new perspective. Finding what an animal finds enriching can often be a process of trial and error. 

Some enrichment may work for some and not others, or the animal may lose interest quickly.  It is also true that different types of enrichment are more successful than others (such as food enrichment), but that doesn't mean that other forms of enrichment are not as important, which is why it is important to provide a schedule and to evaluate and re-evaluate it.  

"The likelihood that enrichment will be successful can be increased and the potential for problems limited, if the following are borne in mind. It is also important that provision does not compromise health and safety of the animals or those working with them. This means that all enrichments should be included in the routine hygiene  regime, to minimise the risk of disease transmission, especially if being transferred between enclosures (animals), and checked that they are safe for use...

Monopolization - Providing enrichment to social groups can be extremely beneficial... but as with any resource, enrichment in a social situation can also be the cause of competition...

Novelty Versus Habituation - Another matter of contention concerns for how long the enrichment is effective. Previously, the rationale of much enrichment has been based on it's novelty value, and it has aimed to stimulate interest and exploratory behaviour in the target animal. The big problem with using novelty as the basis for enrichment, however, is that once it is known, it is no longer novel. It will then lose it's appeal and will no longer represent enrichment" 

Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management and Welfare - Geoff Hosey, 2009

Enrichment Ideas for Foxes

The provision of enrichment encourages animal's to engage with their surroundings and stimulates their natural senses. What enrichment you provide, how often and when, will depend on the particular interests of your fox. 

Structural enrichment for foxes can include; 

  • Enclosure - Must have an area of at least 100 sq ft per fox, be at least 6 ft in height, preferably be made from galvanised metal or heavy duty, (animal-safe), weather-treated wood. It must have a secure base and roof, provide shelter from harsh weather conditions, have different areas for different activities (such as indoor and outdoor areas), with different types of plants and/or substrates (such as grasses, pet-safe plants, soil, concrete, gravel, sand, bark chipping and leaf litter), and a secure entry system .
  • Resting and Vantage Points - Different levels to allow for the development of motor skills, as well as providing opportunity to engage in sensory, social and occupational enrichment, examples include; logs, tree stumps, straw bales, shelving, climbing platforms and ramps, or even ideas like a "goat mountain".
  • Swinging Platforms, Rope Bridges and Hanging Toys/Feeders - These help in developing your fox's natural climbing and balancing skills, and will promote exploration and movement within their environment.
  • Hides, Sheltered Sites and Tunnels - Foxes like to sleep in several different locations. Providing these will allow your fox the ability to exercise choice and control over being observed, as well as providing choice and control over where to rest, when they need to sleep or to get out of bad weather. 
  • Sand Pit/Raised Plant Bed (filled with compost, gravel and bark), Rock piles, Hollow Logs and Leaf Piles - Provision of somewhere to both dig and cache is important for foxes. Providing these areas allows you to hide toys and food enrichment, and provides your fox the opportunity to be able to cache their rewards,  promoting  the expression of natural foraging and hunting behaviours.
  • A Permanent pond or Water Feature (can also use large temporary ones)- Must be safe and secure from fox teeth, and preferably be filtered and aerated. Moving water is not only soothing but can be utilised to stimulate many senses. For the ultra enthusiastic, covering a pond with wire also allows you to keep the pond stocked with fish, which can provide hours of entertainment for foxes (as has been successful for some).  
  • A Trampoline - Wild foxes have been spotted playing on trampolines in people's back yards. The reactive material stimulates play and hunting behaviours in the fox. A "trampette" can be used as a portable, temporary enrichment device, or can be utilized in the same manner as an "In-ground" trampoline (just make sure to add some drainage and ensure that the edges and depression are secure, so your fox cannot escape through digging out).

Providing socially stimulating opportunities for foxes;

Social activity is important for foxes. You must be able to spend a minimum of 2-3 hours a day in the company of your fox, ensuring they receive the social stimulation they require. This can be done through the following, (all of which aid to strengthen the Human-Animal Bond);

  • Sharing the same space - This can be done in their enclosure, in your space or in a neutral area and you don't necessarily need to physically interact with your fox through contact and games, you can also just spend time observing them, talking to them, sunbathing/napping with them. 
  • Training Based Activities - Can include; litter training, bite inhibition, agility, handling, obedience training, harness and lead walking, can also include behavioural engineering. Positive reinforcement must be used at all times with foxes, the goal of fox training is to be able to successfully encourage your fox to display more of the behaviour you desire.
  • Play and Grooming Activities - Provides mental and physical stimulation, as well as promoting social learning and securing social bonds, can include; both interactive and object play, as well as brushing and bathing.  
  • Interaction with Pets and Guests - This can be freely (in the enclosure or in the home), or through their enclosure (guests can ask your fox to follow commands and thendrop treats into the enclosure as a reward). 
  • Harness/Lead Training - Requires you to spend time with your fox in positive training sessions and allows your fox a chance to be walked; where it has the opportunity to experience new sights, sounds, smell and situations. 

Enrichment to stimulate territorial and movement activity;

Foxes spend several hours a day travelling and moving around their territory trying to meet their needs and satisfy their senses. To recreate this ability in the captive environment you can;

  • Provide enrichment that stimulates movement, exploration and territorial behaviour (such as scent marking). Include the provision of extra litter trays/toilet spots, utilise scent sprays, toys such as "Flirt Pole's" and games such as "ifetch", as well as food enrichment and foraging activities. 
  • 1 hour of lead walking a day will meet part of your fox's need to spend several hours a day engaging in movement activity. The ability to take your fox out for walks also allows for the opportunity to stimulate many other senses. However, harness and lead training takes time with foxes (they have a similar attitude to cats with being on a lead), so to be successful it is best started when they are very young. Once you get to the stage you can walk your fox, remember to avoid dog-walkers, ensure your fox is wearing an I.D. tag, is micro-chipped, has a securely fitting, escape-proof harness, and has a chew-proof lead ("double-leading" is preferable for nervous foxes).
  • If you are unable to walk your fox, you could consider a cat exercise wheel (which has been used successfully in several other species, including Fossa and Servals). Just as with cats and other animals, training or behavioural engineering will be required to get your fox to use such a device, or if these options are not available, then you can substitute with other enrichment ideas that stimulate movement and exercise (balls games up and down stairs for example). 

The concept of working hard for your food comes naturally to foxes, which are hard-wired to use their senses and physical skills to hunt down and capture prey. Food enrichment should ideally provide your fox with several hours of stimulation a day, in order to simulate natural conditions and illicit natural behaviours related to foraging and hunting. 

  • Puzzle feeders - Food Bowls no longer need to be boring with the invention of interactive feeding stations, such as the "Dog Tornado" by Nina Ottoson
  • Automated feeders - Such devices, like the "Pet Tutor", are able to provide your fox with food rewards for positive behaviour, even when you are out.
  • Presentation is important - Don't forget to utilise different temperature, textures, combinations and recipes. Make some things easier to access than others and alternate between foods to stimulate different senses. 
  • If buying food enrichment devices, don't forget to consider devices for both pets and zoo animals, or that live plants can also count as food enrichment (ensure you are certain they are pet/fox safe before use). 
  • You don't have to keep buying products and pet toys, many things around the home can be re-purposed or recycled into an enrichment device with a bit of creativity!

The minimum you should be supplying your fox;

Enrichment Photo Gallery

Further Reading

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