Silver Fox Development
Preparing a captive silver fox cub to cope with the different challenges they may face in a life living in a human environment is an important aspect of their care and welfare, one that has a continuing impact throughout their lives.
Fox behaviour is influenced by a wide variety of different factors such as; health, genetics, environment and individual learning experience. Nature and nurture have a complex relationship, and getting the balance right can sometimes be tricky. Understanding the natural behaviour of both wild and farmed foxes helps exotic pet keepers to gain a better understanding of the needs of their exotic pet.
Some behaviour patterns only appear once an animals reaches a specific age or developmental stage. During these developmental periods certain behaviour's may be expected, as the nervous system and other structures complete their development. For example, young foxes begin teething at around 4 months of age. This alters their behaviour by driving them to chew on objects in order to relieve the discomfort they are experiencing with their teeth.
Developmental milestones are behaviours or physical skills seen in infants as they grow and develop into adults. The milestones are different for each species and age range, however, there is a normal range in which an infant may reach each species-specific milestone, many of which can overlap.
Overview of Silver Fox Development
- Gestational Development (pregnancy lasts around 49-58 days) - Good welfare and nutrition are required during this time to help ensure the development of healthy cubs. Silver foxes will have an average litter of around 4-6 cubs, however larger litters of up to 13 cubs have been recorded.
- Birth and Newborn Development (0-2 months) - Fox cubs must first learn to suckle. If they don't do so within the first day or so, they will not receive the maternal antibodies provided in their mother's "first milk" (colostrum) that they will need to survive. Feeding occurs every 3-4 hours and continues for 3 about weeks, when it begins to reduce. The cubs noses turn black at around 1 week of age, with their eyes and ears opening by around 2 weeks of age. By this point, they will have tripled their birth weight and are able to maintain their own body heat. At around 3 weeks of age the "critical period" for socialisation begins, just as the cubs begin moving around and exploring. By 4 weeks of age, the cubs will have established dominance hierarchies among their litter-mates and by 5 weeks their teeth and adult eye colour will have begun to develop, with their coats beginning to change texture and colour.
- Weaning Period or "Puppy Phase" (2-5 months) - By 8 weeks, the socialisation window has closed and the fear response to novel and new stimuli has begun. At this stage wild fox cubs will have to begun to eat prey items brought to them by their parents; starting with dead prey and then later moving on to injured prey, that allows them the ability to practice and refine the hunting skills they will need to survive. Learning how their bodies work through play and practice. At this time, squabbles with litter-mates are common and tension can be especially high around food. Their guard hairs and adult coats have developed and from around 16 weeks, they will begin to lose their baby teeth, developing a full set of adult teeth by around 20 weeks of age.
- Independence (5-10 months) - By 5 months of age fox cubs are now reaching adult proportions and are entering adolescence. Their adult teeth are now fully developed and they have begun to refine their hunting skills on live prey. Their physical and social development continues and they become more confident with their independence. Tensions within fox families is high at this time, behaviour that is thought to be a result of hormones changes. Ultimately, this behaviour facilitates dispersion of the cubs when they reach full maturity. It is a period known to fox keepers as the "October Crazies", as it usually begins around autumn and their behaviour can be a lot more challenging to handle. It is recommended foxes are provided their own enclosure by this point and that they are neutered, before they reach full sexual maturity.
- Maturity (10 -12 months) - By 10 months of age foxes have reached sexual maturity and ready to leave home and seek a mate. Hormone changes occur that drive changes in their coat and their behaviour. Both males and females undergo seasonal hormonal changes once a year (between late Dec and early Feb). On top of this, males testes are not fully developed until the following breeding, year after reaching sexual maturity.
Growth And Development Of Fox Cubs
Foxes come into season and mate only once a year; with the exception of the experimentally domesticated foxes, which have been known to have 2 seasons per year (a result of their selective breeding for tame behaviour). The gestation period of the red fox ranges from 49-58 days and birth typically occurs in early spring with 4-6 cubs to a litter (silver foxes have been known to have litters twice as large).
After birth, the mother will clear the cub's nose and mouth and will begin to lick the cub clean, an act which also helps to stimulate the cubs breathing. The cubs first instinct is to suckle, and although born deaf and blind, they instinctively know their mother's scent and how to find their mothers teat. If they don't suckle in the first few hours after birth however, they will not receive the maternal antibodies provided in their mother's "first milk" (colostrum), which they need to survive. The cubs will remain reliant on their mothers milk for the first 6-7 weeks, requiring feeding every 2-4 hours under 2 weeks of age and every 4-6 hours until around 3-4 weeks of age. After this the frequency reduces to 3-4 feeds daily until weaning is complete, at around 6-7 weeks of age.
Studies have shown that fox cubs have an average birth weight of around 100 grams (+/- 50 grams), are around 14-15 cm in body length and have an average tail length of around 7-8 cm. They are born with a fine and fluffy, dark grey coat (except in the case of leucistic foxes) and have a pink nose; which usually turns black over the space of around a week. Most cubs will also posses a white tail tip which is characteristic of the red fox and thought to be the result of both genetic and gestational processes.
Their small size and short, sparse coats mean they are unable to maintain their body temperature during these first weeks, so the mother stays close and remains within the den during this time, keeping them warm and well fed until their size and coats can provide them with the ability to maintain their own body temperature (foxes will triple their birth rate within the first 10 days). During this time, the father will help feed the mother until she is able to spend time away from the cubs and hunt for herself again.
The cubs will begin to open their eyes at around 2 weeks of age. Their eyes appear bule at first, the result of the Tyndell Effect, but by the age of 4-5 weeks they will have fully developed and changed to their adult colouration (which is usually amber in foxes). At about the same time, the first teeth will have begun to appear in the upper jaw, followed by teeth in the bottom jaw a few days later. It will take a further 3 weeks before they have developed a full set of 28 "milk teeth" (these are replaced by adult teeth by around 16-20 weeks of age).
Foxes begin weaning at around 3-4 weeks of age, they complete the weaning process by 6-7 weeks of age, with an average weight of around 1-1.5 kg.
Foxes are capable of moving around and exploring from 2-3 weeks of age and will begin to leave the den for short periods from around 4-5 weeks of age, by which time their ears will have become erect, their muzzle will have begun to elongate and their coats will have begun to change. During this time fox cubs will fight viciously among themselves to establish dominance over resources in this new territory. At this age, they are eating partially digested food which is regurgitated by the parents, learning to develop the taste buds they will need for an adult diet.
By about 6 weeks of age their coat is similar to that of adults (though it is still quite fluffy in texture), and they are now eating dead and wounded prey which their parents bring them. By 8 weeks of age the cubs will begin developing shiny, long "guard hairs" in their coats, which will help keep them protected from the elements, and they will also have begun to develop the hunting skills they will need to survive, by making attempts to hunt insects and rodents that venture into the vicinity, as well as practicing their hunting skills through play with their siblings.
From 3-4 months of age, the cubs have developed into their slender long legs, narrow chests and shiny coats, by 6-7 months of age they will have reached adult proportions (with an adult weight ranging from 3-12 kg), and are fully independent from their parents. From around 10 months of age, foxes begin to reach sexual maturity, (an ability that allows them to bare a litter by the age of 12 months), while many may leave home to find their own territory and start their own family, some foxes will remain within the mother's territory to help raise future litters. Foxes can live between 10-15 years in captivity, however, wild foxes have an average life expectancy of 4-5 years.
Socalisation Periods in Foxes
The experiences fox cubs have within their first two months of life are important in influencing their behaviour right into and throughout adulthood. This early period is known as the "socialisation period" and usually occurs in the safe environment of the den and its immediate vicinity. It is during this "socialisation period" that fox cubs will learn what is "normal" and "safe" within their environment, and everything they come across during this time is likely to be considered acceptable throughout their lives as a result. Equally, anything fox cubs do not come across during this time is much more likely to produce a fear response later in life. The greater the variety of positive experiences they have during this time, the more likely it is they will develop the necessary skills required to cope with novel experiences in the future.
Socialisation periods vary between different species. The window of opportunity in dogs, for example, is much longer than it is in foxes. While foxes are canids, they have a socialisation window that is similar to that of cats. Socialisation should always be based on species specific information and studies have indicated that the socialisation period in foxes has been identified as being between 3-7 weeks of age. During this time, the cub’s brain and sensory system are still in development, and the stimulation they encounter will influence how they develop. Foxes do not have an inbuilt desire to be with people, (with the exception of the experimentally domesticated foxes), so the tolerance and desire to be around people is a learned behaviour. Early handling (by a variety of people) during this time is essential in order to socialise the cubs with humans. This must begin no later than 3 weeks of age and continue through to 6 weeks of age, before the onset of fear and hazard avoidance response begin at around 6-7 weeks of age in silver fox cubs.
In wild foxes, the socialisation period begins at around 2-3 weeks of age and closes at around 4-5 weeks of age, at which point they begin to develop fear and hazard avoidance responses. However that period is longer in silver foxes (as long as 6-9 weeks), as studies have shown;
"The physiological boundaries of the sensitive period of primary socialization were studied in the silver fox (Vulpes fulvus Desm). A total of 273 farm-bred foxes from 59 litters were observed from 1976 to 1978; pups were produced by vixens from two populations, one selected for domesticated behaviour and the other unselected. Results indicate that the age when the eyes are fully open, when the response to sound first appears and when exploratory behaviour is first shown in strange surroundings is 3 weeks, on average.
The age when the socialization period starts appears to be 20–25 days old. The optimum period of the formation of primary social bonds appears to be 30–35 days, when maximum exploration in a novel situation is shown. The 40–45 days period appears to be the upper boundary of primary socialization in unselected foxes because pups show fear in response to novel stimuli, which prevents exploration. In pups from the population of domesticated foxes, the sensitive period of socialization is prolonged to over 60–65 days old"
It is extremely difficult to socialise fox cubs that have had no human contact after weaning, and it is even more difficult again, after they have reached sexual maturity. While fox cubs kept as pets should enter the home environment before the onset of fear becomes established at around 6-7 weeks, it is worth bearing in mind that both genetic influences from the parents and learned responses from living at the breeders, will play a role in how friendly the fox is towards people once it matures.
A good breeder will familiarise themselves with their breeding vixens, providing positive associations through gentle interaction from the onset of pregnancy through to weaning. They will begin spending time with the cubs, from around 2-3 weeks of age. Handling is introduced through stroking the cub before picking them up briefly and placing them back with their mother and/or litter mates. The time spent handling the cubs is gradually increased over the following weeks.
Being born and raised in a breeder setting can present it's own challenges however, as the breeding environment may, as a result, be considered "normal" by the cubs, rather than the home environment and all the bustle that comes with it. A strict programme that requires owners to introduce and repeat various positive experiences is required to ensure such cubs develop the skills they will require to adapt quickly to their new environment, (before the socialisation window closes at 6-9 weeks).
Studies have shown that handling fox cubs during their socialisation period closes reduces stress responses to handling later in life, influencing how friendly the fox will be and how willing it is to approach new people later in life. In addition to handling the cubs, gently performing health checks (such as examining the ears, mouth, feet and tail), will prove invaluable later in life when your fox attends the vet practice for their routine medical assessments.
"The effects of handling from 2 to 8 weeks of age were studied in 32 silver fox cubs up to 6 months of age and compared with the behaviour and stress parameters of 46 control cubs, raised under normal rearing conditions.Differences in fear of humans and novel stimuli measured by three different behavioural tests, differences in exploratory behaviour measured in a open field test and differences in levels of plasma cortisol were revealed and attributed to the handling of the experimental group.
The behavioural and physiological results showed that handled animals were less stressed, whereas control animals showed signs of long-term stress"
The process of both imprinting and socialisation allows a bond to be developed between animals and their human carers and can make the difference between a nervous adult that is fearful, and a confident adult that is comfortable in it's environment. One of the most important points to remember about socialisation, is that the experiences and interactions must be positive for each cub involved. It is also important to remember that no experiences are as damaging as negative experiences.
In psychology and ethology, imprinting is a phase-sensitive learning process (occurring before a particular stage of development). It is a rapid process that is considered independent from other stages of developmental learning and behaviour (where young animals acquire the behavioural characteristics of it's parents), describing the "critical period" in which an animal learns to accept a stimulus, and therefore said to be "imprinted" onto the subject as a result. The concept that was first discovered in domestic chickens by amateur biologist, Douglas Spalding, but was made famous by the work of Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, who described the process while studying Greylag geese in the 1930's.
"In the mid 1930s German ethologist Konrad Lorenz popularized filial imprinting, the process by which a newborn animal learns to recognize the unique characteristics of its parent, typically its mother. This phenomenon was termed imprinting (translated from the German wordprägung) by Lorenz's mentor, Oskar Heinroth, who believed that the sensory stimulus encountered by the hatchling was immediately, and irreversibly, "stamped" onto the animal's brain. Lorenz demonstrated this with his famous goslings, which had spent their first hours of life with him and subsequently followed him everywhere; as adults they preferred the company of humans over fellow avians"
Young fox cubs also have a "critical period" in which they form filial attachments to whatever species they encounter, this critical period for kin recognition closes at around 3-4 weeks of age. Before this window closes, for imprinting to occur, the cub must spend as much time with people as possible. After this time has passed, young foxes must then learn to accept new and novel stimulus through repeated, consistent, positive exposure, preferably before the "socialisation period" ends at 6-7 weeks (or 8-9 for more domesticated foxes).
Foxes whose critical period has passed can still learn to tolerate and even enjoy human contact, but they will not bond with humans in the same way as those who had human contact before this window closed. The difference can be compared to learning who your family is, that you are a certain species and learning who your neighbours and friends are, and that they are of a different species - for wild foxes, who are often raised in badger setts, (but only see their parents and relatives in the first few weeks), its accepting the presence of badgers, learning to respect their ways and being able to live comfortably around them, even forming social bonds with them as a result, but it's not the same as seeing them as family or a member of their own kind.
While the imprinting process is simple in it's application (humans just need to be around the young during their critical period for it to occur), it is not as simple as it sounds;
"Baby animals have an internal "preference" for things which physically resemble their real parents. Fox kits are "hard-wired" to bond preferentially with real foxes. They "know" what foxes are supposed to look like - if presented with fox parents and human foster "parents" simultaneously, they "know" which ones are the real parents and will bond preferentially with the adult foxes. Therefore, we must separate them from adult canids during this critical period so that optimal bonding with humans will take place"Socialisation and Related Processes - Management of the Red Fox in Captivity - Jessica Addams & Andrew Miller, 2007
It is also important to know that there can be unwanted side effects of imprinting later down the line when a young cub reaches sexual maturity. When an animal see's you as it's parents or family, they can become a lot more challenging during adolescence than those animals that see humans as interspecies friends. Foxes can become aggressive towards you if they view you as a "parent" that is refusing to let them leave home and develop, or they can even become protective and territorial, if they decided to view you as their chosen "mate" and your home as their chosen territory. This is down to a natural drive, that would normally be directed towards family members and others of the same species during this time, it is part of the normal developmental process in foxes. Foxes that do not see you as kin, will not direct this drive at you, though the hormonal changes will equally influence their behaviour during this time.
Preparing for Your Fox Cub
Fox cubs start their new lives in their new homes just before they complete the weaning process, at around 4-6 weeks of age. It is not advised, or legal, in the UK to purchase young animals before weaning is established (under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 - "able to behave normally" and "to be protected from suffering"), which means much of the socialisation process during the "critical period" is largely down to the breeder - highlighting the importance of good breeding practices.
Leaving the comfort and security of the litter and starting life in a new home is a scary ordeal for young cubs. The circumstances in which they were born and the ability of the mother to protect and care for them, can influence how well they bond with people. A lot of patience and understanding is required in the first few weeks of bringing you fox cub home and it is important to remember, that although small, fox cubs can inflict painful bites and scratches when frightened.
Foxes do not adapt well to change. Those caring for, or those considering taking on, a young fox cub should ensure they are fully educated on their unique needs and are well prepared for their new addition in advance.
Tips for Preparation;
Prepare a room for your fox cub, stock up on fox food, training treats and toys, ensure you have at least 2 weeks off from work and social commitments (in order to ensure you have the necessary time to bond with your new fox cub, assisting them with their adjustment).
Pre-book a veterinary appointment for your fox cub with an exotic pet vet that can treat foxes in advance. It is best to collect your fox at a time that enables you to go directly to the vet for your fox's initial health check, worming treatment and microchip implant - taking your cub to the vet at this time means the visit occurs within the socialisation window, helping to reduce unnecessary stress later down the line. Whilst here, remember to book an appointment for any vaccinations that will be required in future.
"Fox-proof" the room, ensuring it is a safe, comfortable and quiet environment for your fox to be. Remove all wires and valuables, ensure windows can be secured from escape and add puppy gates to the doorways (use chicken wire to stop young cubs getting through gaps).
Use a travel crate as a bed to aid desensitisation and for the crate to be seen as a "safe place" into adulthood. Remove the door, so your fox does not feel like the crate can be used to contain them against their will, and add soft warm bedding (a soft toy to cuddle up to can also help to make them feel more secure).
Place the travel crate within an extra large dog crate, which will to allow you to safely contain your cub when necessary. Ensure all edges are secure and use a dog lead clip or lock to secure it closed (foxes, even cubs, are master of escape).
Place a large litter tray in the crate, so your cub has a defined toilet spot (you can also use this spot to contain them during the toilet training process, releasing them once they have eliminated).
Consider investing in a good set of animal handling gloves and sleeves (to prevent bites and scratches during the training process), and in a couple of animal herding boards (to help you "herd" young foxes back into their containment areas during training).
By 5-10 months of age your fox cub will be reaching adolescence and will require a 100 sq ft, secure enclosure (minimum per fox), so either ensure you have this in advance, or that you are able to provide for this need, when the time comes. From the age of 5-10 months fox cubs will also require neutering (if you do not intend to breed), so consider saving for this in advance.
Bonding with Your New Fox Cub
It can take anywhere between 2-8 weeks for fox cubs to bond with their new carers depending on their age and temperament. With the right care and training, it is also possible to successfully socialise foxes that are re-homed at 9 weeks of age and older, however, they may only bond with one person, be nervous, hard to handle and find it challenging living life as a pet.
"All animals bond with their owners/caretakers. But there are steps that all owners should take to make sure they have successfully bonded with their fox. It's especially important to remember to be patience when bonding.
Bonding with your fox can be as quick as in a couple of days. But it could even take months, or even longer. It is very different per owner and fox. If you take it slow and at their pace, you'll have a much better chance at success"
Ten Steps to Aid Bonding;
When your cub is first brought to their new home, containment in a large dog crate, placed in a quiet and safe room away from noise, children and other animals for the first day or so is essential for their adjustment. Visit your fox as frequently as possible during this time, checking the litter box and the status of the crate (immediately clean the litter tray and replace soiled bedding or spoiled food, if necessary, and don't forget to wash your hands).
Once your fox cub is comfortable in their new environment, they can be let out into the secured and fox-proofed room for short supervised periods, in order to explore and adjust further, until they only need to be shut in their crate when necessary. Before opening the crate to change litter, food or water etc, ensure the room is escape proof. When you reach in to the crate, don't do so with outstretched fingers - curled fingers are less threatening. In fox cubs, caution overrides curiosity and they will defend themselves rather than investigate your fingers. As they become less frightened and more curious, you can attempt leaning in through the cage door and tempting them to play with you.
Well fed fox cubs are more relaxed, more tolerant and will sleep much more of the time compared to their hungry counterparts, so ensure you have a good feeding schedule to get off to the best start. Ensure newly weaned animals have constant access to fresh water, a quality animal milk or milk replacer and to quality dry puppy food (soaked if necessary), with tiny amounts of cooked chicken (ensure the puppy diet contains taurine, if not, add a small amount of kitten food in the mix to compensate).
For the first few days, spend time as much time with your cub as you can - without trying to handle them - speak and move softly, reward them with verbal praise and offer them a tasty, suitable treat if they interact with you. Once they are comfortable with you and their environment, provide them with free access to the room in the morning when you feed them, placing them in the crate only if necessary (such as overnight for their safety). A radio or TV can be left on quietly to get your cub used to the sound of different human voices. Cloth rubbed with the scents of home, or from the people and pets they that will now be a part of their lives can also be used to help them with the adjustment process.
Learn to read you cubs body language and respect what it tells you. Frightened cubs may bite out of fear. If you notice any fear signals such as aggression, give them more space and slow down your socialisation process. Encourage your fox cub to play with you by using a variety of stimulating toys and playful noises, (play is a process all animals have to learn, and you are now your cubs tutor). After play sessions have ended, reward your fox cub with verbal praise and a treat for positively interacting with you. Play is a great way to earn trust.
When acclimatising your cub to your presence, the goal is that they initiate the first contact. Fox cubs will most often do this by climbing over you and by mouthing and pawing at your clothes and hands. You can help encourage such contact by playing with toys and by dropping tasty food rewards. Eventually they will overcome their fear and will be climbing all over you, but beware, as small fox teeth and nails can be sharp! If they apply too much pressure "Yelp!" and cease the contact by moving back.
Once your cub is initiating contact, you can begin getting your fox used to you being the one to initiate contact. Begin by getting your fox used to the presence of your hand and reward them for tolerating the presence of your hand for short periods by removing it. Gradually decrease the proximity as your cub becomes comfortable with each previous stage. Once your cub is happy with your hand being close, you can being getting them used to petting by gently stoking them for a few seconds. Remember not to approach from the front, as your cub may lash out in self defence. Instead approach from the side (keeping fingers tucked in) and repeat the process several times a day. If you cub panics, stop stroking them, continue to talk reassuringly and remain confident. If you cub thinks you are scared, it may start to resist your advances.
Once they are comfortable with petting, you can begin to make attempts to handle them. Securely, but gently, grip by the nape of the neck, and with a towel or soft bedding in your lap, place the cub down gently (you can also wrap the cub in a towel or soft fleece when you pick them up). Move your hands slowly when handling them, as they may not have yet made the connection between the hands and the nurturing and bonding that takes place through them, and to begin with, gloves and/or protective sleeves may be necessary. Stroke the cub gently while speaking in soft reassuring tones, until you feel the cub has relaxed. Once they have relaxed, release them if they wish, or if they fall asleep, you can snuggle up for a cuddle until they wake. If the cub panics, put the place them in their crate and in the next session go back to the previous stoking phase until they are confident with this before attempting handling again.
Before feeding and before play ensure you interact with and/or handle your fox gently, in a manner they will tolerate for a few moments. This ensure they develop positive associations towards handling that are connected to their care and well-being. After feeding, after play and after waking, ensure you place your fox cub in their toilet spot (do not restrict them for toilet training when they are first learning to bond with you).
When your cub has adjusted well and is playing and responding to you in a trustful manner, it is the time to encourage friends to visit and handle them as often as possible. Socialization with other people is essential to ensuring they are able to tolerate new people and situations. Fox cubs need plenty of contact with people - not just physical contact, but just the presence of people nearby without contact is just as important. Get people to walk past or sit around chatting, apparently ignoring the cub, this way, the cub learns that these strange humans aren't a threat to them.
Note: A small proportion of fox cubs may remain untamed, despite a breeders and owner's best efforts. This is due to genetics, a fear and mistrust of man that is passed down from their parents line. It is best not to continue making attempts to "domesticate" such an animal, instead it is best to provide a large secure enclosure with lots of species specific enrichment to keep them entertained. It is also advised to neuter such animals from 5 months, to ensure hormonal changes do not add to the frustration of captive life, as well as ensuring that the fearful genetics are not passed on to future lines of animals intended to be kept as pets.
Feeding Your Fox Cub (over 5 weeks)
Ensure newly weaned animals have constant access to fresh water, as well as to a quality puppy milk or milk replacer (follow the directions on the container and top-up or change, as necessary), at all times. It can be difficult for new fox owners to know what to feed their fox cub, but it is best to start simple and consistent. Quality puppy food (wet and dry - soak dry food if necessary), with tiny amounts of raw and boiled chicken can be used as a staple diet 3-4 times daily. Other foods, such as insects, rodents, day old chicks and eggs (both cooked and raw) can then be introduced gradually into the diet. All the food used should be of a high quality and kept fresh. Ensure you keep all food and water bowls clean, washing them thoroughly after each use.
Fox cubs can eat 3-4 pouches of wet food per day and sometimes more. This can be in addition to milk, chicken, dry food and treats. Do not be concerned about their eating as much as they like. They are growing and need a lot of nourishment. When first introducing newly weaned cubs to the milk supplement and puppy diet, take your finger and dip it into the bowl and wipe on the lips or side of the mouth. You need to make sure they can eat and drink the food without choking on it or coughing. The bowls or dishes should be low and wide for easier access. The milk builds the immune system and is essential for those cubs not completely weaned.
Check the stools for diarrhoea, signs of constipation or worms and be sure they show no difficulty in urinating, such as straining. Special attention to the keeping the litter tray clean is necessary, as many cubs will lie in the litter tray for reassurance. They have not made the total connection that the litter tray is only for litter and prefer to play and lie in the box as part of their safe place to be.
Social Learning and Habituation
Observational learning is a process of social learning where an animal learns from observing the behaviour of others. "Socialisation", generally refers to animals getting used to people and/or other animals (animate stimuli) but another essential aspect of socialisation is habituating the cubs to inanimate stimuli such as a variety of novel objects and household sounds, utilising a process is known as "social referencing".
Social referencing occurs when an animal's first response to a novel stimulus they are unsure of, is to gauge the reaction of others within the social group (a form of imitation). This behaviour allows animals to ensure they avoid making costly mistakes and teaches them valuable lessons, by relying on the experience of others. Showing your cub you are comfortable with lots of different sounds, sights, situations and people, will help them to learn from your example.
Habituation is the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed and desensitised to different environmental factors (such as; sights, sounds, smells and objects), through repeated exposure. When habituating your cub to new things, remember to include experiences that involve all the fox’s different senses and don't forget to interact with things you want your cub to explore, for example:
- During weaning, provide increasing amounts of solid food, introducing a variety of flavours and textures. Show them new foods are safe by eating some (or by pretending to eat some) and then sharing it with them.
- Provide a variety of safe floor textures and climbing surfaces for the cub to walk on
- Provide a variety of natural and man-made toys for them to explore and play with them in their view
- Different scents can be collected on a clean cloth by rubbing it on other animals and people, allow them to see you interacting with these people and animals.
- Provide a variety of new objects in different shapes and sizes that can be investigated, allow them to see you manipulating and interacting with these objects.
- Novel sounds can be provided by utilising kitten and puppy socialisation CD's . Ignore these different sounds as you intend them to, if they react to something they hear, do not draw attention to it.
In short, early handling produces friendlier foxes and studies have shown that this is important for the long-term welfare of the fox. Socialised foxes showed relaxed behaviour when approached by an unfamiliar person. In comparison, unsocialised fox cubs showed signs of distress in the same situation. It is therefore crucial that foxes intended to be kept as life-long companion animals are given plenty of opportunity for sufficient socialisation from the first 2-3 weeks of age right up until 7-9 weeks of age (and beyond).
The Importance of Socalisation
In addition to improving welfare, another benefit of socialisation is the effect it has on increasing the human-animal bond. Although there is some individual variation, the critical socialisation period appears to spontaneously come to an end at about 7 weeks of age, so the responsibility for socialising the cubs during that narrow window of opportunity lies predominately with the breeder or rescue centre. However, it is necessary owners to continue the socialising and social referencing process with positive experiences into and beyond this window closing, at around 6-9 weeks of age.
Definitions of the Basic Terms used when Rearing Fox Cubs;
- Hand-Rearing - the rearing of a young animal by humans. Does not produce imprinting, unless exposure to humans for the purpose of rearing occurs during the "critical period", but it does socialise cubs with humans during the "socialisation period".
- Critical Period - the first few weeks of a fox's life, in which it will "imprint" on people or animals during this time, viewing the source as a "mother" figure. In foxes, this critical period begins at birth and lasts up to 3-4 weeks.
- Imprinting - the exposure of a juvenile animal to humans during it's "critical period" in order to get them to accept humans as lifelong caregivers. If exposure to other canids occurs during this time, fox cubs are much more likely to imprint on those instead.
- Socialisation - the process of exposing an animal to humans, their environments and to new situations. Repeated positive exposure allows confidence to be build and for trust to be formed. Socialisation can occur at any age, but is much more successful if done during the "socialisation period" when cubs are naturally trusting.
- Socialisation Period - the time when young fox cubs learn to accept what is a normal part of their everyday environment, which begins at 3-4 weeks and ends by 6-7 weeks of age, (or possibly up to 8-9 weeks for some foxes). Once this period closes, cubs become naturally more reactive and fearful towards things they have had no previous exposure to.
- Social Referencing - the association of how to respond to a novel object or situation based on the reaction of others within the social group. (Previously, the term "social referencing" has been applied to describe the process of habituation).
- Imitation - when an animal observes and replicates the behaviour of another animal, adapting their behaviour as a result. It is a process that facilitates the transfer of information across species and generations.
- Habituation - Habituation is where an animal, after a period of repeated exposure to a stimulus, without immediate consequences, stops responding. Habituation is important in complex environments, by habituating to less important signals, an animal is able to focus it's attention on the most important aspects of its environment.
- Fear/Hazard Avoidance Response - after the socialisation window closes - anywhere between 6-9 weeks - young foxes naturally begin to display fear and avoidance responses. This increase in fearfulness is a gradual process, but more reactive foxes will develop this fear and hazard avoidance response earlier.
- Flight Distance - the distance an animal is comfortable maintaining in your presence - outside the flight zone there is no movement, move into the flight zone and you will get movement away from you as the animal re-establishes it's desired distance, (or "fight" if there is no option for flight).
- Taming - the reduction of an animal's "flight distance" to allow human contact. An animal can be tamed at any age and all animals can potentially be tamed, wild, domesticated or otherwise. Socialisation occurs concurrently as the animal interacts with the people taming it.
- Domestication - the selective breeding of an animal or plant by man, for specific desired traits
which are genetically ensured to pass on to future generations; this can be for traits such a coat colour (creating colour morphs that could not exist in wild populations), or for behavioural traits (such as tameness towards humans).
Humans and our pets live in two different, but overlapping, sensory worlds. Animals cannot explain the things we are failing to understand about them and their needs using language as we do. Instead, they communicate by a variety of different means, such as through body language, vocalisation and scent communication.
It is important that you spend time learning what it is your new cub is "telling" you through their behaviour. The more you understand about how your fox develops, perceives the world and about how they learn, the less likely it will be any frustration will develop as a result and the more likely it will be they learn to trust you, aiding to strengthen the bond between you as a result.
The Basics of Animal Learning
Understanding how animals learn is key to interpreting their behaviour. While learning is often considered something that happens when we deliberately train animals, it is actually something that occurs all the time. Everything that your fox experiences throughout it's life will impact on it's behaviour to some extent.
Instinctive and learnt behaviour, or "Nature" and "Nurture", differ in that instinctive behaviour is behaviour that is "hard-wired" into the animals genetic make-up, there is little variation among individuals and the behaviour does not have to be learnt for the response to occur. Reflex behaviour is one such type of instinctive behaviour, occurring automatically as a result of a particular stimulus.
Learnt behaviour - Learning is the modification of responses as a result of experience and the acquisition of knowledge. It is a behaviour that allows an individual to adapt to specific environmental challenges.
Animal's learn through a variety of different means and learnt behaviours vary greatly between individuals, depending on their personal experiences throughout life. Learning also occurs at different rates, depending on the type of stimulus, the frequency of presentation and the regularity of exposure.
There are two types of learning;
- Non-Associative Learning - The ability to learn in the absence of any perceived reinforcement or reward. There are two types of non-associative learning;
- Habituation - Refers to the gradual decrease of a behavioural response to a particular stimulus after repeated encounters - which have proved to be of no consequence to the animal. It is a form of sensory adaptation, in which a change in the responsiveness of a sensory system occurs when consistently confronted with a particular stimulus.
- Sensitisation - Refers to an increase increase in a behavioural response following repeated encounters with a specific stimulus the animal perceives as noxious. It is the process of learning to distinguish noxious stimuli and involves the enhancement of the function of neurones involved in nociception (pain perception).
- Associative Learning - The ability to learn an association between two stimuli that occur close together. Associative learning is divided into two types;
- Classical Conditioning - The process of learning to associate an "neutral stimulus" with an "unconditioned stimulus", through the association with an "unconditioned response", in order for a "conditioned stimulus" to provide a "conditioned response". In other words, it is the process by which an animal learns to associate a natural behaviour or response with a given cue or command.
Example: A fox cub has just finished playing and is let outside and given the command "toilet" (neutral stimulus), the metabolic boost from play hastens the need to urinate afterwards and being outside in the cool air makes the bladder contract (unconditioned stimulus), toileting occurs as a result (unconditioned response). Now, when the command "toilet" is given (conditioned stimulus) the fox's bladder will contract and they will feel the need to head outside in order to eliminate (conditioned response).
- Operant Conditioning - The process of learning to associate an "unconditioned response" with a "neutral stimulus" through the association of "reinforcement" (both positive and negative) or "punishment" (both positive and negative), in order for a "conditioned stimulus" to provide a "conditioned response". In other words, it is the process by which an animal learns to associate an action or response with a reward, when paired with a given cue or command.
Example: Whenever your fox cub sits down for a rest (unconditioned response) it hears the command "sit" (neutral stimulus) and is then presented with a treat (positive reinforcement). Now when the fox cub hears the command "sit" (conditioned stimulus) it will sit down in anticipation of a reward (conditioned response).
A secondary element to operant conditioning is "Shaping". Shaping is the behaviour term that refers to gradually teaching an animal to perform a specific behaviour in parts, by reinforcing a responses that are similar to the desired response. For example;
A researcher can use shaping to teach a rat to press a lever during an experiment. To begin with, the researcher will reward any movement in the direction of the lever, such as a look. Once the rat understands looking at the lever gets a reward, it's time the rat has to take a step towards the lever to get the reward. Once they are moving towards the lever, they are then only rewarded for contact with the lever. Once they are making contact with the lever, they then have to push the lever in order to get the reward. Through this process, the behaviour can be "shaped" in order to elicit a desired behaviour.
Definition of the Terms used when Discussing Associative Learning;
- Unconditioned Response -An innate behaviour or physiological response.
- Neutral Stimulus - A change in environment that would usually produce no response.
- Unconditioned Stimulus - A change in environment that naturally produces a response.
- Conditioned Stimulus - A change in environment that once produced no response that now produces a response.
- Conditioned Response - A learnt response to a conditioned stimulus.
- Reinforcement - Used to help increase the probability a specific behaviour will occur again in future, by delivering a stimulus immediately after a desirable response or behaviour is exhibited. There are two types of reinforcement;
- Positive Reinforcement - Works by presenting a rewarding stimulus after a desired behaviour or response is exhibited, making the behaviour more likely to occur in future, (such as giving your fox cub praise when they use the litter tray, or providing a treat when they sit on command).
- Negative Reinforcement - Works by removing an aversive stimulus after a desired behaviour or response is exhibited, increasing the likelihood the behaviour will occur again in future, (such as toilet training your fox with the use of a crate, letting your fox out of a crate once they have eliminated).
- Punishment - Used to help decrease the probability a specific behaviour will occur again in future, by delivering a stimulus immediately after an undesirable behaviour is exhibited. There are two types of punishment;
- Positive Punishment - Works by presenting an aversive stimulus after an undesired behaviour or response is exhibited, making the behaviour less likely to occur in future. (such as when your fox misbehaves and you put them in their crate for a "time-out" until they are calm).
- Negative Punishment - Works by removing a rewarding stimulus after an undesired behaviour or response, decreasing the likelihood the behaviour will occur again in future, (such as when your fox gets possessive over a toy and the toy is temporarily removed as a result).
- Shaping - a technique used in behavioural therapy to modify a behavioural outcome. It is the process by which a new behaviour is produced by providing reinforcement for progressively closer approximations of the final desired behaviour.
Note: At no point should aggression or physical violence be used as a form of punishment (or reinforcement). It should also be noted, that research demonstrates how positive consequences are more powerful than negative consequences for improving behaviour. So, it is suggested these interventions be tried prior to using negative consequences.
Distraction and Substituation
Distraction is the process of diverting the attention of an individual from their desired area of focus to another area of focus, by blocking or diminishing the reception from the original area of focus. It is the process of competing with the environment to keep your fox's focus maintained on more desirable behaviours.
Distraction is generally considered;
- The lack of ability to pay attention to a stimulus
- A reduced lack of interest in a stimulus
- The attractiveness of a new stimulus over the original stimulus
When training an animal, environmental distractions can be a hindrance to the learning process, however, it is important animals learn to follow cues and commands around lots of different types of distractions.
Distractions can come from both external and internal sources, both of which can contribute to the interference of focus. External distractions include factors such as visual triggers, social interactions and novel sounds or scents. Internal distractions can include factors such as hunger, fatigue, illness and seasonal hormone fluxes.
"Differential reinforcement" (exceptional rewards for exceptional efforts, lesser rewards for lesser efforts) is often used when teaching an animal to ignore distractions. This means that in the midst of higher levels of distractions, higher levels of reward are required to keep the animal focused.
Examples of how you can use distraction to help your fox learn;
- A fox cub is chewing an item they should not chew. Instead of punishing them, you call your cub and invite them over to play with something fun and acceptable to chew instead.
- Your fox cub has learnt to sit while indoors, but outdoors they are more focused on other animals than on you, so you use high value food rewards to keep the focus on you and the task at hand.
- Your fox cub needs to burn energy and is bothering the dog, who doesn't appreciate the attention, so you use a squeaky ball to engage your cubs focus, getting them to utilise their energy in a more positive manner.
- Your fox is at the vet, while they are being examined, treats, fuss and novel objects are offered to remove the focus from the vet.
Substitution is the process of replacing an undesirable behaviour with a more desirable one, by training the animal to perform an incompatible behaviour (a behaviour that cannot be performed at the same time as the undesired behaviour), on cue or command.
- Your fox is mouthing people. First, you train your fox the command for "station" (where the animal has to go to a particular spot and wait calmly before receiving a treat). The next time your fox begins to mouth a person, you can give them the command "station" and they will go to their selected spot. While performing this behaviour, it is not possible for your fox to continue mouthing people.
- Your fox has stolen an item and is guarding it. Rather than engage in a potentially aggressive encounter. You call your fox in a recall exercise, offer them a tasty treat. Your fox is unable to guard the item and come to you to get the treat at the same time. While your fox is distracted, someone can remove the item safely.
Young foxes have short attention spans, so distraction and substitution techniques can be great tools for getting them to quickly divert their focus from a less desirable behaviour to a more desirable behaviour without any fuss. The application of distraction and substitution techniques are often used to diffuse potentially difficult situations - without conflict - prior to any undesirable behaviour occurring.
By successfully teaching your fox using distraction and substitution techniques, your fox benefits in multiple ways;
- They learn how to deal with different objects and obstacles within the environment
- They learn how to control fear and avoidance responses in various different situations
- They learn how to react and behave in various different scenarios and situations
- It forms a foundation on which engagement and trust can be based, when new environments and distractions are introduced
Proofing, Embedding and Flooding
Proofing is described as the process of certifying you have taught an animal to successfully perform a behaviour in the presence of distractions. It teaches an animal to "generalise" information and respond to discriminative stimuli, such as a cues or commands, regardless of the situation. A proofed behaviour will be performed in any location or environment.
In order for animals to understand that a certain stimulus or cue means the same thing all the time, in every situation, we must teach the cue in many different locations (such as at home, when visiting others homes or when out on a country walk) and in many different situations (such as giving commands out of sight, from a different position or by getting others to provide the commands).
Another aspect involved in proofing is stimulus control;
A behaviour is said to be under "stimulus control" when a "conditioned stimulus" initiates a "conditioned response", regardless of the situation and the distractions present. A behaviour under full stimulus control can be accurately predicted, however, four conditions must be met in order for that to occur;
- The animal offers the behaviour immediately in response to the cue
- The animal does not offer some other behaviour in response to the cue
- The animal does not offer the behaviour in the absence of the cue
- The animal does not offer the behaviour in response to another cue
For a behaviour to be considered learnt and "proofed", it has to meet a number of criteria, which includes;
- Distance - The cue or command is followed at any distance from you. Your fox may "sit" in front of you when prompted, but they may not "sit" when asked if there is distance between you. If you want fluent responses at a distance, you need to teach your fox that following the command immediately is what is expected, regardless of distance.
- Distractions - The behaviour is performed promptly, despite any distractions that are present in the environment. If you want your fox to respond to your commands in the midst of lots of different distractions, you must build on teaching the commands and maintaining your fox's focus, around such distractions.
- Duration - The behaviour is performed until a release signal is provided, meaning you can control it's duration. Your fox may "sit" when prompted, but it may then immediately get up. In such cases the duration of the behaviour can be built upon by teaching a "release signal".
- Precision - The behaviour is performed exactly as desired each time. Your fox that has learnt to "station" and places all 4 feet on the spot most of the time, but only 2-3 feet at others. Such a fox is said to be lacking precision and must be taught that they must be precise in order to obtain their reward.
- Latency - The time difference between giving a cue or command and it being performed. The idea is that the behaviour is performed immediately after the given cue or command. If you want your fox to respond to your commands without any lag, you must teach them that is what is expected.
- Speed - The amount of time it takes the animal to complete the behaviour. Behaviours can be performed more quickly or more slowly, depending on what you are proofing for. If you want your fox to perform a behaviour faster or slower, they will need to be taught how.
In behavioural terms, "embedding" can be described as the "fixing" of a behaviour, it is the process of securing formal training so it results in a sustained behavioural change.
Different training strategies can be used to embed behaviour, however, "proofing" illustrates how knowledge gained through the learning process can become fixed and embedded within routines.
Flooding is said to occur when an animal is exposed to a stimulus that provokes a fearful response, at close proximity and for extended periods of time,until the animals senses are overwhelmed and they "submit" to the situation. At which point it is hoped the animal realises the perceived threat isn't actually threatening. During flooding the animal learns through a state of fear.
Flooding is an old and out-dated technique that can be as damaging as it can be successful. It is not a technique that is not advised, but is mentioned as it is a process that can often be adopted by new owners when training their cubs to be handled or when introducing them to other pets.
Counter-Conditioning & Desensitisation
Pairing one stimulus that evokes one response with another that evokes an opposite response, so that the first stimulus comes to evoke the second response. For example, a fox is afraid of men. When a man approaches, the fox is repeatedly fed his favourite food. The goal is to replace the animal’s apprehension with the pleasure elicited by the food. Counter-conditioning must be done gradually, however; if the process is rushed, the favourite food may take on the fear association instead.
The process of increasing an animal’s tolerance to a particular stimulus by gradually increasing the presence of the stimulus.
The weakening of behaviour through non-reinforcement or “ignoring” the behaviour. In extinction, nothing is added or removed from the environment. For example, a treat lies on the other side of a fence. Your fox reaches his paw under, but cannot reach the treat. Because reaching for the treat doesn't work—because it isn't reinforced through success—your fox will eventually quit reaching for the treat.
Some behaviours are self-reinforcing, which means the behaviour reinforces itself by providing the animal with some sort of satisfaction. For example, counter surfing is self reinforcing – meaning the animal gets what they want with or without you.
Cessation and Release Signals
(other signals include; Calming Signals, Distance Increasing Signals, and Freezes)
Cessation signals are behaviours similar to displacement and distance increasing behaviours, but are usually seen in combinations of multiple simultaneous signals. Canids use cessation signals to interrupt behaviour coming at them from another animal. Cessation displays unequivocally signal that further interaction is not desired. Cessation signals are triggered by conflict. If cessation signals are not respected, conflict will escalate.
Cessation signals generally include two or more of the following behaviours:
- dramatic head turns
- turning the body away
- turning the back to other animals
- moving away
- agonistic displays (chasing, vocalisation, showing teeth, hackles raised, etc)
By adopting cessations signals (turning away, etc) and teaching cessation commands ( "enough"), your fox learns when "enough is enough".
When training your fox you may also need to teach them a release signals to signify when you want a behaviour to cease ("good job"). These signals are used when asking for trained behaviours to indicate when you expect the presented behaviour to cease.
Stress Responses and the Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is regulated by the hypothalamus and is part of the peripheral nervous system (which consists of the nerves and ganglia on the outside of the brain and spinal cord). The ANS functions involuntarily and reflexively, regulating and maintaining the functions of muscles and internal organs. The ANS is primarily considered important in two main situations;
- In emergencies that cause stress and require "fight or flight"
- In non-emergencies that allow the body to "rest and digest"
The ANS regulates;
- Muscles in the skin (such as hair follicles)
- Muscles around blood vessels
- Muscles in the eye (such as the iris sphincter)
- Muscles in the stomach, intestines and bladder
- The heart (such as muscle contraction/relaxation)
- Glandular activity (such as salivary, sweat and endocrine glands)
The ANS is divided into three parts:
- The sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), considered the "fight or flight" system, is faster-acting than the parasympathetic system, utilising very short, fast neurons. The SNS activates the adrenal medulla (a part of the adrenal gland), which then releases hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones activate the target muscles and glands, causing the body to speed up and become tense, as well as more alert.
Functions that are not immediately essential (like the immune system) are shut down to some degree. The body goes through a number of changes when the SNS is activated;
- Heart rate increases
- The bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate
- Pupils dilate
- Muscles contract
- Saliva production is reduced
- The stomach stops many functions of digestion
- More glycogen is converted to glucose
All of these changes are designed to prime the body ready for "fight" or "flight". Non-essential system like digestion and immunity become a lower priority, while more energy is made available to the muscles, as the fox's heart rate increases. This fight or flight response occurs when the fox is faced with a stressor that presents an imminent physical danger, however, such physical changes can also occur in response to lower levels of stressors also.
- The parasympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), considered the "rest and digest" system, is a much slower system that moves along longer pathways than the sympathetic nervous system. The PSNS is responsible for controlling homoeostasis (the balance and maintenance of the body’s systems). It restores the body to a state of calm and counterbalance, and allows it to relax and repair.
The body undergoes several specific responses when the PSNS is activated.
Functions that are not immediately essential (like the immune system) are shut down to some degree. The body goes through a number of changes when the sympathetic nervous system is activated;
- Saliva production is increased
- Digestive enzymes are released
- Heart rate drops
- The bronchial tubes in the lungs constrict
- Muscles relax
- Pupils constrict
- Urinary output increases
All of these changes are designed to maintain long-term health, improve digestion, conserve energy, and maintain a healthy balance within the body’s systems. By learning how to activate your fox's "rest and digest mode", and by learning how to reduce the effect of the "fight or flight response", you can reduce the stress placed on your fox's heart, digestive system, immune system and more. This will not only make your fox happier, it will also help to avoid many of the diseases and conditions that are associated with the stress of captivity.
- The enteric nervous system
The enteric nervous system (ENS), described as "the second brain", it is a separate neural system containing over 1oo million neurons, located in the tissue lining the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon, complete with neurochemicals, neurotransmitters and proteins (similar to that found in the brain). The ENS directly controls the gastrointestinal system and is also capable of autonomic function.
The ENS sends and receives impulses, records experiences, responds to emotions, co-operating and communicating with the brain. However, the brain can upset the gut, just as the gut can upset the brain, highlighting the importance of adequate diet and nutrition, particularly during times of stress.
Functions of the ENS include;
- Controlled movement of food from the beginning to the end of the bowel
- Control of intestinal blood flow
- Regulation of the cells lining the intestine
- Influencing intestinal inflammation.
To perform these functions, the ENS requires the ability to "sense" what is happening inside the bowel and within the bowel wall. Studies showing how the ENS mirrors the central nervous system have been emerging in recent years, and a new field of medicine, called "neurogastroenterology", has recently emerged as a result.
The Basics of Vulpine Communication
- Body Language (Play, Appeasement & Aggression Signals)
- Scent Communication