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"

Domestication in the Silver Fox (Vulpes Vulpes Desm): Changes in physiological boundaries of the sensitive period of primary socialisation - Belyaev, Plyusnina & Trut, 1985 

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"

Effects of early handling on later behaviour and stress responses in the silver fox (Vulpes vulpes), 1990

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.

Filial Imprinting

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"

Newborns can Bond with a "Mother" of a Different Species - Scientific American, 2007

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). 

  • 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"

Bonding - The American Fox Association

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).

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