Copyright 29th August 2014 – Anita Kelsey – http://www.catbehaviourist.com
Many of my clients keep their cats indoors at night. It’s one of the times a cat enjoys exploring its territory. Like the dawn, it’s a time of day when there is less traffic – human or motorised and when small mammals and other critters come out to play. When I question why these cats are kept in at night, 100% of the human guardians reply that it is because of foxes. I started to think about this and genuinely wanted to find out the facts myself. Another reason I wanted to do some research was because of my own fears connected to a fox den that’s presently at the end of one of my clients’ gardens. I’ve observed that every time the cat or a human enters the garden, the foxes run out of sight within seconds. The subject of foxes and cats sharing urban space really fascinates me, so I decided to gather some facts from the internet, as well as speak to as many people as possible involved with foxes or cats, including vets, wildlife sanctuaries, cat guardians with free roaming cats and animal hospitals. I have tried to make my research balanced and factual, unlike the scaremongering resorted to by some national newspapers who report foxes attacking babies as if it’s an everyday occurrence.
- 225,000 adult rural foxes and 33,000 urban foxes roam Britain
- 84% of wild foxes die before their 2nd birthday
- They first colonised British cities in the 1930s
So, what do Foxes eat as part of their natural diet?
At BBC Wildlife they state that:
Foxes have a very varied diet, Urban foxes eat earthworms, insects, fruit and vegetables and a wide variety of both domestic wild birds and mammals. Insects include large numbers of beetles, cut worms (the larvae of noctuid moths, which they get off lawns on wet nights), and both larval and adult craneflies. Most of the birds they eat are feral pigeons and small garden birds, and the most frequently eaten mammals are generally field voles, abundant on allotments, railway lines and other grassy areas. So urban foxes really do have a good varied diet.
When asked the question ‘will foxes kill my cat’ they had this to say:
It’s possible but very unlikely. A typical urban fox home range can be also occupied by upwards of 100 cats, and most of these are out at night. Foxes and cats meet many times every night, and invariably ignore each other. When a fight does break out, it’s often the fox that comes off worse in the encounter.
Pete Wedderburn (BVM&S CertVR MRCVS) who works at Brayvet decided, luckily for me, to do his own in-depth research on the subject and in Feb 2013 published his findings.
His research led him to VetCompass who are a collaborative not-for-profit research project run by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London, in collaboration with the University of Sydney. VetCompass’ aim was to investigate the range and frequency of small animal health problems seen by veterinary surgeons working in general practice in the United Kingdom and to highlight the major risk factors for these conditions. They now have health data on over 400,000 companion animals from over 200 practices across the UK.
His findings identified
79 (5 in 10,000 cats) confirmed and 130 (9 in 10,000 cats) suspected fox fights with cats from 145,808 VetCompass cats since Jan 1st 2010 until Feb 2013 (14 in 10,000 overall). This compares with 541 per 10,000 for cats presented with cat bite injuries and 196 in 10,000 cats being presented following a road traffic accident.
So, in Pete Webberburn’s words
to put fox attacks into context, other cats (x40 times) and cars (x14 times) appear to present much greater dangers to cats than foxes.
Of course fox attacks can happen on the rare occasion and so cannot be entirely ruled out if we are to be realistic. Speaking personally to 12 veterinary surgeons based in London and country practices, I asked how many cases they had seen where a cat has been brought in with a suspected fox bite or ‘fights’ within the last year. Every vet replied the same. NONE, except one veterinary surgeon who works for Amwell Vets in Waterloo. His own cat of 17 years was recently killed by a fox in Central London. When I asked him why he thought this may have happened he replied…
…because the fox is an opportunist and would have preyed on something they considered weaker (his cat, as well as being old, was completely deaf). The natural prey of a fox is not a cat and in most cases a fox would not attempt to kill a healthy cat especially one that could defend itself.
Despite his own cat having been killed by a fox he considers this to not be the norm.
David Cuffe Associates, who are based in Clapham, stipulated further that
most of the serious injuries we see on cats are due to territorial fighting between neighbouring cats.
Today I contacted Trevor Williams who runs The Fox Project, A charity established in 1991 as a specialist Wildlife Information Bureau and Fox Deterrence Consultancy. Since 1993 it has also incorporated a Wildlife Hospital.
Well, from a personal perspective, I’ve had three cats in recent years and all of them chased the foxes out of the garden if they spotted them! And the foxes didn’t hang around!
It would be absurd to suggest a cat never comes off worse from an encounter with a fox, but we’d suggest it was so rare as to be insignificant.
However, when there are problems, it’s usually during the cub season, when foxes – like all species – will take on anyone and anything to protect their young. As cats are notorious for curiosity and for mauling small animals, their concern is well founded, and we admit several such cubs every year with serious cat scratches and bites.
Over the 23 years we’ve been in existence we’ve paid for around 15 post-mortems on cats suspected of being killed by foxes. In every case, death was from other means, usually crushing (road accident). As foxes will certainly scavenge roadkill, sightings of foxes hauling dead cats across the road or even found consuming them, are regularly misinterpreted. (This had been mentioned by another vet – author’s note)
Interestingly, scores of proud cat owners (all of whom think their cats unique) have sent us photos over the years of cats chasing foxes. No-one has ever sent us one of a fox chasing a cat and we’ve never observed such ourselves.
The Fox project sums up by stating in their ‘Disease And Aggression’ pamphlet on Foxes:
Where small pets are concerned, one must remember the fox is a predator. If rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens etc. are housed outside, a good quality pen is vital, because these are all natural prey to a fox. However, such concerns need not be felt for cats and dogs, most of which out-weigh the average 5kg adult fox (despite nonsensical scare stories involving foxes weighing 17kg), and where rare aggression is more often caused by a fox’s defence of young cubs rather than from other motivation.
…..In any event, many more householders contact us with stories of ‘chumming-up’ between a fox and the caller’s cat, dog or, rather more mysteriously, their rabbit(!) than with situations involving aggression.
I have only ever heard of two cases in my 40 years of dealing with foxes, one of which turned out to be a German Shepherd and the other a cat. But it is always possible – there are thousands of three-month old cubs beginning to run around. They smell food and go through an open door but it is freakish that a fox should attack someone. Foxes are among the most amenable, least aggressive mammals you could share your environment with.
It’s very rare for a fox to be brave enough to face a cat
On the same news report the RSPCA stated that
foxes were shy creatures and the case in East London was an extremely rare occurrence.
Martin Hemmington, who is the founder of The National Fox Welfare Society confirms that the majority of foxes do not want contact with humans… He goes on to say:
It takes quite a lot of effort to catch them. Walking into people’s houses is not common place and they would never go in with the intention of attacking someone. I can only imagine the fox has found itself in a situation and it has become distressed and panicked.
They are wild animals and will bite if cornered. Perhaps it was injured or had concussion from a car accident.
I contacted Penny Little, who is the founder of Little Foxes Wildlife Rescue, with some questions regarding foxes and cats. Her fear was that many people misinterpret what they hear or see. She explains further:
Most reports of foxes attacking cats are either a result of misunderstanding, or are malicious. Foxes have many human enemies! But I hear so many stories from people, and sometimes it is obvious to me how the misunderstanding arises.
For example, a lady rang me concerned that the family of foxes in the garden would hurt her cats. She explained that she had actually heard the foxes attacking the cats. A little probing made it quite obvious that what she was actually hearing was the cubs at noisy play – they make a lot of yickering and screechy noises when they play. She accepted this was indeed what she was hearing, and stopped worrying about the cats!
I am absolutely convinced that foxes do not represent a threat to cats. I would make a small possible exception for tiny kittens, which could possibly be attacked purely as an almost reflex action of pouncing on a small furry animal (however I know of no actual cases of this).
The fact is that the claims of people just do not add up to anything concrete, they are anecdotal, subject to misunderstanding and also to the average person’s extremely low knowledge of wild animal behaviour. Foxes are massively misunderstood. Their mating cries can, and certainly are, misinterpreted as the screams of , say, the cat later found up the road injured, although in actual fact the cat was in a cat fight – nothing whatsoever to do with the amorous foxes!
Newspapers give ludicrous coverage to fox scare stories and so the myths build up.
Penny goes on to describe a recent incident at the sanctuary:
We also once took in here at Little Foxes a very young cub that had been attacked and brought in to a house by a cat. The cub died minutes after arrival. Thus it is understandable if vixens with young cubs act defensively if a cat comes too near the nursery earth, as the cat clearly can represent a lethal threat to tiny cubs. Even then, I think a vixen would be relying on threat rather than attack.
I thought it only fitting to speak to a cat grooming client of mine who has a huge variety of rescue cats living with her and all as free roaming ones. I put the following questions to her:
1: How many cats do you have and are they all free roaming?
13 cats, all are free roaming.
2: Have any of your cats had any issues with foxes?
No – never.
3: Do you see foxes on a regular basis in your garden?
Yes – almost every night. They come in from the allotments at the back of the garden. We have a regular couple, I think male and female, who come.
4: How do your cats or the foxes respond to one another?
With benign tolerance. The cats watch the foxes when they’re in the garden. Sometimes the cats chase them out – we had a fox in the house once that I saw and our smallest female cat chased it out.
5: Are they adult foxes or with cubs?
I have only seen adults.
I also spoke to Sharon Williams, who runs a pet boarding and dog and cat sitting company, called Purr-fect Kitty, in Shortlands which is surrounded by woodland. Clients in Shortlands are very different to many clients in Notting Hill because 95% of Purr-fect Kitties cats are free roaming. I thought this would make an interesting comparison.
1: How many cats do you look after on a weekly basis and what percentage are free roaming?
The number of cat sits I do a week varies on the time of year. Last week I cat sat for 15 households and most of those cats were free roaming.
2: Have any of the cats you look after had any issues with foxes that you know of?
I’ve never experienced any problems with foxes and cats although one of my clients found her cat dead and blamed it on foxes.
Why did your client think her cat was killed by a fox?
because she is worried about foxes and when the cat was found it had been chewed up a bit.
Yes, it has been mentioned by several vets that foxes find roadkill and may drag the cat back to their den or be opportunists and eat parts of the dead cat. Then a person finding their cat would blame the fox for killing it. It’s a theory, but makes a lot of sense.
3: Do you see foxes on a regular basis in any of your clients’ gardens when you are there with the cat?
I don’t always see foxes, as they’re usually quite shy creatures, but on one occasion recently there were always two foxes in the garden and the cats of the household were often in the garden with the foxes.
4: How do your cats or the foxes respond to one another?
On this occasion the cats and foxes went about their own business ignoring each other.
5: Are they adult foxes or with cubs?
The foxes in the garden were adult foxes but I could often hear the cubs playing. I never saw them in the garden though.
I contacted Roger Abrantes PhD, Scientific Director of The Ethology Institute of Cambridge. Here’s what he had to say to contribute to this article.
We don’t have any data to corroborate any statement. However, our experience both in the UK and in Scandinavia, where we were stationed for many years prior to the UK, does not confirm foxes attacking cats as normal or frequent behavior. On the contrary, even in farms where attacks on chicken were common, casualties among cats remained nil or extremely low, only counting as exceptions.
Seeing as my borough is Kensington and Chelsea I shall finish this study on a report the council did on foxes after recent media coverage of an alleged fox attack on a young child.
In the past few years there have been some reports of attacks on children. Thankfully these are extremely rare. Statistically, the risk that foxes pose is very small indeed. The risk from dangerous dogs is far greater.
Foxes pose little danger to cats. But, like any other dog, foxes will chase cats. Generally, though, when faced with the claws and teeth of a cat, foxes will back away, knowing they will probably suffer a serious injury in any fight. However, foxes will scavenge the remains of dead cats, but actual evidence of them killing cats is extremely rare. Cats and dogs vastly outnumber foxes and they usually co-exist without any serious problems. But many fox cubs are killed each year by pet cats and dogs.
However, small pets, like rabbits and guinea pigs can be taken by foxes. They need to be securely housed to ensure foxes cannot get access to them. Most wire pens are not robust enough to deter a determined fox. Foxes also eat rats and other rodents and can thus help to keep those pests down.
I see many free roaming cats at night in my area and I also see loads of foxes. I think this study concludes that it is rare for foxes to attack cats and that both species manage to co-exist and share space. Of course a weaker cat, such as the vet’s 17 year old deaf cat, may appear vulnerable to an opportunistic fox but even the vet admits that this is not the norm. Judging by the amount of foxes we now have co-existing in urban areas we pretty much wouldn’t have any cats left if the fox saw the cat as food or continued to look upon the cat as prey.
Maybe it’s time for the guardians of the free roaming cat to let go of fears and the myth that their cat is going to be eaten by a fox whenever it steps outside the cat flap. OK, so maybe the norm is not the photo below either. Maybe, just maybe, it’s somewhere in the middle!
I’d like to thank the following people and organisations for taking part with this study or supplying useful information (in no particular order):
Sharon Williams, Biggin Hill Vets, Village Vets – Maida Vale, Notting Hill Vets, John Hankinson Vets SE14, Amwell Vets Waterloo, David Cuffe And Associates – Clapham, Paxton Vet Clinics, Cotswolds Vet, Billericay Vets, Penmarin House Vets – Cornwall, Trevor Williams, The Fox Project, Kensington and Chelsea Council, Pete Wedderburn BVM&S CertVR MRCVS, Fiona Nolan, BBC Wildlife, The Royal Veterinary College, University Of Sidney, VetCompass, Martin Hemmington founder of The National Fox Welfare Society, John Bryant, RSPCA, Penny Little of The Little Foxes Wildlife Rescue.