Sick Foxes Get a Helping Hand

Sick Foxes Get a Helping Hand

Wildlife volunteers make a difference

Becoming a common sight, a healthy Red Fox dries off on a sunny deck rail after a rain in Springfield

Becoming a common sight, a healthy Red Fox dries off on a sunny deck rail after a rain in Springfield

Observing wild foxes has gotten easier in recent years. Thanks to the cooperative habits of the Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes), many locals report seeing the antics of the beautiful small mammals crossing trails, cavorting on lawns, digging dens under decks, playing with their kits, or just visiting suburban backyards. Often they exhibit their famed wily fox ways visiting back decks to steal the family dog’s toys or food; or to get comfortable on the dog’s bed. Unfortunately, along with the opportunity to see their beautiful red coats, legendary bushy thick white tipped tails, and engaging antics, we too often witness the ravages of a disease that afflicts them — mange. 

Olivia LoBalbo, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who specialized in care of wild foxes


For many foxes that contract mange, it will be a slow and very uncomfortable journey to death. Mange, caused by a parasite, itself is not fatal, but it can so compromise the animal’s vision, coat condition, and comfort, that it is unable to hunt properly, leading to starvation; or unable to adjust to temperatures, succumbing to hyperthermia; or in weakened condition, contracting and overcome by internal parasites. Experts say that for an animal to contract mange, there may have been an underlying health issue that made the animal more susceptible. Or it may be as the result of close proximity to an infected fox, as populations are forced to share shrinking space due to habitat loss, and as family units cluster together.

Observers of foxes in distress may be moved to assist. Virginia's Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Leah Card, explains that mange is endemic in the environment and to fox populations. 

“It can be severe, or some foxes may get over it themselves.” Card, who is assigned to the department’s fur-bearing animals response, says. “Red Foxes do well in adapting to loss of natural habitat and are common in urban and suburban settings now. … They are part of the ecosystem, have been here a long time, and it’s on us to learn to live with them.” 

Card describes three possible choices for homeowners, and others, who encounter foxes with mange: do not intervene; contact a licensed commercial wildlife control operator for trapping and removal; or contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for possible treatment. She suggests intervention only in severe cases, because proper treatment requires removing the animal from the wild. Removal itself is traumatic for the animal. The treatment period is several weeks, during which time the animal may become habituated to humans, impacting its ability to successfully return to the wild. Severely infected animals, likely beyond successful treatment, may be trapped and humanely euthanized, but only by certified operators, or licensed rehabbers. If you are uncertain about the level of the animal’s affliction, a rehabilitator may be able to advise on the appropriate action if provided with a photograph of the animal. The public is advised not to attempt treatment, contact or to feed a mange-infected fox (or healthy animals) due to risks to both the animal and the human. 

Mange is caused by parasitic mites which dig deep into fox skin, lay eggs, and leave fecal matter. The infection causes significant skin irritation and hair loss. Mites may attach to other animals as well; such as squirrels, deer, coyotes, and bears. It can spread to human hosts but does not reproduce there. While concern for pets or children might lead one to seek removal of an infected animal, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all susceptible animals from one’s surroundings. And make no mistake in thinking a trapped animal will be cured and then taken to a different location. Commercial removal operators may not release animals in another location. Animals they collect must be euthanized. Animals successfully treated by rehabbers must be released at their original location.

Though some will be tempted to try to cure the painful disease themselves, DWR reminds us that the Red Fox species is not under threat and has managed to live and thrive with mange in its population. In 2004, Virginia Code made it illegal to administer any drug to vertebrate wildlife, except as a licensed veterinarian for an injured or sick animal; or as a licensed and permitted rehabilitator; a Class 2 misdemeanor for violation. In fact, both federal and Virginia laws prohibit most interaction with wildlife except for observation. While one may aid sick or injured wildlife under “good samaritan” laws, one may not treat, feed, keep as a pet, a wild animal, or even take down a bird nest while there is active nesting. Many readers may have foregone use of an entrance to their homes for months, as a wren or finch raises a brood of chicks in a door’s welcome wreath.

Easing the Conflict

One area rehabilitator has been easing this wildlife-human conflict for both area foxes and homeowners. Olivia LoBalbo, has been actively involved in working with foxes in Northern Virginia for the past decade. Both federally and state permitted for wildlife rehabilitation in Virginia, the former veterinary technician initially began her licensed rehabber work raising young foxes who were orphaned and unable to reunite with an adult. She describes receiving numerous calls about foxes with mange in distress. She says, “Historically, little could be legally done for these animals, and we noticed many homeowners or members of the public, albeit with good intentions, attempting to treat them with medications like ivermectin or prescription flea and tick treatments.”

“This did much more harm than good; misinformation on this topic is still being spread today.”

Several critical issues arose from this approach. Not only was it illegal, but there were practical challenges such as foxes being a rabies vector species, accidental overdosing, improper dosing, and the fact that ivermectin requires a double treatment, which was extremely difficult to administer to wild foxes. Furthermore, many foxes presented with underlying health issues that compounded the problem of mange, which is often a secondary symptom of deeper health issues.

LoBalbo, working through the non-profit animal welfare organization, Animal Education and Rescue Organization (A.E.R.O.), and with Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources input, developed a legal and effective program to assist. The program mandates trapping, then thorough examination of each affected animal by a permitted rehabber, as opposed to environmental distribution of medications. A video on their website demonstrates to homeowners how to use humane traps, step-by-step, with a downloadable brochure for clarity. 

LoBalbo explains, “Legally, only homeowners or licensed pest control companies can set traps, and while pest control companies must euthanize trapped animals due to relocation laws, homeowners can transfer them to wildlife rehabilitators for follow-up care under the Good Samaritan law. Under the program, homeowners set traps after instruction on doing so safely; rehabilitators receive the animals and administer treatment; and veterinarians diagnose and prescribe medication; including medication options which have expanded, providing better outcomes for sick animals.” 

The A.E.R.O. program relies heavily on volunteers, licensed rehabbers and volunteers assisting them; and members of the public who care about wildlife. LoBalbo shares that data collected in the program also is being used to map and study fox behavior and infection patterns in the area, including collaboration with several PhD candidates at George Mason University. Mapping that data led LoBalbo to ascertain the reason why nine foxes, presenting with broken legs and no teeth, came into her care already this year; eventually tracked to two trap-setters protecting chickens, where appropriate legal action was taken.

A.E.R.O.’s program helps animals stay in their homes, which LoBalbo says means “living with wildlife and not taking them away, later to find their abandoned young,” a better outcome for all.

More About A.E.R.O.

“Animal Education and Rescue Organization (A.E.R.O.) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned, injured, and sick native Virginia wildlife in need of help in order to survive. Our Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources licensed wildlife rehabilitators, apprentices, and care providers devote hundreds of hours to restore the wildlife in their care to good health so that they can be released back into the wild. Currently, A.E.R.O. consists of a dedicated team of six skilled at-home rehabbers, alongside multiple apprentices diligently working towards becoming full-fledged rehabbers themselves. In addition to our core team, we are supported by compassionate caregivers and volunteers who play integral roles in our mission. Each year, A.E.R.O. opens its doors to approximately 1000 animals in need of care and support.”

To learn more about A.E.R.O. efforts; to volunteer, or support their work, see