Natural and Stereotypic Behaviour

Though Russian domestic foxes differ significantly from their ranched brethren regarding their fear (or lack thereof) for humans, the two still share some common behaviours. A video posted by Jonathan Reynaert of his two Russian domestic foxes presents a fine example of the combination of wild and uniquely domestic behaviours found in domestic foxes.

While his foxes run eagerly to greet their owner upon entering the enclosure, wag their tails, and happily enjoy being stroked, we can see the light colour fox demonstrates a strong desire to dig – a natural behaviour found also in wild and ranched foxes that may be difficult to fulfill in a home setting.

The desire to dig appears to be an innate trait foxes related to food caching behaviour (Jeselnik & Brisbin, 1980). Interestingly, wild foxes bury their food in a particular pattern of movements that is somewhat stereotypical (Gadbois et al., 2015). It is a behaviour that they are very driven to carry out. Thus, providing a means for the fox to dig freely would be a necessary component to their housing or enclosure, in order to fulfill the fifth freedom.

Here, the owner has provided a plastic barrel on which they can carry out the motions. It technically works – it allows the foxes to “dig”, and the plastic presumably doesn’t hurt their paws. However, it would be interesting to see if providing actual digging substrate would be preferable for the fox.

Foxes in the wild are opportunistic carnivores – much of the fox’s time is devoted to hunting and searching for food. When the need for this hunting and foraging behaviour is replaced with regular meal times provided by a caretaker, this may result in inactivity and the manifestation of stereotypical behaviours such as pacing.

Red foxes in a zoo displaying stereotypic pacing

A study by Kistlet et al found that fox activity levels and behaviour diversity increased when the methods of feeding promoted foraging behaviours (Kistler, Hegglin, Würbel, & König, 2009). Enrichment of this sort may help to reduce stereotypic behaviour in captive foxes, providing freedom from distress as well as expression of natural behaviour, thus improving their welfare. Other environmental enrichment that foxes require in order to prevent stereotypic behaviours includes structures which they can run along and climb on, regions of cover, and spaces in which to hide (Kistler et al., 2010).