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Red Foxes and a Minuscule Mite

red fox IMG_4446A recent glimpse of a Red Fox whose tail was hairless except for a pompom-like tuft of fur at the very tip reminded me of the devastating effect a very small creature can have on an animal many times its size. A tiny, eyeless mite (Sarcoptes scabei) is responsible for the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange, the scourge of Red Foxes. After mating on a fox (often near the tail end), the male mite dies and the female burrows into the fox’s skin, laying eggs as she goes. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move to a new patch of skin, burrow in and eventually emerge as adult mites, ready to mate and continue the cycle. To add insult to injury, Red Foxes have an intense immune response to the mites’ excrement and the resulting inflammation is extremely itchy. Biting and scratching exacerbate the situation, causing new skin tears where bacteria can enter. Eventually, most foxes die of exhaustion, starvation and/or infection.

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12 responses

  1. etymologist

    The medical term ‘alopecia’ (localized or more diffuse loss of hair) is thought to metaphorically derive from the Greek word for fox – αλώπηξ (alopex) – perhaps reflecting hair loss induced by scabies. Alopex in turn may derive from a more ancient Indo-European word giving rise to the Latin name for wolf – ‘lupus’ – adopted by later physicians to name a disease that can cause hair loss.

    March 12, 2014 at 10:23 am

  2. Kathie Fiveash

    I have recently been researching sarcoptic mange because we have seen, several times this winter, a coyote who, we think, has it. He looks just terrible, and we are amazed that he lived through the winter. What a scourge on these beautiful wild canids. I read that the canine sarcoptic mite can also infest cats, pigs, horses, sheep, and various other species. There are treatments for domestic animals, but wild animals suffer and die. I wonder whether infected individuals, like your fox and our coyote, are shunned by others, or whether others in their families/groups are at great risk too. Seems like something that could easily take down a lot of animals. Can an animal ever recover without treatment?

    March 12, 2014 at 11:32 am

  3. Bob and Inge

    That’s sad. Can anything be done?

    March 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm

  4. gogfs@verizon.net

    mites are bad,,, umkay   

    March 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm

  5. Cecelia Blair

    I wish we could help them. This type of parasitic illness is like death from slow torture.

    March 12, 2014 at 1:43 pm

  6. Kathie Fiveash

    On a brighter note! Red-winged blackbirds are singing all over the marsh this morning, Hurray!!! Also, the beavers busted through the ice last night. I don’t know how they do it, since the ice fishing holes indicate about a foot of ice. Maybe they keep small areas thin all winter from underneath? Anyhow, they must feel great out in the big world after the long lockdown.

    March 12, 2014 at 1:58 pm

  7. How awful! I saw a red fox with a hairless tail twice this winter–sad to know how that will end.

    March 12, 2014 at 2:39 pm

  8. Grady

    Does anyone know if dogs are vulnerable to the same infestation? We have a Cairn Terrier who is prone to rashes around her tail.

    March 12, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    • Hi Grady,
      Apparently, they can. Here’s what I found on the subject: “Mange mites infecting foxes are generally referred to as Sarcoptes scabiei var. vulpes, while those that parasitize domestic dogs are S. scabiei var. canis, those infecting pigs are var. suis, those causing scabies in humans are var. hominis, and so on. These variants are generally widely accepted, although some authors consider var. vulpes and var. canis to be the same (lumping them together as var. canis and dropping var. vulpes altogether) because dogs and foxes can catch mange from each other and, as Set Bornstein put it in a 1991 paper, “It is not possible by morphological features to distinguish between S. scabies var. vulpes and var. canis” – in other words, the mites look identical.”

      March 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm

  9. Sally Page

    How sad!

    March 12, 2014 at 7:28 pm

  10. Sad indeed. Life in the wild is short, harsh and brutal. Even on domestic animals mange is tough to cure.

    March 12, 2014 at 8:36 pm

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