There was a mangy fox in my backyard yesterday. And by mangy I mean bald, itchy and miserable looking. My dogs were going bananas to get outside, and luckily for all involved the fox ran off when he heard the barking from inside the house. There are a lot of reasons I don’t want a fox hanging out in my backyard, but for the sake of this blog I am going to focus on the mangy part.
Without actually examining the poor fox I can assume, based on its appearance alone, that it was suffering from sarcoptic mange or scabies. Scabies is a very contagious, very itchy external parasite. Dogs can catch scabies by having close contact with an infected animal. Because it doesn’t survive well off of a host, environmental contamination is not a problem. A microscopic mite, it burrows into the skin and causes an intensely itchy inflammatory reaction. Our local fox population happens to be riddled with it. This concerns me not only because I worry about the foxes themselves (I have seen them in nearby fields scratching themselves raw), but I also worry about pet dogs being exposed via contact with an affected fox. I have seen at least one case of scabies in my office whose only exposure to other animals was the red fox that frequented its back yard.
Scabies is most typically seen in dogs coming out of less than optimum circumstances. It is usually associated with strays and rescued dogs, but because it is so contagious, even well-cared for dogs that have been exposed at a dog park or by the fox in their own backyard can be infected. The main symptom we associate with scabies is itchiness. I don’t mean an occasional scratching at the ear, but rather an intense dedication to scratching that is so profound, it is remarkable. Owners describe dogs who scratch all day and all night. When I ask them to rate the itchiness on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most itchy, the usual response is “are you kidding? How about 100?!” Dogs (and foxes) with scabies will typically scratch themselves bald, eventually ending up looking like the proverbial “mangy dog”.
Scabies is not always easy to diagnose. We perform skin scrapings to look for the mite in the skin, but it usually burrows deep enough that it is easy for us to miss. Truthfully, the best way we have to diagnose a case of scabies (other than hearing a suspicious history and observing the typical clinical signs) is to treat empirically and watch to see if the dog gets better. There are several safe and effective treatment options to use so if we strongly suspect scabies is a possibility, we will usually just go ahead and treat. The response to treatment will give us our diagnosis.
I will be watching my dogs closely for early signs of itchiness, and I will not hesitate to treat them if I suspect scabies – I don’t think they could get too close to a wild fox, but you never know. As for the foxes, using the aid of a wildlife specialist, I will put some dog food laced with medication in the field where I see them and hopefully be able to treat them as well!