Saturday, July 31, 2010

Photo of the Week: 7/31/2010

Freddy's Happy, originally uploaded by Rob Lee.
Today's photo of the week (And the first photo of the week ever) is a picture of Freddy the Fox, taken by Rob Lee. I love that smile!

If you've taken a fox picture that you'd like to submit as a Photo of the Week, just send it to Please only send in photos that you've taken yourself, and include enough information so that I can give credit.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pet Fox Stories: Hanging By His Toes

A lot of people question the need to have a complete roof on their fox enclosures, doubting the fox's ability to climb upside down. Well, I recently had an experience with Gizmo the other day that made the need for a full ceiling very clear.

The other day while I was making lunch, I had Gizmo shut in his indoor playpen so he wouldn't be "helping" me to make and/or eat it. The play pen is about 50 square feet, with a fenced in top. Usually he can be left in there to entertain himself without worry that he'll get himself into too much trouble.

After realizing that I was not currently in the room giving him attention, Gizmo did his typical "mommy come here" warble. My hands were a bit full at the moment, so I just called back to him to let him know that I had heard him.

He continued to call, getting louder and more upset sounding, until he finally gave up on the warbling and just started out right shrieking. At this point, I was getting a bit concerned, so I walked in to see what all the fuss was about.

Gizmo was hanging upside down by his toes, desperately clinging to the top of his play pen, and wailing his little heart out. He wasn't caught on the bars or anything, and no toes were trapped. He had just managed to climb onto his ceiling, and now was afraid to jump down. I entered the play yard, got a good hold of him, and got him to let go of the ceiling and drop down into my arms. Nobody was hurt, and Gizmo was thrilled to have been rescued.

Do you have any interesting stories about what your pets have done when you're out of the room? What interesting predicaments have your critters managed to get themselves into while you weren't looking? (Or for particularly talented pets, while you were looking.)

And stay tuned! Tomorrow is going to be the first "Featured Photo of the Week", then Monday I'm going to be discussing trimming a fox's toenails.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

7 Tips for Introducing Foxes to Other Pets

Do foxes eat cats? Will my dog get along with a pet fox? Can I have a pet skunk AND a pet fox? I hear these questions a lot, and no two fox owners will give you quite the same answer, as no two foxes are alike. However, there are some basic rules of thumb that can increase the odds of a pet fox blending in well.

#1. Always Supervise
It's never advisable to leave a fox and another pet alone together, especially when they're just starting to get used to each other. Even if both animals are friendly, play can get a bit too rough and things can escalate. I know of more than one case where a fox and another pet who had always gotten along in the past were left alone together, and one or both were seriously injured when a fight broke out.

#2. No Pocket Pets
Don't try to introduce a fox to a caged pet or "pocket pet". Just don't. When your fox looks at your pet hamster/lizard/parakeet/sugar glider it doesn't see a friend, it sees food. Attempting to introduce a fox to a pocket pet will only end in tears, and it won't be the foxes fault.

#3. Buy the Smaller Animal First
Although not always possible, this can be a huge step towards pets in the house at least coexisting. It's much easier for an established full-grown cat to teach a fox kit to respect it's space than it is for a kitten to teach an adult fox the same thing.

#4. Make Changes Early
If introducing a new pet will make major changes to an established pets life (i.e. not allowed to go in a certain room, less attention, etc.) make those changes BEFORE you bring the new pet home, so the old one will not associate the restriction of it's freedom with the new arrival.

#5. Trade Blankets Before the Introduction
Animals rely a lot more on smell than we do, and an unfamiliar scent can cause a great deal of stress. Before introducing a fox to another pet, get them both used to the other one's smell. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take the blanket from one animal's bed and trade it with the other animal's blanket. This will allow them to get comfortable with the other one's scent ahead of time, so that when they do meet it won't be a completely "unfamiliar" animal.

#6. Introduce on Neutral Territory
Whenever possible, introduce animals on territory that neither one "owns". If neither animal feels like it owns an area and has to protect it, things are less likely to go south.

#7. Let Both Animals Have an "Escape Route"
Especially at first, both pets must be able to get away from the situation if they're starting to feel stressed. If the fox or the other animal feels cornered, things can turn nasty quite quickly. The easiest way to do this is to leash both pets, and have a responsible adult have a hold of each one. Make sure that each one can retreat out of reach of the other one's leash.

For those of you readers who are from multi-pet households, how did you introduce your animals at first? What techniques have worked for you?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pet Fox Stories: Sibling Rivalry

People are often quite worried when they find out that I have a fox and cats, under the theory that one will surely devour the other. However, contrary to popular belief, foxes and cats are not hardwired to kill each other. However, it wouldn't be quite accurate to say they "get along well", either. Although there is no overt aggression, there is a very intense rivalry between the fox and the cats.

The picture you see is of Gizmo the fox, Mischief the cat, and what has come to be known as the "Drama Chair". For reasons that I don't understand and probably never will, this ratty old chair has become the most hotly contested piece of property in the entire house.

Gizmo loves the chair dearly; it's quite possibly his favorite thing in the entire house. Unfortunately, this has not escaped the cat's notice. Whenever Mischief happens to notice him relaxing on it, her typical response is to come and hop on to the back of the chair, giving him a hiss and a dirty look.

Gizmo's response to an animal half his size telling him to get off the chair is usually to hop to the floor and start screeching and wailing at the top of his lungs, letting the whole neighborhood know that a gigantic panther has come and stolen his chair from him. If nobody removes the cat from her perch, he will start to dart back and forth between the nearest human and the chair, just wailing.

The cat tends to ignore this whole display; foxes, if such creatures exist, are far beneath her notice. However, the only time she ever sits on the chair is when she's kicked Gizmo off it. If he's not there to freak out, she sees no appeal in "having" the chair.

What about you guys? Do you have any interesting stories of "sibling rivalry" between your animals? What do you do to resolve them? Tell me about it in the comments!

And stay tuned: Wednesday I'm going to discuss methods of introducing a new pet to established ones.

Friday, July 23, 2010

9 Essential Techniques for Training ANY Animal

Gizmo the fox, getting a treat for shaking my hand.
People are under the mistaken impression that most animals can't be trained. The claim is often that they're not smart enough (or are too smart) or that they're too wild.

Well, I've worked with everything from dogs to foxes to cats to chinchillas to rats, and the more animals I deal with, the more I get the impression that you can train anything with a brain stem. Even my cornsnakes have shown that they're capable of learning and adapting (though not to the same impressive degree that mammals and birds can).

Although the individual techniques vary from species to species, there are a few rules of thumb that apply across the board.

#1. Keep It Fun!

I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping a fun, upbeat attitude while training. This is important for any animal, but more so for a pet fox or other exotic pet. Almost all dogs have an innate desire to please their humans, and will tolerate unpleasantness to make them happy. Cats, pet foxes, and other animals, however, have no inborn desire to please you; they live to please themselves. While this "selfish" attitude is important for survival in the wild, it can be a real challenge to training.

An unhappy or bored fox is unlikely to learn anything, so it's up to you to keep every training session fun and upbeat, with lots of treats and praise to hold your pet's interest.

#2. Correct, Don't Scold!

Avoid scolding your pet during training sessions, and never hit or otherwise cause pain. Doing so will only teach them to dread and fear training sessions, or worse, to dread and fear you.

I even recommend you don't use your typical "scolding" word during training. If your pet gets a harsh "BAD!" or "NO!" when he's being naughty, use a different tone and phrase to correct an error during training. When Gizmo goes to get in the trash, I growl "No!" in a harsh, angry tone. When I tell him to lay down and he tries to shake, I say "Try again" in a low, calm voice. The goal is to convey "That's not what I'm looking for," not "You're in trouble!"

#3. Always End on a High Note

How the training session ends has the biggest impact on an animal's memory, so be sure to finish on a high note to keep him eager for the next time.

The easiest way to do this is to always end with a success. If your cat or pet fox just isn't getting the new concept you're trying to teach, and you want to stop, have him do a simple trick he already knows and reward him before ending the training session.

#4. Don't Train in a Bad Mood

This goes both for you and your pet. If you're in a rotten mood, your voice will be harsher, your frustration threshold lower, and your patience limited. Your pet will pick up on these signals, and may read them as a correction even if he's displaying the behavior you want. If you're giving him a treat but you smell mad, these mixed messages will confuse him and can even set his training back. It's better to skip a day of training than to try and hide a bad mood.

On the other hand, trying to teach an agitated animal is often an exercise in futility. Right after a bath or a trip to the vet is a bad time for a training session. A cat or pet fox that is all wound up, even if it's happy, can also be difficult to teach--if he's squirrely and hyper, it's a better idea to use up some of that energy by playing with him and save the training for later.

#5. Keep Sessions Short

As I've said before, bored animals don't make good learners (the same applies to people!). Unfortunately, your typical cat, fox, dog, chinchilla, etc., has an attention span comparable to that of most toddlers. To hold their interest, keep training sessions short and fun.

Five three-minute-long sessions are better than one fifteen-minute-long one, and it's always best to call it quits while your pet is still eager for more--Don't wait for them to get bored!

#6. Be Consistent

Consistency has a huge impact on how quickly your pet will learn; the fewer mixed messages you send, the better. If you're teaching your pet fox to sit up on her hind legs, don't say "sit pretty" one day and "beg" the next. If the sofa is off-limits, don't let your dog sleep there one day, then scold him the next. If you use hand signals along with verbal commands (which I highly recommend), keep the hand signals the same from one day to the next.

Even being consistent in your choice of training area can be helpful. If you train in one particular place all the time, when your pet sees that he's being taken there, he'll often go right into a learning frame of mind.

#7. Don't Push Too Hard

Especially after being met with a little bit of success, novice trainers often fall into the trap of rushing ahead and trying to teach too much too quickly. Resist the urge to rush, and you'll save both yourself and your animal a lot of frustration.

If you've moved ahead, and your pet just isn't having any success, there is no shame in going back to a previous step.

#8. Keep Rewards Small

When using food rewards, use small tidbits that your pet can crunch down quickly. If you use large or chewy treats, your pet will fill up quickly and lose interest in training faster. Also, a treat that takes too long to eat will interrupt the flow of the training session.

#9 Keep Rewards Good (But not too good)

You want the rewards to be good--good enough to motivate your pet, but not so good that it'll chew through your hand to get to them. This can be a surprisingly difficult balance to strike. Most dogs have a natural inhibition towards biting, but foxes and other exotic pets generally lack this. If the treat is good enough, they'll often have no problem biting to see if they can make you drop it.

Two brands I've found work well for this are Pounce and Temptation brand cat treats. They're small, tasty, and they come in such a wide variety of flavors that it's easy to keep the treats novel and interesting for your pet.

Cat Doing Tricks:

Fox Doing Tricks:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Giving Animals a Voice

Recently, Massachusets became the first state to ban devocalization surgeries for animals. This will prevent anyone from damaging or removing an animal's vocal cords unless they have a valid medical reason.

Now, those of you who know me well will know that I'm generally against laws that limit what a pet owner can or can't do with their animals, and I'm typically against bans. However, I wholeheartedly support this law, and I think more states should follow suit with similar legislation.

I brought Gizmo home knowing that he could potentially be loud. (Fortunately, he is quiet most of the time, unless you count the screaming fits he throws when the cat kicks him off the chair.) Anyone who buys a dog does so with the knowledge that it can bark. I don't think an animal should be mutilated merely for the sake of fashion or convenience.

Most dogs can be trained to obey a "be quiet" command; just about every dog training book I've seen has had a section on this. And even if training fails, there are plenty of effective, humane means of bark control available for noisy dogs, ranging from collars that produce a high-pitched sound or unpleasant vibration to gadgets that plug into the wall.

Not only that, but barking serves a very important purpose: Communication. Studies have shown that humans are very good at understanding what dog barks mean. For a very cool demonstration of this, check out this excerpt from "The Secret Life Of the Dog":

Even my pet fox uses barking, along with a wide range of other noises, to communicate with me. What do you guys think about this new law? Is a good thing, or do you think that it's too restrictive of pet owners freedom? Are there consequences that maybe we're not anticipating? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wild-born versus Captive Bred?

I've been asked several times about what the main differences are between keeping a fox that was born in the wild versus keeping one that's captive bred like Gizmo.

It comes down to nurture-verses-nature. If you get a wild rescue very young and take good care of him and socialize him well, he can learn to love people and be very affectionate with you. Although he doesn't have any "natural" inclination to be a good pet, he's been nurtured to be one, and that can make all the difference.

With a many-generations-tame fox like Gizmo, though, things are a little different. As a general rule of thumb, animals that are easier to handle tend to get better care than those that are difficult. A fox that is calm and mellow when taken to the vet will generally be taken to the vet more often than one that has a full-scale panic attack every time he sees the car.

An easy-to-handle fox will be much easier to treat if it does get ill, and will probably get more regular maintenance of it's nails, coat, and teeth. Plus, a breeder is more likely to spend time with a friendly, gregarious fox, which means that they are more likely to notice if something is off about it's behavior, or if it's hurting in some way. This means that a friendly fox will usually have the problem noticed much faster if it gets sick or injured, and will get the necessary medical care sooner.

In short, an easy-to-handle, friendly fox will get better care as a direct result of it being friendly and easy-to-handle, meaning it will live longer. (I'm not saying that any breeder intentionally neglects a shy or antisocial fox, just that problems are noticed sooner and can be treated much more easily in a friendly animal).

And if a fox lives longer, if it's a breeding animal, it will produce more kits. So, over time, more and more of the foxes in the pet trade are the direct descendants of friendly, easy-to-handle foxes. And personality has a very strong genetic component to it, so the genes that are associated with an animal being friendly and easy-to-handle become more prevalent with each generation.

In a nutshell, a domestic-bred fox is more likely to have a natural tendency to be friendly and make a good pet (and that the more generations it's ancestors have been tame, the more likely it is to be naturally friendly).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Importance of Collars and Tags

Gizmo showing off his bright blue tags.
Last night, our neighbors found two Golden Retrievers in our neighborhood who were wearing bandannas, but no identification or real collars. Both dogs were friendly, well-fed, and well-groomed, so they were obviously a pair of lost pets. To keep the dogs safe and contained, we closed them in our garage while we started to look for the owners. This story has a happy ending, as it took less than an hour of asking around the neighborhood to locate the missing family, but not all lost pets are so lucky.

I am a firm supporter of collars and tags--there is no better way to get a lost pet home again

In the case of exotic pets like Gizmo, having a plain, easy-to-see identification on them is even more important than it is for dogs and cats. If someone sees a cat or a dog in their backyard, their first impulse is "lost pet." If someone sees a fox, raccoon, or skunk, their first impulse is "wild animal". If your pet dog gets out, most folks will try and catch it and return it to you. If your pet fox or pet skunk gets out, they're more likely to call animal control.

This is one of the situations where having a friendly pet fox can make the situation worse, if they're not wearing a collar or harness. Most wild animals will not approach a human unless they are sick. A lost pet fox trotting up for an ear-rub might get shot by a wildlife official, simply because it's not behaving "normally" for it's species. And with no obvious identification, how can we expect them to know it's a pet?

Gizmo wears harnesses in bright colors--usually red, blue, or green, to stand out against his butterscotch-and-black coat. The more obnoxious the shade, the more I like it. I want it to be obvious from space that he's a pet. He wears many identification tags, and is micro-chipped. (However, micro-chipping alone is not an effective way of getting your pet fox back--without any external means of seeing it's a pet, they've got no reason to check for a chip).

Some people choose not to keep collars on their pets due to fur-wear. Nylon collars can cause the guard hairs around the neck area to break off, leaving a woolly texture instead of a sleek one. Snug-fitting collars in animals with long or curly coats, like a Persian cat or a poodle, can cause issues with matting up the hair under them. Although fur-wear is a minor cosmetic inconvenience, matting can be difficult to groom out, and can be painful for the animal.

One solution that we've found works very well, both against fur-wear and against matting, is to use what's called a rolled leather collar. They don't flatten the fur under it like a nylon or flat leather collar does, and we've had great luck using them both on Gizmo and our shaggy mess of a dog. (Our dog is a Bouvier de Flandres, which have thick, woolly, curly coats).

They are a bit more expensive than traditional flat collars, and can be hard to find, but they're long-lasting and worth the price. Gizmo is hard on his things (I'm constantly having to buy new harnesses for him) and it took him almost two years to wear out the collar to the point where I had to replace it. Our dog is still on her first collar.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any break-away rolled collars for cats. At least, none that I've found (if any of you come across one, please let me know!) For our long-haired cat, Kali, an effective way to avoid collar-matting is frequently removing and grooming the hair under the collar, and keeping the hair around her neck clipped short. A bit of a hassle, but it's worth it for her safety.

Another reason I hear quite a bit for why people don't put collars on their pets (particularly cats and pet foxes) is that the pet "won't wear it". This is actually a pretty easy problem to fix, but it does take a bit of thought and work.

Step #1.
When you first buy the collar, wash it thoroughly, and wear it around your arm or ankle for about a week. This helps to soften the collar up so it will be more comfortable, and replaces the "alien" smells of the store with the more familiar smells of you and your home.

Step #2.
Having a bag of treats or a toy ready, put the collar on your cat or pet fox. Leave it on for about five minutes, and have an intense "love the pet" session. Treats, toys, ear-rubs, belly-rubs, whatever your pet likes best. Then take the collar off and ignore them for the next half an hour. Refuse to give them attention of any kind.

Step #3.
Put the collar back on, this time for about ten minutes, and once again shower them with love and praise and treats. Once you take it off, again break off all praise, treats, affection, etc.

Step #4.
Rinse repeat. Each time, increase the amount of time that you leave the collar on. If you feed your pet meals instead of free-range, put the collar on and have them wear it while they eat their dinner. The whole goal behind all of this is to make them associate the collar with good things.

After a day or two of this, even the most stubborn of cats will probably be wearing the collar with no problem! Foxes can take a bit longer to acclimate to it, but with patience and persistence will also learn to wear it no problem.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Animals and Children.

Recently on one of the exotic pet forums, there was a discussion about how to teach foxes to tolerate children, and Gizmo and I were mentioned in it a few times. One of the members on the forum, who shall remain nameless in this post, said that he lets his niece carry his baby fennec around like a doll and dress it up, on the theory that if she's subjected to it as a pup, she will put up with it as an adult. I just want to go on the record as saying I don't approve of that method of teaching any exotic pet tolerance of children; it's too easy for things to go wrong, and a bite won't end well for anyone involved.

I figured that it'd be best to make it clear what I did to make Gizmo like kids, and what my thoughts are on the matter.

I have rules for Gizmo around people (one of these rules is he is ONLY allowed to roughhouse with me and my mom), and yes, Gizmo has been socialized to children and is good with them. However, Gizmo is never pinched, pulled on, dragged around, or otherwise manhandled by children. I simply won't allow such treatment. Gizmo is also never left unsupervised around children for both his sake and theirs.

After teaching Gizmo how to take treats nicely, and he was doing it reliably, I had children who I could trust to behave and knew VERY well (my little cousins) feed him treats, talk to him softly, pet him, etc. He was exposed to kind, quiet, gentle children at a young age, and learned to associate kids with affection and good things.

Gizmo has never had a negative experience with any child.

Back before the whole mess with the county, children in the neighborhood were allowed to pet him and rub his belly, but only after I made it very clear to them what is acceptable behavior on their part and what is not. And the contact was entirely on Gizmo's terms. I've never seen him not eager to greet a child (as all of his experiences with them have been positive), but if Gizmo ever seemed wary or unsure of ANYONE, the contact ended there, and he was never made to endure being touched by someone he didn't want touching him.

Now, at home when I'm playing with him, sometimes I do stuff that annoys him. I tug on his ears, roll him off his feet, hold him down, and am irritating in general. I don't do this every play session, but I make sure to really annoy him during play at least once a week. This is to see how he handles someone being "unfair", and to offer a quick correction if he reacts badly.

Overall, he's very tolerant of me being "bad"; his first response is to get whiny, his next response is generally to go under his play cube and refuse to come out. I reward these behaviors, as I think that avoidance is the best response he could possibly have towards rough treatment. However, under no circumstances would I allow anyone to treat him roughly.

When it comes to animals and children, it's far more important to teach a kid how to treat animals properly, not to teach an animal to put up with harassment and abuse. Animals don't think "human", so you have to teach a child to understand how the animal thinks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pet fox Stories: You Dance Like I Smell

Gizmo won't bark at me. He just won't. He seems to think it's, I dunno, rude or something. However, we have discovered that when my brother woofs at him, Gizmo would woof right back.

Well, tonight we were working more on training him to bark on command. However, when my brother barked at him, Gizmo just.. stared blankly at him. So then he stood right outside the cage, and started to do this little shimmy-in-place dance step.

Gizmo watched him dance for a little bit, then made a grumbling noise, ran over to stand right across the bars from him, looked him right in the eye, then squatted and peed right there in front of him. Really, really musky smelling pee too, not just his normal stuff. It made my eyes water.

That "said", he turned and walked back into his play cube to sulk.

My little brother laughed, and said that "I think Gizmo just said 'you dance like I smell'."

We didn't make any progress with bark-on-command, but at least we both got a laugh out of it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sounds Of The Fox

Two new clips, one of Gizmo barking, the other of him warbling (and then wailing when warbling wasn't getting me to go in the room)

Monday, July 12, 2010


Today, I was making Gizmo's food. Now, generally while making it, I take brief breaks to go in, reach through the bars on his play-pen, and rub his ears and let him smell my hands and stuff. This serves two purposes. First off, it reinforces the idea that just because my hands smell like food, doesn't mean I actually have food in them. Secondly, it helps him make the connection as to exactly where his food comes from.

Well, today I went over for one of these mid-cooking visits, and Gizmo was waiting for me, with his nose stuck through the grid and giving air-kisses. I went to hold my hand out for him to lick, but he pulled back, still giving kisses to nothing. I reached in a little further, only to have him back away a few more steps. He then tilted his head and waggled his tail, doing his "Aren't I the cutest thing ever?" look, and then went back to giving air-kisses.

I couldn't resist, I went into the play-pen and sat down, and he immediately pounced into my lap and started giving me kisses all over and just slobbering on me in general. I just wasn't going to get my kisses until I went inside with him; none of this petting him through the grid nonsense.

Some days you train the fox, some days the fox trains you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New Gizmo Video!

I've gotten a lot of requests to try and get a recording of some of the noises Gizmo makes. A lot of the time, if I'm outside the play pen and he's in it and wants to play, he'll start trilling and barking at me.

We tried to get him to do that on camera, but didn't have much luck. Still, the end video was cute, so I uploaded it anyway. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Disappearing Scrambled Egg

This morning, as a bit of a treat, my mom dropped a piece of scrambled egg into Gizmo's bowl. He struck his nose in like he was just sniffing, then whined and looked at her. He then looked under the bowl, around the bowl, up at her hand, etc.

The body language was perfectly readable. "Hey, wait! I thought you put something in here! I didn't get any! Mom, where is it?"

The egg somehow magically vanished while he was "just sniffing". I was pretty impressed at his sleight-of-muzzle, too. You would have never guessed that he'd chewed something and swallowed it--his jaw never moved.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New Source Of Pics...

Since I can't get Blogger to upload pics for me anymore, I've started an album for Gizmo on Flickr. Anyone interested in checking out more nice pics of him, just follow this link:

I've got a lot of cute baby pictures of him up!