Urban foxes – could your pet cat be the next victim?

Following reports of another attack on a baby by an urban fox in London, many people have been worried about the risk not just of foxes attacking children, but also pets. Cats in particular often spend much of their time outside, in the same areas as foxes. Is there a real risk of cats being attacked by foxes and what can owners do about it?

When someone asked me this question, my instinctive answer was that fox attacks on cats are exceptionally rare. Foxes are generally shy creatures that do their best to avoid contact with humans or other animals. I have heard more stories about cats chasing foxes out of gardens than cats being victims.

I have come across only two instances where foxes were seen to prey upon cats. In one case, a young kitten was snatched by a fox, around twenty yards away from her owner, and in another instance, a thin, elderly cat was grabbed. To me, the risk to adult pet cats seemed minimal but I decided to look further, to see if I could find some hard facts about the risk to pets from fox attacks.

Up until now in the veterinary world, it’s been difficult to find out the true incidence of problems like this. The good news is that a new database, VetCompass, has started to accumulate real, up to date information about health issues affecting pets in the UK. VetCompass is a collaborative not-for-profit research project run by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London, in collaboration with the University of Sydney. The project aims to investigate the range and frequency of small animal health problems seen by veterinary surgeons working in general practice in the United Kingdom and to highlight major risk factors for these conditions. This is being done via the routine capture of first opinion clinical data via electronic patient records held with practices’ computerised Practice Management Systems. VetCompass now shares health data on over 400,000 companion animals from over 200 practices across the UK.

A search of VetCompass clinical data identified 79 (5 in 10,000 cats) confirmed and 130 (9 in 10,000 cats) suspected fox fights with cats from 145,808 VetCompass cats since Jan 1st 2010 until last week (14 in 10,000 overall). This compares with 541 per 10,000 for cats presented with cat bite injuries and 196 in 10,000 cats being presented following a road traffic accident. So to put fox attacks into context, other cats (x40 times) and cars (x14 times) appear to present much greater dangers to cats than foxes.

Of course there may be many fox attacks that are not reported to vets and there is no way to account for these. But the same underestimation could be applied to cat fight injuries and road traffic accidents.

It is not easy to completely remove the risk of foxes to pets. Populist, radical measures such as destroying foxes in an area, or trapping them to move them elsewhere, would not work because other foxes would rapidly move in from adjacent areas and take their place.

It makes more sense to take some practical measures to reduce any risk. Avoid leaving out any food source for foxes, and discourage foxes from coming into your garden using barriers such as fences or dense, prickly hedging. Keep your cats indoors at times when foxes are most likely to be around, such as dusk, night time and dawn.

The risk of a fox attack on a pet – or a human – is very low, but if you’re worried about it, a few simple steps will reduce that small risk to “minimal”.

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