Healer do no harm
The following applies to England and for the most part also to Wales and Scotland.
Rescue of the casualty
A casualty in the wild may be in a public place or may be on private property. If it is on private land then the land owner’s permission must be sought to avoid trespassing.
Normally, a free-living wild animal does not belong to anyone until it is ‘reduced into possession’, i.e. someone takes it into captivity. It then belongs to the person who takes it and then becomes subject to the Protection of Animals Act 1911 (see later).
Emergency Care of the Casualty and Veterinary Law
Any person can give emergency first aid to an animal for the purpose of saving life and to relieve suffering. The owner of the animal may give minor medical treatment. Otherwise, veterinary surgery must be carried out by a registered veterinary surgeon (MRCVS), or, in some respects, by a registered veterinary nurse (VN)
Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (VSA) (and supplementary legislation)
1. Only veterinary surgeons registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS) have the right to practise veterinary surgery (i.e. diagnosis, treatment and surgery and advice based thereon) in respect to mammals, birds and reptiles.
1. Anyone may give first aid in an emergency to save life or alleviate suffering. This term has not been legally defined but most use it to mean the provision of care until a veterinary surgeon can attend the animal.
Welfare in Captivity
Under the Protection of Animals Act 1911 the following apply:
1. It is an offence to treat any domestic or captive species of animal cruelly or to cause it unnecessary suffering. This could mean failure to provide necessary food and water and veterinary attention.
1. Killing an animal is not an offence under this act provided it is carried out humanely
1. These provisions do not apply to free-living wildlife but once any vertebrate is brought into captivity it becomes subject to these Acts.
For free living mammals the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 applies. This states that it is an offence to mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, burn, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering. Under this Act it is not an offence to kill animal on humane grounds to end suffering so as long as it is carried out swiftly and humanely.
BSAVA Manual of Wildlife Emergencies. Ed. Mullineaux, Best and Cooper. Chapter 5 The law affecting British wildlife casualties. M.E. Cooper. 2003 (42-48)
Healer Do No Harm
Under the veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 no person is allowed to make a diagnosis or practice as a veterinary surgeon unless included on the veterinary surgeons register. However if an emergency arises and there is no vet available immediately it is permitted for a lay person (you or I) to perform first aid in order to preserve the life of a patient until expert veterinary help can be sought.
Aim: Preserve life, reduce suffering, prevent deterioration
Rules: Airway (clear mouth/nose/throat of mucus, blood, blockages and foreign matter) if not detrimental to remove these.
Breathing: Is it? Chest movement? Type of breathing? (If in doubt check by holding small mirror in front of the nose/mouth and see if it mists up).
Never muzzle if there are injuries to the nose or mouth or difficulty in breathing; If you have to muzzle only use a strong plastic mesh type one so that the fox can vomit without choking.
Circulation: If possible check colour of gums ( they should be a healthy lightish ham pink colour). Also, if possible check the capillary refill time of mucous membranes. The easiest place is the gums, press down with a finger on a patch of the gums to 'bleach it white' then wait and see it go back to pink in a healthy animal. This should almost be instant (ie. 2 seconds). If it is any longer than this it could indicate ' clinical shock'.
Colour of mucous membranes to be aware of:
Pale whitish pink - shock
Bluish purple - Starved of oxygen / respiratory failure
Yellow (gums and Whites of eyes) - Jaundice / liver damage
Brick red - Severe infection leading to blood poisoning
On all occasions when one is called out to a collapsed , wounded or injured fox we should expect some degree of shock. Indications that an animal is in shock include;
a) Pale mucous membranes. b) Shivering. c) Skin cold. d) Rapid breathing or shallow breathing. e) Rapid or weak pulse. f) Pupils dilated. g) Apathy & weakness.
The first thing to do is attend to any problems with breathing and or haemorrhage. The fox must be kept still and where possible in a horizontal position., this ensures effective circulation. At all times keep the fox warm and dry. Cover with light blankets or jacket to conserve body heat A sheet of bubble wrap or a space blanket are certainly worth keeping in your first aid box. A hot water bottle can be used but be careful not to exceed normal body temperature.
In short the rules of shock are as follows;
• Place fox on its side with head extended.
• Elevate the hindquarters using pillows or towels.
• Stop any obvious bleeding by applying pressure with an absorbent pad.
• Prevent loss of body heat by wrapping the fox in a warm blanket.
• Transport the fox to the nearest vet immediately. If the fox is in deep shock; keep it cradled with limbs elevated above the heart.
R.T.A. / Collapse
Always use extreme care when dealing with road traffic accident victims or those collapsed. External signs of injury will be obvious, but there could be serious internal trauma - how this is dealt with in a first aid instance could make or break the final outcome.
Spinal injury: May be present without nervous signs. Don't prod or handle/move too much as any spinal fracture could move or sever the spinal cord. In a case of RTA/spinal injury/paralysis roll, pull or drag the injured animal onto a makeshift stretcher. When the fox is restrained on the stretcher you could initially check for reflexes by pinching between the toes or the end of its tail.
• Slip one hand under the fox's chest and the other under its rump.
• Gently pull it on to the stretcher.
Place ropes or strips of cloth under the stretcher before sliding the fox on, then tie the fox to the board. Do not tie its neck down. If a board is not available slide the fox on to a blanket or large towel. Wrap the blanket round the fox and use this to transport it. If injuries are very serious, do not waste time looking for items to support. Get to vets as quickly as possible but avoid sudden movements that may cause further injuries. When lifting and transporting an injured fox, avoid bending or twisting its body.
Shock: By checking the fox's heart, breathing rates and gum colour, you are checking whether the fox is in shock. Shock can be caused by excessive bleeding, heart failure, vomiting and/or diarrhoea, electrocution, severe trauma, a twisted stomach and many other injuries, illnesses and accidents. Treating shock takes precedence over other injuries, including fractures and broken bones. Untreated shock may lead to loss of consciousness and death.
The signs of early shock are:
Faster than normal breathing
Faster than normal resting heart rate
White or pale pink gums
Restlessness or anxiety
Lethargy or weakness
Slow capillary refill time - more than 2 seconds
Normal or just subnormal rectal temperature
The signs of late shock are:
Shallow, slow breathing, Irregular heartbeat
Very pale or blue gums, Lack of response
Extreme weakness or unconsciousness
Very slow capillary refill - more than 4 seconds
Very cool body temperature
The first rule when dealing with any potentially injured animal is your own safety. If you are on a highway take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of yourself against traffic and to ensure the safety of other road users. In some circumstances this may mean contacting the police before any rescue effort can be attempted. It may also mean obtaining the land owner’s permission to avoid trespassing.
The next aspect of your safety applies to anyone dealing with animals, not just foxes. If you are not used to working with animals it will surprise you how fast a seemingly very ill animal can move away from you to escape, or, towards you to bite and scratch. If you are not confident then it is best to find someone that is.
In terms of handling, foxes need to be thought of in the same way as cats; they may try to bite and can leap in any direction including upwards. They have extremely sharp claws and needle-like teeth.
Catching and handling an injured wild animal needs to be undertaken with a thought out plan and quiet, gentle movements.
Injured foxes may be caught in a net, cubs under a blanket or a large coat. It may be possible to ‘herd’ some into a box. The rule is a dark place. To a fox this means safety and will calm most animals.
Once caught it is important to keep people away, no matter how curious. Quiet, dark and minimal handling are vital to reduce stress and ‘wind up’ which will render the animal so terrified no-one will be able to handle it.
Foxes can be ‘scruffed’ like a cat as long as the other hand is used to support the hindquarters. Foxes must never be picked up by the scruff alone and never held by the tail. Once scruffed it is then possible to place a dog muzzle on the fox if needed or a tape muzzle.
A tape muzzle can be improvised easily from any length of material, about one to two inches wide and a foot long:
1. make a single throw in the length of material (as if you were starting to tie your shoelaces)
1. place this loop around the fox’s muzzle with the turn sitting on top of the bridge of the nose
1. firmly tighten then pass the free ends under the muzzle and cross them over, bringing the ends up to tie behind the ears
1. make sure you have a pair of scissors on hand in case you need to release the muzzle quickly
NEVER use a muzzle:
1. on an animal with breathing problems
1. on an animal with obvious injury to the face
1. on an unconscious fox
1. on a fox when travelling as it may vomit and choke
Potential Risks of Handling Foxes
As with most species of animal, there are diseases that can be caught from foxes (zoonotic diseases). For this reason it is advised than anyone who may be pregnant, on immunosuppressive drug therapy or the elderly, should not handle wild animals.
It is best to wear disposable gloves when handling wild animals. As with your pet dog and cat, thorough hand washing after touching the animal should be sufficient to guard against diseases such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. Cats, dogs and foxes carry Toxocara (can cause blindness and meningitis in children).
Rabies, thankfully, is not yet in this country. It is still wise not to approach any fox showing odd behaviour or overt aggression towards you. You should seek specialist help.
Foxes carry canine Sarcoptic mange. This species of mange cannot reproduce in human skin so you cannot catch the infection, however, in certain people it can cause a painful skin rash. Foxes also carry a fungal infection of the skin called ‘ringworm’. Depending on the species it can cause skin disease in humans.
Fox urine can transmit the disease Leptospirosis which causes liver failure in humans. Never touch fox urine without gloves.
Toxoplasmosis (Please see our other pages)
By far the highest risk is from a bite. In common with cats, fox bites need to be taken seriously and medical attention sought immediately. A number of bacteria are transmitted in fox bites, in particular, Streptococcus species. At the time of the bite allow the wound to bleed a little before scrubbing with antibacterial solution under running water for ten minutes. Then seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Do not let children or your pet dog ‘play’ with a rescued fox or fox cub. Not only will you cause unnecessary stress to the fox you are trying to help, you are also putting the health of your child and dog at risk.
Confident, safe handling and good hygiene should prevent you from being injured and from catching a zoonotic disease.