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Wild animals in ragged condition

Michelle Ustipak1 / 2
A red fox with mange. (Photo: Wildwoods)2 / 2

Have you ever seen a wild animal with missing fur and crusty skin? Did you wonder what caused it to be in this ragged condition? The answer is mange. We field many questions about mange at Wildwoods.

Mange is the general name for a skin disease in mammals caused by parasitic Demodex or Sarcoptes scabiei mites. Sarcoptes scabiei mites are more commonly seen in wildlife species. Sarcoptic scabiei is host-specific, which means if the mite transfers onto a different species than the one it originated, it cannot complete its life cycle. A mite from a squirrel will not be able to fully propagate on the body of a fox. This also means if a mite from an animal is transferred onto a human, that person may feel itchy for a few days, but the mites will eventually die and the itchiness will resolve.

Mange causes severe itching, hair loss and the formation of scabs and lesions. The mites burrow tunnels into the skin where the female lays her eggs. The eggs will hatch and through multiple molting's turn into adult mites. This process takes about two to three weeks. The burrowing from the mites damages the skin, which causes excessive irritation to the animal. It will scratch the affected areas, creating further damage as the wounds are repeatedly reopened. The skin will become thick and crusty as it constantly tries to heal.

As the disease progresses, the mites continue to multiply and the animal becomes increasingly lethargic. Their bodies and immune systems become compromised, which makes it easier for a secondary infection to set in.

Red foxes are particularly susceptible. Every year Wildwoods receives phone calls about beloved neighborhood foxes that have missing fur and seem weak and tired. Often times the foxes will appear to have lost their fear of humans. The fox is so miserable it no longer has the energy to react as it normally would. With the hair loss, the ability to regulate body temperature is also compromised. As a result, the foxes will be out in the open attempting to absorb heat from the sun or will curl up against a wall to find shelter from the wind and other elements.

In the more advanced stages of mange, the eyes can become almost crusted shut due to the amount of irritation caused by the mites and often there will be a secondary infection. With compromised vision the fox is unable to hunt well, if at all. When Sarcoptic mange is left untreated it only takes two to three months for a fox to become so debilitated that the secondary effects of the mite infestation will cause death.

Mange can be treated depending on the severity of the case. We usually need to start off by providing subcutaneous fluids. Maintaining hydration is critical in emaciated and ailing animals. We manage pain with medication, start a course of antibiotics and begin anti-parasitic treatment. We provide them with a healthy diet to get their weight back up. The enclosure has to be disinfected regularly to ensure there are no residual mites in the environment that could reinfect the animal. It takes anywhere from four to eight weeks to recover from mange and for the animal to grow back an adequate amount of fur before they are ready for release.

Please call Wildwoods at (218) 491-3604 if you suspect a fox in your neighborhood has mange. You can also help by not feeding the foxes in hopes of limiting the spread of Sarcoptic mange and other diseases. When people feed wildlife, it attracts a higher number of animals to a small area. Animals that would not otherwise interact then come into contact with each other. If just one infected fox comes to feed, it puts the health of all the other foxes who also visit that area at risk.

Michelle Ustipak is the Wildlife Care and Education Coordinator at Wildwoods. She moved to Duluth in 2015 from Minneapolis where she had been gaining experience in wildlife rehabilitation at The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota and The Raptor Center.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.

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