Monday, January 22, 2024

Island Fox Gets a Health Check - Part 3

Welcome guest blogger Jessica Sanchez, wildlife veterinarian and FIF Board Member. She's explained how island foxes are captured annually in Part 1 and shown how a fox's body condition is evaluated in Part 2. But an island fox health check includes additional health measures.

We check the foxes for ectoparasites such as ticks, fleas, mites, and lice. We comb their fur to find fleas, and pay special attention to their ears, armpits, and belly area–where lice and ticks are often found. 

Ticks are collected so we can identify the species and test them for viruses or bacteria they might be carrying. Since ticks can feed on multiple hosts in their lifetime, testing the ticks tells us about what diseases the island spotted skunks, deermice, and other island species might be exposed to as well. 



We take a look in the fox's ears using an otoscope, just like the doctor uses to examine your ear canal. On Santa Catalina Island, where ear mites introduced by feral cats have been associated with ear tumors, foxes are treated with a topical medication to kill ear mites and reduce inflammation in the ear canal.

We collect blood from the jugular vein. This is used to test for exposure to disease, genetic analyses, and to look at other health parameters like liver and kidney function.

One of the most important steps is to administer vaccinations. A subset of the population is vaccinated every year for rabies and canine distemper virus. Neither disease is currently found on the Channel Islands, but we vaccinate as a preventative measure after the Santa Catalina Island foxes almost went extinct due to the introduction of canine distemper in 1999–2000. Vaccinations ensure that if there is ever an outbreak of either disease, at least the vaccinated foxes will survive to repopulate the island. (FIF's efforts to provide vaccine for island foxes in 2023)

A subset of foxes also gets radio collared. 


These collars are small, less than 5% of their body weight, and do not interfere with the foxes going about their daily life. Collars serve multiple purposes, allowing us to track the size and location of home ranges, monitor survival, and find dead animals quickly so their carcasses can be sent for necropsy ASAP to identify the cause of death. 

Most of the radio collared foxes are unvaccinated "sentinels," meaning if a disease outbreak occurs, they are not protected and may get sick, but their deaths will be detected via the change in their collar signal so we can recover the bodies for necropsy. Without collared animals, we would not know foxes were dying and would not be able to find the carcasses to get more information about the cause. Monitoring mortalities also gives us information on trends in other causes of death, such as internal parasites or being hit by cars, so we can address those threats as well.

Foxes are released after their workups and immediately run off! - Jessica Sanchez


In Part 4, Jessica details what happens when an island spotted skunk is unexpectedly caught during island fox health checks.