The fennec is the smallest of the Canidae, weighing up to only 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg). The fox is 7.9 inches (20 cm) tall at the shoulder, with a body length of up to 15.7 inches (40 cm). The tail is an additional 9.8 inches (25 cm) or so, and the ears can be 5.9 inches (15 cm) long. The animals coats are often a sandy color to blend in with their desert surroundings.
Its characteristic ears, which are the largest in the canid family, serve to help dissipate heat and to hear the movement of prey at night. The coat can repel sunlight during the day and conserve heat at night. The soles of the feet are protected from the hot sand by thick fur.
The fennec is nocturnal. It is also an omnivore. During the night, it will hunt for rodents, insects (such as locusts), lizards, birds, and bird eggs. It also eats a small lizard known as a sandfish. The fennec gets most of its water from food, but will sometimes eat berries and leaves as an additional source of water. They can last long periods of time without water, but will drink water when available.
Fennecs live in large dens (extending up to 32.8 ft or 10 meters), often with several foxes.
In the spring, after about 52 days of gestation, a female fennec will give birth to a litter of 2-5 young. Breeding season is normally January through March. The young will rely on their mother's milk for about a month. When the litter of young are born, the female won't allow the male to come into the den until the offspring become older.
The fennec is rare and is not often seen. It is often hunted by humans, though the fox does not cause any direct harm to human interests. Like other foxes, the fennec is prized for its fur by the indigenous people of the Sahara and Sinai.
There is some debate among scientists as to whether or not fennecs belong to the "fox" genus. Uncharacteristic behavior, such as packs called 'harems' (while all other foxes are solitary), as well as genetic differences (other foxes have between 35 and 39 chromosome pairs, while fennecs have 32) have left researchers with two conflicting classifications: Vulpes zerda implying that fennecs are foxes, and Fennecus zerda, implying that fennecs belong to their own genus.
It has been suggested that the chihuahua was originally a domesticated fennec, not simply a breed of dog imported from Asia by immigrating humans. However, chihuahuas are a breed of dog (Canis familiaris), which are more closely related to wolves than foxes. The difference in chromosome numbers (39 in dogs vs. 32 in the fennec) makes it impossible for the two species to breed and produce hybrids.
The fennec is classified under CITES as an Appendix II species (here): "species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival (CITES website)." In the United States there is a relatively established community of fennec owners and breeders.
The fennec is considered the only species of fox which can properly be kept as a pet. Although they cannot be considered completely domesticated, they can be kept in a domestic setting similar to dogs or cats, though several factors make it important to ensure that they do not escape. Their speed and agility (they can jump four times their own body length) combined with their natural chase instinct creates the risk of a fennec slipping its harness or collar. Further, since they are adept diggers (they can dig up to twenty feet a night in their natural environment), outdoor pens and fences must be extended many feet below ground. Escaped fennec foxes are extremely difficult to recapture.
Pet fennecs, being the most social among foxes, are usually very friendly towards strangers and other household pets. However, they are extremely active, and need outlets for their energy; they may exhaust other household pets with their playfulness.
The vast majority of their diet in the wild consists of meat and protein sources like insects. Any diet in a domestic setting should reflect this. Food sources commonly used include (but are not limited to) high quality meat-rich dog food, wild canine food brands, cat food, raw meats, insects, mealworms, custom dietary mixtures, or any combination thereof.
The legality of owning a fennec, as with many exotic pets, varies with jurisdiction, so check with local animal control authorities before considering adoption or purchase. Also, because it is an exotic, not all veterinarians will treat fennecs, so make sure to find one who will provide vaccinations and any necessary medical care. Furthermore, consider that fennecs are not often able to be housebroken, although a few pet owners have reported being able to litter-train their fennec foxes.
The issue of owning exotic pets is controversial. Requirements of behavior, diet, environment, socialization, and the demands of the time and attention needed to keep an exotic are often very high. Such factors may not be conducive to the lifestyle of an average person, be more than they are personally willing to invest, or even require special expertise. All these factors, along with the real or perceived danger in handling non- or semi-domesticated animals, are often strongly cited as reasons for never considering the purchase or adoption of an exotic pet. Whatever the decision, such factors must be considered in responsible ownership and care of any pet.
Wild instincts make fennecs both more enjoyable, and more tedious, than domesticated pets. As with all wild pets, fennecs have been reported to have more personality, and are substantially smarter than dogs or cats. However, wild instinct, such as hiding caches of food in case of famine, as well as attempting to burrow into furniture to build a nest, etc, makes them a handful to care for.
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