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Do Foxes Smell? (Scent Marking & Detection)

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Foxes can smell due to scent marking. Foxes have scent glands and sacs that have a specific odor, that humans find unpleasant. They use this to mark their territory.

Foxes are territorial animals, so they use a mix of urine and odor from their scent glands to mark their territory. 

This is used to keep intruders away.

The article will go into detail about what fox scent glands are, the importance of their scent glands, and why they mark their territories this way.

Do Foxes Smell?

Yes, foxes have a distinct, musky odor that can be unpleasant for those who encounter them. Foxes smell because they have scent glands all over their body. 

These scent glands are primarily located on their feet, their tails, and around their anus, combined with a pair of anal sacs.

The scent from the glands is used for marking their territory, identification, and several other purposes.

Related: What is a fox?

Red fox walking on foliage in autumn nature in detail.

Why Do Foxes Smell?

Foxes smell primarily for the reason of identification. It is said that every fox has a unique smell that other foxes can use for identification. 

There are scent glands all over their bodies that secrete chemicals and produce fluids that are very volatile. 

This makes the fluid dry and evaporate quickly, and is then in the air and stays in their fur. The nature of the chemical make-up of the secreted fluids adds up to the smell of the foxes. 

Do Pet Foxes Smell Bad?

Just like in the wild, foxes that are kept as pets or are tamed still smell. They don’t lose their ability to produce fluids from their scent glands. 

Foxes cannot be de-scented, meaning that they will still smell even if their scent glands are removed from their body.

fox active at night

Fox Scent Glands

The fox has several scent-producing glands on the body. They have glands located around the anus, near the base of the tail, around the mouth, and in between the digits of their feet. 

These glands secrete fluids that most animals find unpleasant. These fluids are also what causes humans to find foxes smelly

The gland that is located at the base of the tail is called the violet gland. 

This is a combination of sweat and sebaceous glands. Scientists say fluids secreted here are floral. [1]

However, this doesn’t mean that it is a pleasant smell. 

side-view-of-a-silvers-fox-running-away

The glands secret terpenes which are aromatic, volatile compounds. These are similar to those that are produced by violets but in far greater quantity. This leads to the scent being more concentrated and therefore much more unpleasant. 

Scent glands around the anus are composed of large sebaceous glands and tubular sweat glands. [2]

These scent glands also produce a liquid that has a pungent smell and is believed to contain material that helps in establishing the fox’s dominance and identity. 

These gland sacs naturally contain microbes that contribute to the development of the fox’s specific odor. 

Foxes also have scent glands all over their body that can add to the fox’s smell.

Fox Scent Marking

Foxes primarily use scent marking from scent glands to spread their scent. Foxes also use urine and feces in conjunction with scent glands.

A fox is a territorial animal and it uses scent marking to make its presence known in a specific geographical area or mark the boundaries of its territory. 

Scent marking is the use of specific smells to deposit an animal’s odor in strategic areas to communicate a signal to another animal. 

Animals that make use of scent marking use different ways to accomplish it.

fox on a tree

Communicating Through Scent

Foxes use urine and feces to communicate to other animals that they own particular territory. This helps other foxes avoid unnecessary confrontations that may lead to injury. 

Foxes use the scent to gauge whether a fox is dominant or if it is a solitary fox. 

Some foxes use scent to identify the territories frequently visited by females that are of breeding age. 

The scent-marking behavior of foxes is more pronounced when they are foraging or looking for food. When they’re just roaming, they’re more focused on other scents in the area. 

Foxes also make use of their scat fecal matter to mark their territories. 

They often drop their feces on hard, elevated, and conspicuous surfaces like fallen logs, tree stumps, and rocks. Foxes also pee on them to reinforce or add to the scent marking of the scat.

Research also shows that scent-marking can make scavenging more efficient [1]

Besides marking their territory, foxes can use scent for identification. They can smell the scent of family members, or determine if a scent is left by predators.

Related: How foxes communicate through body language

Two red fox touching with nose on meadow in summer

What Does Fox Scent Smell Like?

In a nutshell, a fox’s scent can be described as musky. However, this “muskiness” can be both mild or very pungent, depending on the situation.

The main culprit of this musky odor is the violet gland that is located near the base of the tail. 

This gland produces the following chemicals:

  • β-cyclocitral
  • β-homocitral
  • β-ionone
  • Cyclic β-ionone
  • β-ionone-5,6-epoxide
  • α-ionene
  • 2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexanone (IUPAC 2,2,6-) 
  • 2,6,6-trimethyl-2-cyclohexen-1-one
  • 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one (sulcatone)
  • geranyl acetone

These are types of floral, volatile compounds that are very similar to the smell of violets. [3] [4]

This odor is far from appealing though.

Foxes secrete fluids a more potent combination, which is more concentrated, than those that are found in flowers. This results in a pungent, musky smell.

Foxes also like to rub their bodies against areas that have been marked or possess a scent that is unfamiliar to them. 

The rubbing motion along the snout area and the body stimulates their scent glands to produce the secretions. This is then transferred to their coats. 

As foxes don’t like water, the scents of urine, pungent secretions, scat, and other materials that the fur has come in contact with will hang around for long periods of time. This again results in an even stronger smell.

fox solo

How Do Foxes Spread Their Scent?

There are many ways that foxes spread their scent. They squirt their secretions from their anal sacs onto surfaces. They also rub their snouts onto objects. 

Foxes can also paw or scrape the ground when marking their scents using their footpads that have scent glands. 

If they come across a particular type of smell that they like, they also do as domestic dogs. They rub their backsides on the ground and infuse their coats with the smell. 

In some cases, foxes combine their scent marking with defecation and urine.

fox laying on the grass

Foxes vs. Skunks: Who Smells the Worst?

The skunk generally smells worse than the fox due to the use case. 

Skunks use their scent glands to spray out a secretion to protect themselves in dangerous situations. 

Foxes use their scent glands for markings and show dominance but aren’t used for any form of protection. 

That being said, foxes can increase this smell by combining the scent of their scent glands with urine, anal sac secretions, and feces. 

This can be very potent and even cause building evacuations. 

Happy fox

How Do You Get Rid of Fox Smell?

If you, or your pet, has come in contact with any scent markings from foxes, there are ways to remove them.

While it may be difficult, here’s what you should do:

  1. Washing the affected area will minimize the smell. Use plenty of soap, shampoo, or similar products.
  2. Using natural deodorizers like baking soda or citrus-based acids can also help get rid of, or mask, the horrible smell. 
  3. Commercially available fox shampoos can also be used to get rid of the smell, along with other detergents. 
  4. Lastly, some odor removers contain enzymes to neutralize the fox smell. 

Do Foxes Have a Good Sense of Smell?

Foxes have an excellent sense of smell. A fox can identify other individual foxes based on their scent markings. 

Not only can they identify foxes they know, but they can also even smell it a scent marking has been left by a more dominant fox.

Foxes can also smell scents from dogs, and tend to avoid these areas. [5]

Using this information, they can either choose to proceed into a territory or to stay out.

Red fox sniffing in leaves inside forest in autumn nature

How Far Can Foxes Smell

While their olfactory senses are very sensitive to subtle differences in scent markings, they are limited. 

Studies show how a fox’s sense of smell is limited in terms of how far it can smell. The foxes were able to find meat buried under 4 inches of dirt only when they were within a certain range of about 2 feet from the stash. 

Conclusion

Foxes are very smelly animals, which comes from their natural behavior of scent marking. Foxes have scent glands near their tail, feet, along their jaw, and near the anus.

Foxes can and will use their scent as a means of marking their territories or making themselves known. 

The violet gland near their tail is the main culprit of their musky, foxy smell. 

Apart from scent glands, foxes also use their urine and fecal matter to add to their smell when they are scent marking.

FAQs

Do Fennec Foxes Smell?

Fennec foxes smell but considerably less so than their cousins in the Vulpes family of canids. They are mainly found in desserts so they don’t have a lot of areas for scent marking. Hence, they’ve developed scent glands that have smaller capacities. 

Their scent glands are also smaller because they have evolved in areas that have limited sources of water. Conservation of bodily fluids is more important to fennec foxes.

Do Foxes Spray Urine?

No, foxes do not spray urine, but they still use it for scent marking. They usually pee like dogs where they raise a hind leg towards the target surface (like male dogs) or squat (like female dogs).

Is Fox Urine Dangerous?

There have been reports and studies where fox urine can cause harm to pets and humans. Their urine contains bacteria that can cause leptospirosis. It can also contaminate water sources like food bowls that have been left on the outside.

Do Foxes Smell Like Skunks?

Foxes do not smell like skunks, but they smell equally bad for humans. Unlike skunks that use only their stink glands to protect themselves from threats, foxes secrete fluids from their scent glands on a regular basis for scent marking.

About Dennis Stapleton

Dennis Stapleton has a passion for animals, especially dogs, and their relatives. He’s intrigued by their social structure and loves to write and teach about the world's most popular pet animal.

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