Arctic Fox

One of the most adorable and loveable animals in the animal kingdom is the arctic fox. I was blessed to live with Felix and Angel for many years. They were two bundles of joy and fun. In the winter when they had their full white coat, they looked like huge powder puffs with black raisin eyes. They are truly one of the most beautiful of animals. In the summer they shed the heavy winter coat and have a thin gunmetal blue-gray coat.

Arctic foxes love to play, and Felix and Angel would play for hours with cat toys and anything else that seemed fun. They have a wide range of sounds, and their greeting is something like a loud giggle joined together with a laugh. It is a delightful and endearing sound. They are very affectionate with those with whom they feel comfortable. However, like all wild animals, they can play a bit rougher than most people would like. Felix would lie in my lap for long periods of time, enjoying having me run my fingers through his long coat continuously. He and Angel loved to lick faces much like other canines.

They love to dig, and Felix and Angel had a huge pile of sand in the middle of their habitat that they dug into a deep tunnel complex. In the wild, arctic foxes build dens in deep tunnels that are used for many years.

If I were searching for any negative features of an arctic fox, I suppose it would be the very pungent smell of their urine. It is very strong and long lasting. I kept my arctic foxes primarily in my house for a number of years, and the smell took a long time to get out of the house.

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My only experience with red foxes was when I was growing up in East Texas and spent a lot of time in the pine forests among foxes, squirrels, and raccoons. I spent a good bit of time in the company of foxes that had gotten used to my presence, and I found them to be delightful beings with personalities like the arctic foxes in many ways.

Characteristics of Arctic Foxes

The Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), or white fox, as it is often called, is a member of the canid family and is related to other foxes, wolves, and dogs. It lives in all the lands of the circumpolar Arctic. In Canada, this small mammal is found from the northern tip of Ellesmere Island to the southern tip of James Bay. The wide distribution of this fox in the severe arctic environment is due to its excellent adaptation to cold and to a wide variety of foods.

Appearance and Adaptation

The arctic fox weighs from 2.5 to 9kg and measures between 75 and 115cm in length, making it the smallest wild canid in Canada about the size of a large domestic cat. The tail is long and bushy, making up between 30 and 35% of its total length.

Over the winter, the arctic fox has a heavy white coat, but during May, when early summer temperatures begin to melt the snow, the coat is shed for a thinner, two-tone brown pelage. A few weeks later the back, tail, and legs are dark brown and the remaining under parts are a buff color. A small proportion of this species has a heavy, pale bluish-grey coat in winter, which becomes thinner and darker bluish-grey in summer. The blue coloration (blue fox) occurs in almost all populations, although the proportion tends to be higher in those animals living in marine areas that remain mostly ice-free during winter. In Canada blue foxes seldom make up more than 5% of animals that are trapped, where as in Greenland, for example, the proportion of blue foxes may reach 50%.

The voice of the arctic fox is a sound rarely heard except during the breeding season. Courting foxes communicate with a barking yowl that may be heard over a great distance. Adults also yelp to warn their pups of danger and give a high-pitched undulating whine when disputing territorial claims with neighboring foxes.

Breeding and Denning

In March or April, two months before the end of winter, arctic foxes begin to form mating pairs. Mating follows a long and playful period of courtship involving much active chasing and play fighting. Throughout the females’ 51- to 57-day pregnancy, the pair remains together and finds a den for raising the whelps. Den sites are typically located on the tops or sides of eskers, or on the tops of banks of lakes or rivers where the soil is sandy, dry, and stable. The den sites are usually free from snow earlier than the surrounding landscape because of the good drainage. Dens may be up to 300 years old and may possess as many as 100 entrances. Before the birth of the whelps, or pups, both adults share the responsibility for cleaning out a portion of the den and digging one or more new entrances.

The Whelps

Litters of arctic foxes are born between late May and early June. The mean litter size is about 11 whelps. It is the largest litter recorded for any canid, double the mean value for the red fox and the highest of any wild mammal in the world. Litters of up to 22 whelps have been recorded in the U.S.S.R. At birth, the whelps are blind, helpless, covered with hair, and weigh about 57g.

Compared with other canids, the male fox is probably one of the most attentive and best providers of food during the denning period. Just before the birth of the whelps and while the female is spending her time nursing and caring for the litter, the male hunts for food for her. After 5 to 6 weeks, when the whelps are weaned, the female begins to share the hunting duties with her mate and gradually provides well over half of the food to the growing litter. Although the amount of food provided by the male gradually decreases, he continues to bring food to the den site until the whelps begin to leave the den about 14 – 15 weeks after birth.

The large litter size and rapid growth rate of the whelps keep the adults busy hunting for food. For an average litter of 11 whelps just starting to eat solid food, about 30 lemmings or the equivalent in other food are required per day. The demand increases to over 100 lemmings per day just before the whelps leave the den. The adults and young consume about 3,500 to 4,000 lemmings during the denning period.

Diet and Hunting

The diet of the arctic fox varies greatly from one part of its range to another. In the vast expanses of the continental tundra region, the arctic fox is almost entirely dependent on lemmings throughout the year. Only 5 – 10% of the summer diet is composed of birds, eggs, ground squirrels, and berries. In winter, the fox continues its search for lemmings, which are active under the snow. Other winter food items include the meat caches of Inuit trappers, wolf kills, and food cached by the fox during summer.

In these areas, in order to satisfy the food requirements of their whelps, the adults hunt lemmings all through the sunlit arctic night, from about 4:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 or 11:00 the following morning. Each adult usually conducts 10 – 15 hunts a night and brings back from three to eight lemmings a hunt. When lemmings are abundant the foxes hunt over an area of 2.5 – 5.0km2. However, when food is scarcer, the adults probably range much farther. Lemmings are captured by digging them from their nests located in soft peaty hummocks. Lemmings that are active in open tundra covered with low-lying or sparse vegetation are captured with a quick dash and a pounce; those detected in areas of low bush are pounced on as the fox slowly stalks through the bush.

In other areas, other rodents, such as ground squirrels and voles, are an important component of the diet, and during summer, adult birds, eggs, and flightless young also make up a large part of the diet. Those foxes inhabiting coastal regions also hunt for small marine animals, fish, and carrion along shorelines. During winter, these foxes venture onto the sea ice, where they frequently trail polar bears for the remains of seal kills and seek out seal dens in order to capture the pups. Some foxes live close to major seabird colonies; there they raid nests for eggs and capture hundreds of birds, which they cache for food in winter. Other foxes also search along lakeshores during June, hoping to flush a duck, goose, or shorebird from its nest and eat its eggs. Arctic foxes sometimes attack Sandhill Cranes and geese but are seldom successful against such large prey.

Population Cycles

The number of arctic foxes, especially in populations dependent upon lemmings for the major portion of their diet, fluctuates widely in relation to the abundance of lemmings. Although the fluctuations in lemming numbers, which occur every three to four years in North America, are not as well understood as those in Scandinavian countries, they are no less dramatic.

Population size may vary ten or twenty fold between years, and hundredfold increases are not uncommon at a peak in the lemming cycle. During years when lemmings are plentiful, many foxes survive the long winter, a large proportion of the population breeds the following spring, and the litters are raised successfully. Hence a peak in the arctic fox cycle is recorded the following winter.

A characteristic of the lemming cycle is the “crash,” the sudden decrease in population that maybe caused by poor weather, lack of food, stress, predation, or a combination of these factors. Faced with a rapidly dwindling food supply, the arctic fox may be forced to abandon customary hunting areas and to travel, often hundreds of kilometers, in a nomadic search for food. Often many foxes travel in the same direction, and their movements are termed “migrations.” In Canada little is known of the direction of the migrations or the number of animals that may be involved; however, the intensity and scope of fox migrations in the U.S.S.R. is well known. During a lemming crash, fatigue, intense cold, and especially lack of food take their toll on the population, and many young foxes succumb.

Native trap lines, hunters, and diseases, such as rabies and mange, also contribute to the population reduction. The following spring the remaining foxes are weak, a smaller proportion of the population breeds, and fewer breeding pairs raise all their whelps successfully. When the lemming population is low, the adult foxes often cannot meet the food demands of the growing litter. As a consequence, the adults may abandon the litter, leaving the whelps to starve to death, or the whelps may fight among themselves and kill each other, thereby reducing the food demands of the litter to a level that can be supplied by the adults.


Adult arctic foxes and their young have few enemies other than people. Wolves will eat foxes if they can catch one or find one caught in a trap. Where their ranges overlap, arctic foxes and red foxes Vulpes vulpes compete for den sites and hunting habitat along the sparsely treed southern fringes of the tundra. Golden Eagles may be a threat to young whelps at the den site, and barren ground grizzly bears and wolves are capable of digging whelps or adults from the den.

About Louis Dorfman

He has worked with many species of wild animals for over 60 years, both in protected and unprotected contact. At IEAS he rehabilitates exotic cats that have been abandoned, abused, and/or confiscated and in most cases changes the reactions of the cats to humans from one of fear and hate to an attitude that the humans are there for security and support for the resident cats. Over the years, he has worked with over 150 exotic cats at the sanctuary alone.