ALEXANDRA SHULMAN: How a brazen fox wrecked my holiday… and my skin

ALEXANDRA SHULMAN’S NOTEBOOK: How a brazen fox I found sleeping on my sofa wrecked my holiday… and my skin

I should have been basking in the soft September sun of the Adriatic last week but I wasn’t. Instead I was tearing my skin off at home in West London because of a close encounter with a fox.

It was a sunny afternoon so the garden doors were wide open, and when I saw the upturned composting caddy (demanded by our council), I assumed it was a local cat and thought little of it.

Coronavirus has turned the long-established feline territorial balance of power on its head and over the past months new cats have invaded our garden, previously lorded over by our cat Coco and her next-door neighbour Pumpkin. Coco is far too fastidious to rummage round anyone’s leftovers.

An hour later, I opened the door of the sitting room intending, somewhat guiltily in the middle of the afternoon, to sneak in a quick fix of Fauda, the Israeli drama that’s my current TV go-to, and discovered, curled up on the sofa where I usually sit, a bony fox.

I should have been basking in the soft September sun of the Adriatic last week but I wasn’t. Instead I was tearing my skin off at home in West London because of a close encounter with a fox, writes Alexandra Shulman (pictured)

As cosy as you like, as if it too were settling down for a Netflix box set.

Despite my shriek, it showed no inclination to move and was only shooed out with some difficulty by David, my boyfriend, dragged away from his computer to help deal with the situation.

Even after it finally vacated the sofa, it didn’t want to leave and wandered around the room on spindly legs while David tussled with window locks to open up a space large enough for it to slip out.

And here’s the dumb thing. Instead of getting out the vacuum cleaner and disinfectant and shoving the sofa covers in the washing machine, I sat down exactly where the fox had been, ignoring the few tufts of its hair, to watch my programme. 

When the itching began on my bottom all of four minutes later, I put it down to my catastrophising nature.

I opened the door of the sitting room intending, somewhat guiltily in the middle of the afternoon, to sneak in a quick fix of Fauda, the Israeli drama that’s my current TV go-to, and discovered, curled up on the sofa where I usually sit, a bony fox. (File image)

I sat down exactly where the fox had been, ignoring the few tufts of its hair, to watch my programme. When the itching began on my bottom all of four minutes later, I put it down to my catastrophising nature.  By the time I got to see my GP and said I was planning to go to Croatia (file image) the next day, we agreed it was probably best to postpone it for 48 hours

What nonsense, I thought. Of course you can’t be catching something this quickly from a bug or flea or heavens knows what on the sofa. You’re wearing thick cotton trousers. Do stop imagining problems.

The itching grew more persistent, but not unbearable, and after two episodes of Fauda, watching the Palestinians and Israelis blow each other up, I gave the sofa a quick clean and left the room. I could see nothing on my skin but it certainly didn’t feel right.

By the next morning I was convinced I had an allergic reaction to the fox hair. The usual arsenal of anti-histamines I keep to deal with insect bites were not doing anything. I started to Google to find where I might get a cortisone shot that in my self-diagnosis I felt might help.

But it was Saturday. Everywhere, including GP surgeries, was closed. Desperate for advice, I headed to our local A&E, which I discovered had been shut since April, so rushed to the next nearest at St Mary’s in Paddington, which was gratifyingly empty. 

Since most people are avoiding inessential hospital visits, I was treated almost instantly and sent home with steroid tablets. The nurse didn’t seem particularly interested in the story about the fox.

Over the next two days, the rash darkened into a deep purple and started to spread. Small hives began popping up on my torso, arms, back and legs and the original seat (literally) of the problem, but looked like nothing I had ever seen before. Maybe the bubonic plague.

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By the time I got to see my GP two days later (loyally, as my doctor of 40 years, he squeezed me into a crammed diary), I was deeply unhappy. I hadn’t slept for four nights – I was tearing my skin off. 

Maybe I was imagining this but it felt as if my stomach was swelling up, and my face had gone puffy.

I told the GP I was planning to go to Croatia the next day and we agreed it was probably best to postpone it for 48 hours. 

He thought it might be animal urine that had caused the problem and sent me off with more pills – and the observation that my infected skin should be featured in a text book.

The next day, as things worsened, he was clearly even more concerned and fixed me up with a dermatologist for a second opinion. 

Walking into the specialist’s office was like I imagine it would feel seeing land after a shipwreck. A port in the storm. Safety. Somebody who would know what was going on. He peered for some time and said the rash was not one he’d ever seen before and prescribed antibiotics.

On the way home, I talked to my ex-husband about my affliction and he said it sounded like scabies and did I have anything on my fingers? I snapped that my fingers were one of the few parts of my body unaffected and that nobody had mentioned scabies.

A week later and the second visit to the dermatologist proved my ex right. Finally I know I have been inhabited by sarcoptes scabiei canus – parasitic itch mites that burrow into the skin and cause scabies. 

I even have some of some pictures of the blighters. Nasty, fat, leggy little things. Fox scabies, for heaven’s sake!

Not usually transferred to humans and fortunately less contagious than the human version.

There have been foxes running around our street for years. Urban foxes are a plague in the city, particularly if, like us, you live near railway lines.

They howl like tortured babies in the dark of the night and leave torn-up rubbish bags strewn across the pavement. They stroll around nonchalantly, unperturbed by humans or cars.

Earlier in the summer we saw one snoozing happily in the ivy on the garden wall. Until now I had thought them unpleasant, although relatively harmless. But I know people who think they are part of a precious eco-system – and even feed them from time to time, like pets. These people are clearly insane.

And if you Google fox scabies, the first things to come up are websites urging us to care for foxes with mange (another name for it) as if they were poorly toddlers.

I talked to my ex-husband about my affliction and he said it sounded like scabies and did I have anything on my fingers? I snapped that my fingers were one of the few parts of my body unaffected and that nobody had mentioned scabies (file image). A week later and the second visit to the dermatologist proved my ex right

A neighbour who found one collapsed on a pile of rubbish bags outside the house called the RSPCA to ask for advice about what to do.

Their officers arrived immediately, cradled the sick fox in their arms to remove it and said she should cherish them as they kept the rats at bay.

I will be doing no such thing. Now, nearly two weeks on, my skin is still covered in prickly hives and I’m still counting the cost of my vulpine encounter. I have slept drenched in lice cream. 

I am now hugely familiar with 3am talk radio hosts. Everything I have worn or touched has had to be washed or dry-cleaned and the house has been steam-cleaned. The holiday cancelled.

I dread a fox coming near me again. There are so many in this neighbourhood that fox exterminators aren’t really an answer, and as for taking matters into my own hands, the idea of a poisoned fox among the dahlias is too horrible.

The other day somebody told us that male urine is a fox deterrent and that David should regularly pee in the garden to keep them at bay.

It might be worth giving a go. Frankly, anything is.

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