Living with the Skunk

It is absolutely unmistakable. That awful, penetrating odor that seems to just cling to everything near the source of it. When you drive past a dead one on the highway, seemingly no matter how long it has been there, the car is filled with the smell, and everyone in the car gets the blame. You pray that your curious dog doesn’t discover one in the backyard, and come galloping into the house to share his misery with the whole family. Even worse, you hope one of them does not discover the doggie-door itself, and come into the house to wander around and possibly leave the terrible problem on the carpet or furniture. This, of course, just has to be skunks.

In addition to their odor, skunks are easily recognized by their characteristic color and pattern. There are five species of skunks in the United States, but three species seem to be best known and the most common. These are the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and the eastern and western Spotted Skunks (Spilogale gracilis and S. putorius). One or another or several kinds are present in every state and in Canada. Even people who may have never actually seen a live skunk in the wild are aware of their appearance, for they have long been the subject of cartoons and jokes.

Skunks are generally black with various patterns of white on them. On the Striped Skunk the fur is black with a white stripe that begins as a triangular shape on the top of the head, forks into two stripes that travel down the sides of the back, and usually merge again near the base of the tail. However, individual Striped Skunks are highly variable in coloration. Some may be almost totally black with only a spot or two of white on the head or back of the neck while others can be predominately white. The Spotted Skunks are similar, except that the white fur is broken into spots instead of long patches or streaks. They also are slightly smaller than the Striped Skunk, which is about the size of a domestic cat, with a small head, small ears, short legs, and a long fluffy tail. Skunks are true omnivores, eating a vast assortment of things including insects, small mammals, fish, crustaceans, fruits, grasses, leaves, buds, grains, nuts and carrion. They are opportunistic, and their diet changes depending on the time of year and available resources.

Skunks are nocturnal, sleeping during the day in underground burrows and emerging around dusk to search for food. They prefer to use existing burrows made by other animals of equal size or natural burrows under tree stumps or in buildings. They use their long front claws to build their own den if necessary, and this ability to dig in the soil becomes one of the problems we deal with when we have skunks living around us. An absolute gourmet delight to a skunk is a large, plump, juicy grub, or beetle larva, and in much of the eastern U.S. grubs are common problems in lawns, where they feed on the roots of the turf and cause serious damage. While the skunk is doing us a favor by eating the grubs, it is necessary for it to expose the grubs first, so it may frantically dig up the lawn to get to the food it can smell or hear below.

Skunks are not overly concerned about the presence of people – confident with their form of defense apparently – so they will commonly be found around human dwellings. They will hide under the house if there is a crawlspace, in an attic if they can find an opening and a tree to climb, in garages if access is provided through a doggie door, or under decks or out-buildings in the yard. They are nocturnal animals, active only at night if possible, so they are less likely to be seen than smelled. Strangely, they don’t seem to be particularly fond of their own smell, and they will avoid squirting their defensive fluids into their own dens or in confined spaces. Their dens generally have very little odor to them. If trapping is done to remove a skunk from a property the trap can be covered carefully with a burlap or canvas covering, and this will generally prevent the trapped skunk from releasing its fluids.

Both males and females undergo periods of inactivity from November until March. Females often remain in their winter dens for the entire duration, but males usually emerge during mild temperature periods to feed. Winter dens usually consist of six females and their young. One male sometimes occupies a den with females, but usually lives alone in its own den. Dens can be any sheltered location, including under wood piles, in any burrow in the soil large enough to accommodate it, under buildings or even in water drainage pipes.

Skunks are not entirely a problem, and there actually are benefits to having them around, and there have been uses for their fur and musk. While we dislike the damage they will cause to lawns we do need to recognize the value of their diet on insects. Skunk fur, at one time, was of great importance to the fur industries, but with the decline in that market skunk fur has shrunk to very little usage. Even the musk that we so violently dislike has a human use, for the “clingy” attribute of the musk makes it valuable in the perfume industry as a base for perfumes – once the odor is removed, of course. The skunk’s use for the musk is obvious. It can control the spray of musk, which comes from glands around the anus, and is capable of spraying a stream of it up to 18 feet away! With great accuracy it can shoot the nauseating stream up to 10 feet, and do so several times in succession.

This release of the musk is purely defensive, and used only as a last resort. When they are frightened they first will stamp their front feet as a warning to the attacker, and if the threat remains the squirt of musk will follow. With the right conditions this odor can be smelled up to a mile away. There are a number of effective deodorizers that can be used on surfaces that have been sprayed, along with thorough washing of the surface, that will remove the odor. Recommended for washing are solutions of sudsy ammonia, vinegar, or canned tomatoes. If pets are sprayed the harsh ammonia should not be used, but the tomato juice recommendation does seem to have some good results. The vinegar and water solution could also be used on the fur, carefully avoiding the eyes of the pet.

Another very serious problem associated with skunks is rabies, and in many parts of the U.S. skunks are considered to be THE primary carrier of this disease. Sampling studies in California over a five year period determined that as much as 65% of skunks are infected with the disease, and rabies can be transmitted to people or pets when bitten by the infected skunk. This is a very, very serious disease, and will cause the death of people if it is not treated. To quote from a U. S. Department of Agriculture bulletin on skunks, they also are carriers of leptospirosis, listeriosis, canine distemper, canine hepatitis, Q-fever, tularemia, and trypanosoma. Skunks also are heavily infested with ticks, fleas, and mites, some of which themselves are vectors of diseases humans can catch.

So, as goofy and cute as skunks are made to appear in children’s cartoons and other forms of media, clearly these are not animals we care to co-exist with. If we have a curious dog it becomes even more important to reduce the chance of the dog getting bitten or sprayed by the skunk, and we want to eliminate the opportunities for the skunk to find comfortable dens in or around our homes, where its parasites could find their way into our homes as well.

Some steps you can take to deter skunks from “visiting” your house are:

  • Keep pet food indoors and do not leave food of any kind outside. If there is access to pet food in the garage through a doggie door, the door should be closed at night or the food removed.
  • Cover trash containers and secure the lids so they will not fall off should the container be tipped over.
  • Don’t use plastic trash bags and leave them outside. Exterior garbage cans are better made of metal than plastic, as skunks can chew through plastic containers.
  • Change automatic sprinkler settings regularly.
  • Eliminate garbage, debris, lumber piles, etc., that the skunks could hide in or under.
  • Check fencing and eliminate access points into the yard. Seal the house by ensuring all vent screens are in place and in good condition, and that the access opening is closed securely. Make certain, though, that any repairs are done AFTER the skunks have left this enclosed area.
  • Clear dense vegetation and thin out the lower 18 inches of landscaping shrubbery. Pick fruits and vegetables as soon as they are ripe, and clean up fallen fruits or unwanted vegetables quickly.
  • Remove large piles of unwanted debris or lumber, and store lumber or firewood at least 18 inches above the ground.
  • Exclude entry to areas below decking, porches, or outside sheds using hardware cloth or chicken wire fencing. This wire should go into the soil at least 8 inches deep and 10 inches laterally below the soil, extending away from the structure.
  • Mothball scattering and ammonia-soaked cloths serve as a temporary repellent, but may be useful in encouraging skunks to leave an area like the crawl space. Bright lighting will also chase them from dens.
  • Life-like owl figures (scare crows) are sometimes effective. Ultrasonic repelling devices are of little value. They may be annoying to the skunk initially, but animals will quickly become accustomed to a new sound that does not harm them, and begin to ignore it.
  • Install motion-sensitive spotlights in garden areas, as the sudden bright light alarms the animals.
  • Eliminate turf pest insects such as white grubs, to reduce the food supply available to the skunk on your property.

Trapping skunks is not necessarily the best option, even though getting a skunk into a trap is fairly easy. However, once you have the animal confined in the trap you must do something with it, and this presents some obstacles. Many states PROHIBIT you from relocating the animal, and require that you kill it once you have trapped it. This may not be to your liking. Relocation of wildlife usually requires permission from Fish and Wildlife authorities. In other states skunks are still classified as “fur-bearing” mammals, and with this designation comes some protection of them. This is frequently waived if the animal is causing you problems on your own property, but be careful nonetheless. For this reason it may be a good idea to contract with a licensed animal control specialist, and have this professional do the removal if necessary.

And, finally, if you see a skunk walking around in the daytime, particularly if it’s behavior seems to be erratic, if it is acting unusually tame or unusually aggressive, or just wandering aimlessly – LEAVE IT ALONE – and contact animal control authorities. This behavior is symptomatic of an animal infected with rabies, and you do not want to get near it or allow your pets to get near it. We can greatly enjoy nature and wildlife, but we also must keep in mind the potential hazards we face when living too close to them.