At every stage of their lives, skunks are beset with parasites and both bacterial and viral infections. Many of their infections are transmissible to dogs and cats, and through family pets to humans.
A study of skunks at Ohio State University found that every single skunk autopsied after its natural death in the wild or roadside accident carried at least one kind of parasite. The average number of different parasitic infections per skunk was 4.8, and one skunk in the study carried 11 different kinds of parasites. A different team of scientists at the University of Missouri at Columbia identified 13 different kinds of parasites in skunks in western Arkansas.
A team of zoologists from the Ohio State University, University of Illinois, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois found that in the skunks tested in northeastern Illinois:
- 17% carried a bacterial infection called leptospirosis,
- 55% carried canine distemper virus,
- 60% carried a bacterial infection called toxoplasmosis, and
- 82% carried canine parvovirus, an always-fatal disease for puppies.
In 2009, skunks in Canada suffered a pandemic of influenza caused by the H1N1 virus, as did ferrets, weasels, and minks. Wildlife researchers have identified skunks in Arizona and Georgia have identified skunks that carry infections with Trypanosoma cruzi, the microorganism that causes Chagas disease, a condition also known as American trypanosomiasis or bone-break fever, a major public health problem in Mexico and Central America. Spotted skunks in East Texas have been found to carry four different species of roundworms that are potentially fatal to humans, especially the very young and the very old.
Worst of all, up to 20% of skunks carry rabies. In the United States, there are no recorded cases of humans catching rabies directly from a skunk, but people can catch rabies from dogs who caught rabies from a skunk.
Most people do not catch diseases directly from skunks. A skunk is far more likely to spray than to bite or scratch. People do not get close enough for skunks to transfer mites, ticks, or fleas. The major avenue of transmission of disease from skunks to people is through the scat, the droppings they leave in the lawn.
Roundworm Transmission from Skunks
Skunk turds are often laden with viruses, bacteria, and worms. Most serious of these biological hazards are the roundworms.
Once inside the human digestive tract, a male roundworm can grow to a length of 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) and the female roundworm, because of its egg mass, slightly longer. Roundworm larvae can enter the bloodstream through the small intestine and colonize the liver and the lungs, tiny roundworms crawling up into the throat and riding down the digestive tract to be flushed into new habitats.
In very rare instances, roundworms can invade the eyes and brain, usually entering a dormant, cystic phase, in which the primary damage they cause is chronic allergic reactions. Sometimes people who have been exposed to roundworms develop a propensity for allergies giving them chronic hay fever, asthma, and hives. In a few cases, roundworm infections result in death.
Mature roundworms sometimes emerge from the digestive tracts of live skunks, but it is almost unheard for an adult to acquire an infection as the result of contacting a mature roundworm. More often, skunk droppings dissolve during rainstorms and leave eggs in the ground. The eggs mature, and they are transmitted to children who eat dirt, gardeners who do not wear gloves and do not washing hands after doing garden work, and from pets to people after pets roll in contaminated dirt. Roundworm eggs may persist in the ground for several months after they are deposited.
Leptospirosis Transmission from Skunks
Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that at first causes flu-like symptoms. These go away, and the infection is eliminated except in the ovaries, the filtration tubes of the kidneys, the front part of the eye, and the brain, all places the immune system cannot reach. Only about 50 people a year in the continental United States develop leptospirosis, sometimes by coming in contact with pools of water into which skunks have urinated. This is only likely to be a problem during extremely rainy weather when water stands on the ground.
Toxoplasmosis Transmission from Skunks
Toxoplasmosis is another infectious disease transmitted by skunks, raccoons, and rats. Toxoplasmosis is extremely common, affecting up to one third of the world’s population. Between 80 and 90 people who are infected with the disease develop no symptoms at all, but up to 25,000 people per year in the United States alone are hospitalized for the disease and up to 500 die. The best way to avoid toxoplasmosis is to be sure to wear gloves when handling garbage on which skunks or raccoons have fed.
Chagas Disease Transmission by Skunks
Chagas disease is a protozoal infection for which there is no cure. You are most likely to be infected by Chagas disease by the droppings of insects that come into your house after consuming a dead skunk. Wear gloves when cleaning up after cockroaches or kissing bugs.
Skunks and Your Dog
Human beings are not at great direct risk for deadly diseases transmitted by skunks, but the same cannot be said for dogs, especially puppies. In any encounter with a skunk, there is a greater than 50% chance that a dog will be exposed to both canine distemper virus and canine parvovirus.
Dogs that have not been vaccinated may develop symptoms of distemper 6 to 22 days after exposure. There will be flu-like symptoms, including anorexia and mucus discharges from the eyes and nose. Dogs often develop diarrhea and vomiting. The symptoms let up after 72 to 96 hours, and then come back about a week later. When animals develop thickened foot pads, they usually have fatal brain infections. Doctors may refuse to treat animals that have parvovirus in their offices, offering only to euthanize your pet outside.
Canine parvovirus is transmissible to dogs through the soil where skunks have defecated. The parvovirus causes severe irritation of the digestive tract, allowing normally harmless bacteria to cross from the lining of the intestine into the dog’s bloodstream. Bloody diarrhea is a hallmark symptom of the infection. Most dogs do not survive parvovirus infections, but those that do remain infectious to other dogs for up to six weeks. Only household bleach removes kills the virus on surfaces the dogs have touched.
Parvovirus can survive in soil for up to a year. The only way to protect your dog is to make sure it receives vaccinations as a puppy. It is simply not possible to identify all the places a skunk might have relieved itself over the last twelve months.
Neither you nor your pets have to suffer diseases spread by skunks. Just be sure to avoid contact with skunks whenever possible, and to clean your hands and your pets after contact with soil that may have been contaminated by skunk litter. Click this link to read more on getting rid of skunks.