Skunks are highly adaptable animals that usually do very little damage other than overturning garbage cans and releasing their distinctive scent to protect themselves. If a skunk has sprayed your car, you pets, or your house, you will certainly know it, but only getting sprayed directly in the eye has serious health consequences. Close encounters between skunks and pets, however, can spread deadly diseases.
In most of the United States, adult skunks grow to weigh between 3 and 14 pounds (1.5 to about 6 kilos) and to a length of 15 to 32 inches (38 to 80 cm) from the nose to the tip of the tail. In the United States, skunks in southern states tend to grow much larger than skunks in northern states, due to year-round food supplies. Males are larger than females. Skunks have beady black eyes, (usually) pointed noses, and distinctive color patterns that warn other animals to leave them alone.
Anyone or anything within 15 feet of a skunk is at risk of being sprayed. Pets may find the odor of a skunk so unpleasant that after being sprayed, the sight or scent of a skunk causes them to panic. Even blind and nearly hairless baby skunks have the ability to spray.
The striped skunk Memphitis memphitis is one of the best known animals of the United States and Canada. It ranges over almost all of North America from northern Mexico almost as far north as the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Canada except for the driest California deserts. The hooded skunk Memphitis macroura has black fur on its belly and a completely white back. It is found in deserts and dry tropical forests primarily on the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central America. There are also spotted skunks that have zebra-like stripes either up and down or around their bodies in Central America, northern South America, Mexico, and the southern half of the United States, and hog-nosed skunks that usually a snowy white back and a pig-like snout that range from Texas to Argentina.
Except for mothers and their kits, and during mating season, skunks typically live alone in their dens, although their feeding ranges may overlap with other skunks. An adult female skunk typically has a range of about 1.5 square miles (350 hectares) and an adult male skunk may have a range of about 7.5 square miles (1750 hectares). In the northern United States and Canada, mature skunks may sometimes share dens during the winter for warmth.
Male and female skunks mate in early spring. A single male may impregnate multiple females. After a gestation period of about 66 days, the female bears her young, usually in late May. Baby skunks are blind and deaf but are capable of spraying to defend themselves. Their eyes open after about 3 weeks and they begin to forage outside the den at approximately two months. The mother skunk will be especially protective of her young during this period, usually in late July and early August. Male skunks play no role in raising young and may even kill them. The mother skunk, on the other hand, is very protective of her offspring, sometimes carrying them around in her mouth when she forages for food.
You are most likely to encounter a skunk in your garage or garden in the early morning around sunrise or in the late afternoon around sundown. Any skunk you encounter in broad daylight is likely to be either sick or extremely hungry. Any skunk you encounter at night is likely to be blind (skunks have very poor night vision) or lost.
To quote the words of the intrepid hunter of cartoon fame Elmer Fudd, escaping skunks, like catching rabbits, requires you to be “vewy, vewy quiet.” Skunks have keen senses of smell and vision, but they usually cannot distinguish objects more than about 10 feet (3 meters) away. If you are concerned about being sprayed or bitten, move quietly away. Never yell or scream at a skunk.
A skunk facing you may stomp its feet, hiss at you, and raise its tail in warning, in the hopes that you will flee. Whenever a skunk stands up on its front paws, it is about to do a somersault and release its spray. A mother skunk traveling with its kits may not give any warning signs before spraying.
The single best known characteristic of skunks is their smelly spray. The odor of skunk spray can take days or weeks to disperse from fabrics, upholstery, sheet rock, and pets. In the case of dogs, however, skunk spray may also be toxic. A skunk stores up to about 15 ml (half a fluid ounce) of a mixture of sulfurous chemicals in its anal scent glands. Chief among these chemicals is methyl mercaptan, the same chemical that accumulates inside the mouth when people suffer gingivitis or trench mouth.
The human nose can detect skunk odor up to 1 mile (1.6 km) away. Most predator animals, including foxes, wolves, and bears, will not attack skunks from fear of being sprayed. The spotted owl, which has little or no sense of smell, is the skunk’s major predator. Male skunks occasionally spray each other during mating season, but skunks typically fight each other with teeth and claws.
Some people who are sprayed directly in the eyes temporarily go blind. There has been at least one documented case in which getting sprayed by a skunk resulted in a condition called methemoglobinemia, a condition in which the hemoglobin is oxidized and has relatively little power to hold oxygen to be transported through the bloodstream. In people, this condition causes blue skin. In dogs, it causes extreme lethargy. Although skunk spray does not contain cyanide, the treatment for this condition is the same as treatment for cyanide poisoning.
A skunk can spray 6 or 7 times before its spray glands are empty. It takes about 10 days for the skunk to replenish its spray glands.
Skunks eat birds, bird eggs, moles, baby rabbits, grubs, worms, berries, and roots, although they prefer to let other animals do their food gathering for them. Skunks will feed on carrion uneaten by larger predators, and they have a special affinity for cat food. Leaving cat food bait in the garage is an excellent way to attract skunks.
Scientists at Ohio State University studying skunks found that the average number of different types of parasites carried by an adult skunk was 4.8. No skunk tested was parasite free, and at least one skunk had 11 different types of parasitic infections. The most serious of these parasites is roundworms.
Skunks are often infected with roundworms they acquire from animals they eat. They may pass adult roundworms crawling out the anus, or they may pass roundworm eggs with their droppings. Roundworm eggs have to spend 10 days to 2 weeks in the soil before they mature to a stage they can infect humans.
Working in soil that has been contaminated with skunk scat without gloves and then touching the face or eating without washing hands can transfer the eggs to humans. The eggs then hatch in the liver and can spread to the eyes and brain. Even when the infection does not cause tissue damage, it can trigger severe allergic reactions. Some people have actually died of roundworm infections they caught from contaminated dirt, in one case contaminated dirt brought into the house on a pet. Infants and the elderly are at greatest risk.
Skunks also sometimes carry tapeworms. Humans infected with tapeworms may never have any symptoms at all; although the kind of tapeworm carried by skunks in southern Canada sometimes causes vitamin B12 deficiencies that lead to anemia, several years after the initial infection.
North American skunks have two long oil glands on either side of their backs. These glands store fat that enable skunks to survive winter hibernation. Native Americans and American settlers used the oil as a soothing liniment that warms the skin. According to an 1897 edition of a publication called Fur Trade News, trappers were paid the then-unheard of price of $4 per gallon for the raw oil, in a time when a standard wage would have been about $4 a week.
In the United States, about 20% of all cases of animal rabies occur in skunks. Raccoons and skunks usually vie as the most frequent rabies carriers. There are more rabies-infected raccoons than skunks in the United States east of the Mississippi River, and more rabies-infected skunks than raccoons west of the Mississippi River. There has never been even, however, a single recorded case of a human infected with rabies through a skunk bite. Typically skunks infect dogs. Click this link to learn how to control skunks.
With these exceptions, most of the states of the United States ban keeping skunks at home.
In Canada, only Newfoundland and Nova Scotia permit legal ownership of skunks with appropriate permits issued by the appropriate Minister or the Department of Wildlife. The United Kingdom permits private ownership of skunks but prohibits removal of their scent glands, making keeping a skunk impractical.