That Skunk Doesn’t WANT to Spray You (or Your Dog!)

That Skunk Doesn’t WANT to Spray You (or Your Dog!)

Love is in the air, and it smells like... skunk?

Striped Skunk. Photo by Kirk McCabe


Skunk © Kirk McCabe

A recent caller to WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline was convinced that the skunk she had seen in her yard was just waiting to spray her or her dog as soon as she left the house.

WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline 415-456-SAVE (7283) is answering many calls a day about skunks, most of them from callers with similar concerns.

It is skunk mating season right now, which means skunks are very active.

Male skunks may fight over females, spraying each other in the process, and female skunks may spray males they don't like. With increased activity, skunks are also coming into contact with hazards more frequently, and using that noxious spray is the skunk's primary (and virtually only) defense mechanism.

Just because you smell skunk, especially this time of year, it does not mean that you have a skunk "problem." The skunk is likely just passing through (or having a romantic tryst!) and the smell is very temporary.

Skunk spray is definitely something to avoid, but that's not really too hard to do. Why?

Because a skunk doesn't actually want to spray you OR your dog!

A skunk's spray is generated in the animal's anal glands, and the skunk does not have an unlimited supply of it. Other than the spray, skunks have few defenses, so a skunk prefers to conserve his resources whenever possible.

A skunk must "recharge" once he uses his spray, and if he completely depletes his scent glands it can take up to ten days to regenerate the full amount, leaving him vulnerable to predators.

Watch the signs

A skunk will typically give a lot of warning before spraying. He will raise his tail and shake it warningly. He will stamp his feet and turn his head and rear end toward you in a "U" shape.

Unless taken completely by surprise, he will give these warnings and wait until the last possible second before deploying the "nuclear option" of spraying. A skunk generally prefers to exit the scene with no spraying involved.

Unfortunately domestic dogs don't read all the warning signs that skunks give, and actually a raised and waving tail may look like an invitation to sniff. Dogs tend to rush right up to skunks, as they would to another dog standing there with his tail up, and this is why dogs so often get sprayed. The skunk sees a perceived predator approaching and feels like he has no other options.

Give them some warning too

Skunks. Photo by Linda Campbell


Skunks. Photo by Linda Campbell

WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline and save hundreds of wild lives every year with advice on how to live better with skunks. These amazing animals are our neighbors, and they provide a very neighborly service by eating slugs, snails, insects and even rodents in our yards and gardens.

We always have the same advice for people concerned about skunks— give them the opportunity to escape without spraying and they will probably do so!

BEFORE stepping into your yard, especially at night, let skunks know you're coming. Skunks have poor eyesight, they're not fast and they can't climb. They don't want to encounter you or your pets, so if give them some notice that you want to use your yard, they will almost always vacate it ahead of you. They don’t want to interact with you any more than you do with them!

Flip on the porch light. Make noise opening the door. Clap your hands. Whistle. Do a little tap dance. You might feel slightly silly, but this little bit of warning will alert any skunks passing through that you're coming out, and give them time to exit your yard or hide.

This alert is especially important to do before releasing dogs into the yard. Especially at night, be sure to provide an alert and give skunks (and all wildlife!) a few minutes to hide before letting dogs into the yard.

Removing skunk odor

Skunk smell cannot be washed off with tomato juice, ammonia or gasoline. These just mask the odor.

A suggested treatment for odor removal is:

1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup of baking soda
1 teaspoon of liquid soap

The peroxide and baking soda neutralize the odor; the soap removes the oil that holds the smell.

Be careful, though. This solution may bleach hair and other materials.

Meet your neighborhood skunks

Skunks are beneficial predators that provide excellent control of garden pests like slugs and snails. They are omnivores, so they'll also eat insects and help clean up fallen fruit in your yard. Skunks also consume rodents, so they help keep your yard free of rats and mice and other small rodents. If you are a gardener, a skunk is a great asset! But be sure not to use slug/snail bait or any poisons, as skunks can and do die from exposure to these pesticides..

Four Baby Skunks in the Back Yard. Photo by Greg Wilson

Four Baby Skunks in the Back Yard. Photo by Greg Wilson

Skunks hunt by scent and use their long front claws to dig up beetle grubs, earthworms, roots, and fungi in the soil and under dead leaves. Skunks don’t climb well, but they will eat fallen nuts, fruit and bird’s eggs, along with pet food, birdseed, and anything that smells good in the trash can after raccoons have tipped it over. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the skunk diet, particularly in winter.

Skunks dig holes in lawns looking for grubs and insects, as do several other species of animal. Digging done by skunks normally appears as small, three- to four-inch cone-shaped holes or patches of upturned earth. Long claw marks may be visible.

Skunks become a “nuisance” when their burrowing and feeding habits conflict with humans. They may burrow under porches or buildings for shelter or for a place to have their young and keep them safe until the babies are able to travel.

Exclusion

During mating season, January through March, male skunks begin to roam widely, often leaving their own territories in search of a mate. During this time, the males are very excitable and may spray more readily. Between these territorial disputes, males fighting and females spraying males they don’t approve of, a lot of skunk odor is generated in early spring. WildCare fields a lot of calls during this time from concerned homeowners who fear they are developing a skunk “problem.” They usually aren’t.

Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence of skunks. Especially in this season when skunks are at their most active, you may smell their eye-watering musk and be convinced that the animal is right under your house, when in fact a dispute over a mate in the next backyard is the source of the stink.

Skunks in the neighborhood are one thing, but most people don't want skunks denning under their homes. When you are absolutely certain that no adults or babies will be closed in, you can prevent skunks from denning under buildings by sealing off all foundation openings. February is the LAST month it will be safe to seal holes in the foundation without risking closing in newborn babies. Even in February, great care must be taken to ensure no animals are inadvertently trapped. Call our Living with Wildlife Hotline at 415-456-7283 for advice and additional information.

skunk graphicTo properly seal openings and prevent skunk habitation, cover all openings with wire mesh, sheet metal, or concrete. Bury fencing in an "L" shape outward 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep in areas skunks can access by digging. Seal all ground-level openings into poultry buildings and close doors at night. Use tight-fitting lids to keep raccoons out of garbage cans, and make sure the cans can't be tipped over, which puts them at skunk level.

Properly dispose of garbage and enclose and skunk-proof your compost pile! Easily-accessible food sources will attract skunks. Debris such as lumber, fence posts and junk cars provide shelter. Skunks are often attracted to rodents, so poison-free (!) rodent control may be the first step to solving a skunk problem.

Click for WildCare's useful 24-point Self Home Inspection to help you make sure your home won't attract denning skunks or other wildlife.

Repellents

There are no registered repellents specifically for skunks, but lights and sounds may provide temporary relief from skunk activity. Most mammals, including skunks, can sometimes be discouraged from entering enclosed areas with ammonia-soaked cloths, however remember to never place ammonia or other chemicals in an enclosed space— the fumes can be fatal to animals. However, repellents are only a temporary measure. Permanent solutions require exclusion.

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