That Stinks – Skunks



Skunks are beneficial critters.  They are omnivorous and eat a variety of garden pests including: mice, voles, beetles, various larvae, wasps, and crickets. Skunks are also scavengers. They will seek out animal carcasses which helps keep an ecosystem free from carrion. Scavengers are important to the health of the environment. However, they also have a not so pleasant side. Anyone who has had a pet get “skunked” certainly knows this!  Skunks spray as a form of defense.  Since they are slow and do not climb, skunks evolved a way to drive predators away.

Before spraying, a skunk will begin stamping his feet, doing elaborate “handstands”, raising and shaking his tail, turning in a U shape (tail and face towards the threat), and dancing about. Unless a skunk is startled and lets that spray fly, if you or a pet gets “skunked” it is most likely because warnings were ignored.  For a skunk, spraying is a last resort.  Striped skunks can spray several times, but that noxious arsenal will run out. Once depleted, it can take up to ten days before the skink is capable of spraying again. During this time, the skunk is vulnerable. Sadly, many pet dogs do not realize the warning signs preceding a blast. This can lead to, well, a stinky mess for you.  The next steps taken, post-blast, should be based in science.  Here is a quick skunk secretion chemistry lesson.

The noxious secretions that are fired from gland at the base of the critter’s tail is comprised of thiols and are basically a sulfur and hydrogen atom bonded together.  The thiols are trans-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinoline methane-thiol. (Science, August 4, 1990). The spray is not water soluble.  Once it hits something it can cling for some time – with the smell lingering possibly for weeks.  The spray is not only smelly but can cause damage to mucous membranes, irritation, and temporary blindness.  Rarely a form of anemia like that which develops when dogs eat onions and garlic.  If the symptoms are not recognized, death is possible.

A popular way to address skunked dog is with tomato juice.  According to Chemistry of Skunk Spray, by William F. Wood (Department of Chemistry, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.), the reason we assume tomato juice works to nullify the smell is olfactory fatigue. The smell is still there but we do not detect it.  Instead we detect the tomato juice. Ditch the tomato juice and go for the science!

A recommended treatment is 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda (not baking powder, they are different chemically), and 1 teaspoon liquid dish soaps (this helps break up the oils).  This mixture will help break down the oils and chemically neutralize the odor. Do not mix this up for future use as the container can explode.  Alternatively, use a commercially available product containing neutroleum alpha. There are several websites recommending an essential oil mix.  Several of the oils recommended, including Tea Tree, can be toxic to dogs and cats even in the amounts recommended.

Skunks live everywhere from the desert to the city.  They are a part of life, but it is easy to reduce the risk of an encounter. Walking dogs on shorter leashes, keeping your trash secured and pet food cleaned up, making noise and turning on exterior lights a few minutes before letting your dogs in the yard (give skunks a chance to toddle off), can go a long way in reducing the chance on an encounter.

originally published in Inside NoVA, Fall 2018

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