Whether you live in the city, country, or suburbs, your odds of meeting up with a skunk increase during the warmer months. So if de-skunking your dog isn’t on your summertime wish list, here are a few things you’ll need to know about skunks.
Skunks: Not Villainous, But Give Them Plenty Of Space
Skunks are, by nature, gentle creatures who belong to the same family as weasels and badgers. They’re omnivores, meaning they forage for any food they can find, including insects, mice, lizards, bird eggs, frogs, acorns, and fallen fruit. Since skunks are nocturnal, they are more active around dusk and dawn. Most encounters between skunks and dogs happen between dusk and midnight.
Skunks usually try to mind their own business, and they only spray when they’re startled or frightened. If you or your dog encounter a skunk, the first thing the skunk will do is try to run away. If he’s cornered or feels ambushed, he’ll turn around, put his tail up and fan it out, and stomp his feet in the hopes that you’ll back off.
Skunks have a very keen sense of smell, but terrible eyesight. Spraying is the only defense they have, and they are remarkably good at it, hitting their targets with pinpoint accuracy from up to 20 feet away.
What Makes Skunk Spray So Awful?
Skunk spray is actually modified anal gland fluid, similar to the contents of your dog’s anal glands. However, skunk anal gland fluid contains a mixture of the chemicals mercaptans and disulfides – organic compounds called thiols that contain sulfur. It doesn’t take much fluid for the skunk to make his point, since thiols are so potent they can be smelled up to a half-mile away.
Skunk spray can be expelled as either a directed stream or a mist. At close range, it doesn’t just smell horrific; the chemicals are also “lachrymators”, which means they cause irritation to the eyes and mucous membranes, very similar to teargas. Dogs who get blasted in the face often drool profusely, have watering eyes, gag, and vomit. They can even suffer temporary blindness if sprayed directly in the eyes.
Interestingly, skunks never spray each other in fights over territory. Skunks only spray predators who don’t get the message to back off – and they do it sparingly, since a single spray can almost completely deplete their bodies of the fluid. It can take up to 10 days for the glands to refill, during which time the skunk is vulnerable to predators such as coyotes, wolves, owls, and badgers.
De-Skunking Your Dog
So what can you do if your dog is unlucky enough to wind up on the wrong end of a skunk?
First, know that skunking is almost never a veterinary emergency. Most veterinary clinics prefer not to treat skunked dogs in the hospital (unless they have been sprayed directly in the eyes or mouth) since the odor can linger for weeks.
Second, plan ahead. Since most skunk encounters happen at night when veterinary offices and pet stores are closed, it’s much easier to be prepared in advance to handle the situation yourself. Regular pet shampoo will not remove skunk odor, no matter how many times you use it. Instead, keep a commercial skunk odor remover recommended by your veterinarian on hand (these are the safest and most effective at removing eau de skunk). If you don’t have a commercial product handy, you can make a homemade de-skunking kit that includes the following items:
- Rubber or latex gloves
- Old clothes and towels that can be thrown away afterwards
- 3% hydrogen peroxide
- Baking soda
- Liquid dish soap containing a degreasing agent (many vets recommend Dawn)
- Pet shampoo
- Sterile eye irrigation solution
- Slicker brush
You may have noticed this list does not contain tomato juice – that’s because it doesn’t work. In order for a de-skunking solution to be effective, it must contain ingredients that combine to form an oxidative process that neutralizes the odor. In this case, the liquid dish soap breaks down the oil contained in the skunk’s spray so it can be washed out, while the baking soda and hydrogen peroxide act as oxidizing agents to change the chemical structure of the thiols into the odorless compound sulfonic acid.
Please note that this homemade solution cannot be mixed up ahead of time. Not only does it need to be used while fresh to be effective, but if stored in a closed container, the resulting pressure created inside the container could cause it to explode.
Steps For De-Skunking
Act quickly. The longer you wait, the harder it is to remove the smell. Don’t leave your dog outside to “air out” – the chemicals in skunk spray are much more challenging to remove once dry.
Put on old clothing and rubber gloves. When you’re finished, put them straight into a garbage bag and leave it outside.
Carefully examine your dog for bite wounds if he got close enough to be bitten. Since skunks can carry rabies, report any bite wounds to your veterinarian immediately.
Brush out your dog’s fur. Use a slicker brush to comb out as much oil as possible, then clean the brush immediately – you’ll need it again at the end.
Mix the solution: ¼ cup baking soda, one quart hydrogen peroxide, and 2 tsp of degreasing liquid dish soap in a bucket.
Bathe your dog with the solution – outside if possible! This will keep the “skunked wet dog” smell out of your home. Start with the areas directly sprayed first. Use a cloth soaked in the solution to gently wipe your dog’s face, carefully avoiding eyes, nostrils, mouth, and inside the ears. Lather the rest of his body all the way down to the skin. You can add a little water to get more lather. Don’t be alarmed if the solution fizzes a little.
Leave the solution on for 3-5 minutes. Rinse, then repeat (this could take 2 or 3 times) until the odor is gone. Don’t let your dog’s fur dry between cycles.
Use a dog-safe shampoo for the last cycle.
Towel off your dog until he’s dry. Don’t use a hair dryer if possible, since it can further dry out your dog’s skin.
Brush dried fur with the cleaned slicker brush.
Monitor your dog carefully. Watch for any eye, nose or throat irritation. If you suspect damage to your dog’s eyes, contact your veterinarian immediately.
This homemade de-skunking method works well, but a commercial product recommended by your veterinarian is best; with a commercial product you’re less likely to notice skunk smell whenever your dog gets wet over the next few weeks.
Also, if your dog is black or dark brown, be aware that hydrogen peroxide can temporarily lighten your dog’s fur, as well as bleach any material the solution comes into contact with (including furniture and clothes). Be very careful not to get the solution into your dog’s eyes or mouth.
How To Avoid Getting Skunked
Of course the best way to avoid the de-skunking process is to prevent any encounters with skunks. Most skunks make their homes based on convenient access to food, so to make your yard less appealing, here are some tips:
- Keep trash containers tightly sealed.
- Remove extra or fallen fruit from trees.
- Keep bird feeders high (skunks are poor climbers).
- Block access to sheds and areas underneath porches or decks.
- Remove brush piles or dead tree stumps that might be used by skunks to make dens.
- Don’t feed your dog or cat outside. Skunks are particularly fond of dry cat food.
- Buy beneficial nematodes (check with your local garden center) and put them into your lawn. Nematodes eat grubs, which are one of skunks’ favorite foods.
Bring your pets in at dusk. If you walk your dog at night, always bring a flashlight to check for skunks. And of course, always make sure your dog is on a leash. If you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a skunk, stand very still, then slowly back away. Since skunks have such poor eyesight, they can’t see you if you don’t move.
And most importantly, keep all your pets up to date on their rabies vaccines. Approximately 20% of the animals testing positive for rabies in the U.S. and 40% testing positive in Canada each year are skunks.
Not All Bad
Overall, skunks are shy and gentle creatures who would rather avoid conflict and peacefully amble around foraging for food. Unfortunate spraying encounters usually happen when their poor eyesight doesn’t give them a heads up that we, or our dogs, are approaching.
So skunks aren’t all bad – they’re good mousers, they take care of agricultural pests like tomato worms, and let’s face it, they’re pretty darn cute. According to many wildlife specialists, skunks are also one of earth’s most entertaining creatures, playful and fun to watch.
We’ll take their word for it…from very far away!
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Have you or your dog ever had a close encounter with a skunk? Tell us about it in the comments below!