Why Do Skunks Spray? 

December 30, 2019

The distinct scent is one-of-a-kind. It can be detected from a distance and becomes more foul the closer you come to the source. The stench of a skunk is identifiable by people throughout our region, and unfortunately experienced by the unlucky few that come face-to-face with a skunk. 

Have you or your pet ever been sprayed by a skunk? What caused it to spray? And why, oh why, does that liquid smell so bad? Let’s explore the behavioral science behind why skunks spray and what makes it smell so bad. 

Fight or Flight 

Like many animal species, skunks have a defense mechanism that helps them in a situation where they feel threatened. This fight or flight mechanism in so many critters becomes evident when they use the defense mechanism to protect themselves. For the skunk, the “fight” mechanism comes in the form of a foul smelling liquid that is projected in a stream or spray from the animal’s anal gland. One shot is all a skunk gets to hit its target even 15 feet away. After that the oily gland is depleted until he/she can produce more. 

Usually the defense mechanism is used against predators such as coyotes, wolves, badgers and any other natural predator. Unfortunately, if you or your pet should startle a skunk and it fears for its safety, you could become the next target of its spray. 

When Skunks Don’t Spray 

Biologist at the Small Mammal House of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.. report that skunks never use this “fight” mechanism in skunk-on-skunk fights over territory, only for predators that don’t get the message—and, even then, sparingly. The message that skunks often send prior to using the spray comes in the form of a three-part warning. The first warning is the distinctive black and white stripes that appears on the fur. This marking is a natural warning sign for woodland animals. The second action that skunks do is to stamp their feet as a visible warning. Lastly, skunks will raise their tail in a final warning sign. We all know what comes next. 

Eliminating the Smell 

Once sprayed you will want to take every action necessary to rid yourself of the odor. According to Animal Control Solutions online, “There are several old wives tales that say tomato juice, lemon juice and other household products will eliminate the smell of skunk spray.” Truthfully, these are not very effective as they only lessen the smell but they will not eliminate the odor. The Massachusetts Audubon Society suggests instead, “Mixing 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide (3%), 1⁄4 cup of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of dish detergent in a bucket. Use an old washcloth to apply the solution to the skin, hair, or fur of the person or pet, avoiding the eyes, ears, and mouth. If needed, re-apply the solution and rinse again. Use this mixture immediately. Do not store! Hydrogen peroxide does bleach, so if you’re concerned about lightening hair or fur, substitute white vinegar.”


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