Many people have experienced skunks without ever having seen one. It is not that uncommon to have a skunk’s strong and musky odor permeate the air around our homes and find unusual holes in the lawn, which are telltale signs of a skunk’s nighttime forays.
Skunks are wide-spread, successful animals that are able to survive in many different environments. They can be found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Skunks are small, furred mammals belonging to a family of animals known as Mustelidae. This family includes badgers, ferrets, fishers, martens, minks, otters, weasels and wolverines. The Genus name for skunk is Mephitis, which is Latin for “bad odor”.
A Skunk’s Life
Skunks owe their well deserved reputation to the two scent glands located on either side of their anus. These scent glands are a powerful defense against attack, and most animals will tangle with a skunk only once. Skunks are regularly preyed upon by coyotes and owls.
Skunks are omnivorous and nocturnal creatures. In the nighttime they can be found foraging in gardens and lawns for insects, fruit, vegetables, amphibians, bird’s eggs and many other food items. They relish snails, grubs and small rodents, among many other common garden pests.
Skunks are secretive and solitary, and although they prefer to flee if approached, they will stand their ground if threatened.
Skunks are relatively inactive during the winter months. Young are born in the spring to coincide with nice weather and abundance of food, and are blind and deaf at birth. On warm summer nights, female skunks are often observed with their 4 – 6 young following close behind. Youngsters usually disperse late in the summer.
Skunks are well aware of the weapon they have at their disposal, and may discharge an extremely obnoxious scent if provoked. A skunk’s black and white color serves as a warning, particularly when displaying their tail high in the air. A skunk may stamp its front feet as further warning. Before spraying, a skunk may bend into a U-shape with both head and rump facing the enemy. The two streams of scent can travel upwards of 15 feet, and may permeate the air for a mile or more. Males also use this scent to mark territory and advertise to the opposite sex.
Should people or companion animals get sprayed at close range, the noxious smell is likely to cause great discomfort and nausea. If sprayed in the eyes, the oily gland secretion will burn and may cause temporary blindness. According to current literature, this effect lasts only a few minutes as the chemical is purged from the eyes by tears.
Skunks and Disease
In many parts of the country, and especially Southern California, skunks are often carriers of sylvatic rabies (wildlife rabies), and are normally second only to bats as a source of the deadly disease. Fortunately, the State of California requires by law that our domestic companion animals are vaccinated against rabies and because of the nocturnal habits of the skunks, there are very few reported cases in companion animals and humans. Skunks normally avoid humans and the virus does not survive very long outside the body. Because of this, there is very little chance of contracting the disease from a skunk. Territory and mating disputes among skunks are two of the primary reasons for the spread of the disease in the species.
It is very important to avoid contact with a skunk. You should immediately contact your local animal care and control agency if you observe any of the following:
Any skunk during the daylight hours.
Any skunk that appears to be injured, sick or acting unusual.
Any direct contact between a skunk and your companion animal resulting in scratches or bites. (Speak with your veterinarian and Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health if such contact occurs).
Any direct contact between a human and a skunk. (Seek medical advice and attention immediately upon any direct physical contact with any wildlife.)
In the City of Los Angeles, it is unlawful to feed wildlife. (53.06.5 L.A.M.C.) Feeding can increase the danger of the spread of disease and draws in larger predators. Wild animals fed by humans may quickly lose their natural fear and possibly attack without provocation. Wildlife habituated to humans feeding them often have to be destroyed because of the danger they pose to neighborhood companion animals and residents. There is plenty of natural food available for skunks in the wild.
Skunks do a great job at keeping down rodents and insects. They will eat mice, black widow spiders, scorpions, and other insects as well.
Remove woodpiles and debris to eliminate skunk hiding places. Thin dense vegetation. If you have fruit trees or a vegetable garden, remove all fallen, ripened fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.
Speak to your local nursery about control of insects and grubs skunks love to eat. The health of your garden is dependent on many of the small micro fauna and insects under the soil and in the garden.
If you suspect a skunk is living under your house, toss a few mothballs or ammonia soaked rags into the crawlspace. When the skunk leaves (it may take several days), make sure all crawlspace screens are in good repair and secure. Remember that April through August there may be babies that will orphaned by this procedure, so try to do it before or after this time. (do not place mothballs near air ducts leading into your home).
Use motion activated devices such as lights and sprinklers. Try placing a radio in the den site set to a talk station, this may cause the skunk to move on.
Fill or cover any holes under sheds or other structures that may provide a home for skunks.
What should I do if I encounter a skunk? Make very slow, deliberate movements away from the skunk. Do not run or move quickly as they are easily frightened and sudden movement may cause them to spray.
What should I do if the skunk sprays me, my companion animal or in my house ? To reduce the odor on hair, skin, or companion animals use tomato juice or vinegar. There are many products on the market designed to eliminate skunk odors, but it may take several treatments. You may find some remedies on the internet.
Tip: If you’re not sure whether a wild animal is currently under a house or shed, lay a thin layer of white flour in front of the opening, hole or space in question. Check the spot several times during the night. When animal tracks are seen leading away from the spot, you can secure the screen or hole. You may need to repeat this if there is more than one animal.