Skunk in a meadow
Skunks don’t really want to make you stink. In fact, they always warn you first.

"The first thing he’s going to do is try to run away. If he gets cornered, he’s going to turn around and put his tail up and stomp at you. He may charge and stomp. He’s hoping you’ll back off," says Jerry Dragoo, who studies skunks at the University of New Mexico.

Why Do Dogs Get Sprayed?

Seems like skunks send a clear message, but though some animals recognize that warning, our dogs often don’t. "There’s a communication breakdown. They don’t speak the same language," says professor Theodore Stankowich of California State University, Long Beach.

In addition to the warning routine, the skunk’s black and white coat is a sign of danger to many animals, though dogs don’t seem to recognize it. In the wild, "things that are toxic or poisonous have bold, contrasting color patterns, and it’s a common theme for predators to be able to easily learn that these bold, contrasting color patterns are bad," Stankowich says. 

Unfortunately for both dogs and their owners, domestic canines don’t seem to put two and two together the way wild predators do. "It goes beyond skunks — there are accounts of dogs attacking other black and white animals, such as badgers or honey badgers, and not getting the warning colors," Stankowich says. "Something was clearly lost during the process of domestication."

Do Some Dogs Enjoy Getting Sprayed?

Even worse, although some dogs do learn that what skunks have in store for them is nasty stuff, some of them not only don’t mind it, they actually seem to relish it. "Some dogs, if they’ve been sprayed, they know not to mess with skunks anymore. If they see the threat display, they’ll back off. Other dogs just can’t get enough. They seem to enjoy getting sprayed," Dragoo says. "They’ll [go] back again and again and roll around in it."

The skunk’s odor comes from the same kind of anal glands found in your dog and other carnivores, but the skunk’s glands are more developed and have something similar to a nipple that he can point in different directions. The spray itself contains thiols, the chemical compounds present in other stinky things, which may explain why some dogs may be fond of the smell.

Why Don’t Skunks Just Stay Away From Us?

Unlike most other wild animals, skunks are not as fearful of people and pets because they count on the threat of their stinky defense to keep them from being harassed.

And you can have a smelly skunk encounter without going out in the woods, because skunks are quite happy to live among us. Like any animal, they’re looking for food, water and shelter, and our cities and suburbs provide plenty of all three. "Skunks eat pretty much anything. If you leave your garbage out, they’ll eat your leftovers, dog food or cat food, fruits," Dragoo says. "They will dig up lawns and gardens for the grubs."

They also get more comfortable with people the more they live around us. "A skunk out in the wilderness may not see humans that often, so he may run away more quickly. But if you’re in a campground, those wild skunks are used to people and people’s behavior, and they will just walk through and rummage through your tent," Dragoo says. "In the city, skunks are used to people. They can kind of predict how people are going to react; you can push them a little further before you make them spray. If they live in your yard, they know your routine. If you come out every night at 9, they’ll wait till 10 to come out."

Though seeing a skunk need not be an occasion for panic, as with any wild animal, you and your pets should avoid getting close. And aside from the stink, some skunks can transmit rabies and distemper (yet another reason to keep your pets vaccinated).

What Can You Do to Help Avoid a Skunk Encounter?

One way to minimize encounters with skunks is to make sure you’re not attracting them. Some tips:
  • Don’t feed your dog outside, and if you must feed your cat outside, place the bowl high up, Dragoo says. Skunks are not good climbers.
  • Be especially attentive at night. Skunks are primarily nocturnal, so that’s when they are more likely to be active.
  • Block access to sheds and open areas underneath your house or deck, where skunks might try to make homes.
  • Remove tree stumps and piles of brush, which might also be attractive to skunks.
  • Make sure garbage and compost bins are secured.

What if You or Your Pet Gets Sprayed?

If you or your pet does get skunked, don’t use tomato juice; that’s just folklore. The right remedy is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and soap. Hydrogen peroxide oxidizes the sulfur compounds, which neutralizes the smell, Dragoo says, and the soap gets rid of the oily residue. But don’t let your pet swallow the solution and don’t get it in an open cut or your pet’s eyes (hydrogen peroxide can potentially cause vomiting, tissue damage and ulceration of the cornea). If your pet has been sprayed in the face, seek immediate veterinary attention.

For any inanimate objects that get sprayed, you can use bleach to take away the smell.

Are There Benefits to Skunks?

Dragoo may have an easier time appreciating skunks than the rest of us. Though he gets skunked a lot during his work, he’s the perfect man for the job, because he can’t smell it. But if you keep your distance, he says having skunks in your yard isn’t such a bad thing. 

"They’re good for taking care of agricultural pests, like tomato worms on your tomato plants. They’re good mousers. And they’re fun to watch," he says. "They’re playful, and they will go out and do things where other animals wouldn’t — they’re not quite as cautious — so they’ll perform their natural behaviors for you. They’ll provide hours of entertainment."

Help with Stankowich’s research on dogs and skunks by answering a survey. And visit Dragoo’s website for more information on skunks.

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