All About Skunks
Skunks are mammals just like humans, but that is pretty much where the similarities between the species end. They are a part of the order Carnivora with four different types in that order:
Mephitis (hooded and the common striped skunks that most associate with the species)
Spilogale (spotted skunk)
Mydaus (stink badgers)
Conepatus (hog-nosed skunk)
They are primarily a North American and South American mammal, with species residing from Canada all the way down to South America. There are a limited number who inhabit the Philippines and Indonesia as well.
There is some controversy over what family they belong to. Long classified as a part of the Mustelidae family, recent evidence has shown that they are indeed a part of Mephitidae. Some taxonomists whose job it is to classify animals dispute this classification. Overall though, most credit skunks as part of the Mephitidae family.
Size and Appearance
The most common skunk that most people know is the striped skunk that has a white or sometimes yellowish stripe going from head to tail surrounded by black hair. The less common skunks can be spotted or hooded, with some having brownish or greyish coloring as opposed to black. Though all skunks are stripped, some have them on their legs or have several that look like spots, hence the name “spotted skunk.” Believe it or not, no two skunk patterns are exactly alike, although many look very similar.
There are two layers of fur on a skunk. The inner layer is soft while the outer layer is long and coarse. On average, a skunk will shed it’s fur about once a year, one layer at a time.
Depending on which type they are, a skunk can reach a length of anywhere from 15-37 inches and weigh as much as 18lbs, though most weigh just a couple of pounds. They have short but powerful legs that can dig very well in the dirt. Their powerful claws are not only good for digging but also for self-defense, although the smell they emit when threatened can run off predators before they attack.
Males are generally longer in total length than their female counterparts, but the female will usually have longer tails. Both males and females have strong jaws that feature larger molars used for eating.
One of the first things that pops into a person’s head when they hear the word “skunk” is the smell. They have anal scent glands that serve as a defense mechanism when deployed. When a skunk feels threatened, they will lift their tail, exposing the anal scent glands.
Inside the glands is a spray that has sulfur in it and is very strong. The human nose can smell it up to a mile away. Not only is it offensive to the nose, but it can also cause eye and mucous membrane irritation and in extreme cases, temporary blindness.
At any given time, a skunk has enough spray in it’s glands for 5-6 sprays. After that supply is depleted, it takes about 10 days to replenish the supply. The skunk knows this, so tries to posture, hiss and scratch to scare away predators before it will resort to spraying.
Removing the Smell
Most people don’t know how to get rid of skunk smell. Soaking in tomato juice or sauce is said to remove the smell. For dogs or pets, mix a quart of hydrogen peroxide with 1/4 cup baking soda and a few drops of liquid soap. Apply directly to fur and allow to set a few minutes before rinsing.
For a house or other structure, spray bleach or vinegar over the effected area and rinse.
The average skunk can live up to three years, though only 10% make it as far as a second year. They have very poor eyesight, which makes them vulnerable to predators despite their sharp teeth and claws and gland spray. They may also become overly confident in their spray defense, leading them to take risks that they should not take. In urban areas, skunks tend to wander out into streets due to their eyesight, causing them to die from cars on the road.
In wilder areas, large birds like owls and hawks tend to feed on skunks. Birds have very little sense of smell, making the usual chemical defense of a skunk completely useless. Skunks are nocturnal, just like these birds of prey, so that makes them even more of an easy target.
Mating and Young
A skunk will generally not spray another skunk, except during mating season. A male may spray another in competition for the affections of a female, although they do not mate for life. A male during it’s life may mate with several females, producing several baby skunks known as kits.
The female will usually mate with a male in February or March. The gestation time is around 50-77 days. The female will give birth in May to anywhere from 2-12 kits. The kits are born blind, with eyesight coming around three weeks in age.
They are generally weaned after about two months and stay with their mother until they are old enough to mate themselves the next spring. The mother must not only teach the kits how to hunt and eat, but also to defend themselves from the males, who may try to kill them.
Depending on the season, a skunk will eat roots, berries, leaves, mushrooms and grass on the plant side. On the animal side they may feast upon larvae, rodents, earthworms, frogs, snakes, birds and even eggs.
A skunk who lives in a more urban environment may turn to being a scavenger in order to eat, since it’s usual diet may not be as readily available. Bird or other carcasses may be picked over by a skunk and garbage bags and cans may be rifled through to find food.
In winter, they do not hibernate but they are far less active than in other seasons. They do huddle together in what is called a communal den. As many as 12 females will den together, with the males choosing to do so separately. In colder climates, a skunk can lose up to 25% of their body weight due to the lessened activity in these dens.
The earliest recorded sighting of the name “skunk” dates back to 1634 when a now-dead language described the creature as a “squunck.” This word was derived from two separate words thought to mean “to urinate” and “fox,” which when put together probably is describing the skunk’s tendency to spray it’s noxious scent when it feels threatened.
There are also mentions of the animal from the 1680s when European explorers coming to the New World identified them as creatures that resembled ferrets. They likely had nothing else to compare them to since skunks were not a familiar creature to people from Europe.
Some states in the United States allow for skunks to be kept as pets. Due to the spray, it is not advisable to keep them as pets unless their glands are removed. A veterinarian can permanently remove the glands, though the danger of the sharp teeth and claws can still be an issue.
In some parts of Europe skunks can be domesticated legally, but can’t have their glands removed by law, making them a bad choice for a pet.
How to Get Rid of Skunks
Most people don’t want to keep skunks as pets, in fact quite the opposite. If you are wondering how to get rid of skunks, the answer is to use a skunk repellent. These can be bought ready-made in stores or online, or you can make your own at home.
Simply boil a chopped jalapeno, a yellow onion and 1 tsp cayenne pepper in 2 quarts of water. Once cooled, place in a spray bottle and spray all over areas where you have seen a skunk. Repeat as often as needed. Alternately, if you know where the den is, soak a rag in ammonia and place near the entrance. This will cause the den to relocate.
If you find that the skunk repellent isn’t working, then skunk removal is also an option. You would have to find a qualified skunk remover in your area, if there is one available. Not all areas will have someone experienced in trapping and removing a skunk. This is by far the costliest way to eliminate a skunk problem, as the fees for skunk removal may be high. It is best to try the repellent to get rid of a skunk first before resorting to hiring someone to remove them.