Skunks are easily identifiable wild neighbors – homeowners will typically recognize them on sight or on smell! Skunks live in urban and suburban environments. They are omnivores, which means they eat a wide variety of food, including insects, mice, fruits, chicken eggs, or even pet food that is left outdoors. Their food preferences or denning locations often bring them into conflict with people.
Before resolving a skunk conflict, it’s important to know how to best approach a skunk to avoid getting sprayed. Skunks have poor eyesight and can be approached slowly, though it’s always important to watch for signs of agitation. Before spraying, an agitated skunk will first:
- Stamp its feet;
- Turn around (with backend toward target);
- Raise its tail;
- Look over its shoulder (at target) and hiss.
Skunks will then spray up to five or six times and can reach targets that are 12-15 feet away.
Great Horned Owls are the main predator of skunks; they catch skunks through a quick, silent pounce. Moving slowly and talking softly while approaching a skunk will minimize the threat they feel as a prey species. Watch for signs of agitation, and freeze until the skunk calms down.
Dogs can easily startle skunks since their tendency is to run directly at the skunk without pause. If you have skunks in your neighborhood, you may want to make noise at night before letting your dog out in the yard. Simply calling out to warn the skunks will typically startle them out of your yard prior to letting the dog out.
Common Conflicts with People
Den under Building: The openings to skunk dens are usually about four to six inches wide, and smell faintly like skunk. In general, skunks are not difficult to deter, and even mild harassment can make them leave the area, though it’s important to first identify if the skunk is a mother with babies.
Baby skunks are typically born in May and June and remain in their dens for eight weeks. If at all possible, be patient and wait for the skunk family to leave on their own. Mother skunks will move their young to a new den location if disturbed, but exercise caution to ensure that babies aren’t separated from their mothers.
If it’s not possible to wait through the late spring and summer, or if you are definitely deterring a single skunk, use visual, audio, and scent deterrents for several nights to make the den area inhospitable and unappealing.
Once you think the den is unoccupied, loosely stuff the den hole with crumpled newspaper. When the newspaper stays undisturbed for three nights (as long as it’s not winter), you can assume the skunk family has moved out. Amend the area to prevent future skunks (or other animals) from moving in by covering the entrance with wire mesh that extends underground. The best wire mesh prevention should extend 8-12 inches straight down and eight inches out from the wall in an “L” shape. Skunks won’t chew wood, so they don’t do much damage.
Digging in Lawns: Skunks love eating insects, so if your lawn or new sod has an infestation of grubs, you may find skunks digging in the yard to find food. Typically, homeowners will see many holes in the yard, usually about two inches in size. The best way to prevent this conflict is to get rid of the grub problem. Grub treatment can include applying milky spore in late summer or early fall, or spraying with a one-to-one mix of children’s shampoo and ammonia. There are also other commercial grub treatments available on the market; visit your local garden center and ask about pesticide-free grub treatment.
Raiding Beehives: Skunks eat bees and larvae, but aren’t good climbers. The simplest way to keep beehives safe is to elevate the hives off the ground.
Raiding Chicken Coops: Exclusion is the only long-term solution. Make sure chickens are securely closed in the coop at night; fencing around the coop should extend eight inches underground. The best wire mesh prevention should also extend eight inches out from the wall in an “L” shape.
Skunk in a Window Well: Skunks don’t see or climb well, so ending up in a window well is not an uncommon issue. Remember to watch carefully for signs of agitation when approaching the trapped skunk; move slowly and speak softly as you work. If the window well is large enough, slide a rough, wooden board into the well to act as a ramp for the skunk; the skunk will likely climb out at night. If the well is small, and the ramp board is too steep (more than a 45-degree angle), you can lower a bucket on its side into the well, after placing some smelly food (cat food, tuna, or peanut butter) in the bucket. When the skunk takes the bait, very slowly pull the bucket out – ideally using a rope, so you can stay at a distance.
Stuck Skunk: It’s not uncommon for skunks to get their heads stuck in jars or bottles. In these situations, the only safe solution is to contain the skunk and transport it to a permitted wildlife rehabilitator.
Out During the Day: Skunks are nocturnal, but sometimes are seen during the day, particularly if the skunk is a nursing mother looking for food. As long as the skunk is alert and walking normally, there is no cause for concern. If the skunk appears lethargic or is stumbling and having difficulty walking, call your local animal control officer.
Thorough fencing exclusion is the only long-term, permanent solution to keep skunks out of specific unwanted areas, visual, audio, and scent/taste deterrents can be useful short-term solutions to encourage skunks to leave an area.
Visual: Use bright flashing lights in dark confined areas where you’d like to evict skunks. Skunks are fairly shy and can be easily harassed.
Audio: Portable radios can be used in areas where you are trying to deter skunks.
Scent/taste: Believe it or not, skunks don’t like strong smells, so ammonia or strong household deodorizing scents may deter them from a particular area.
Best De-skunking Formula
If a skunk sprays you or your dog, we recommend using:
- 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide
- ¼ cup baking soda
- 1 tsp. liquid soap.
Mix together and bathe! Please note that this formula may lighten the hair of a pet with dark hair. The sooner you wash a sprayed dog, the more completely you reduce the smell. Use caution around a dog’s eyes; if the skunk sprayed the dog in the face, gently flush the eyes with cold water.
Clothing may be a lost cause.
Other de-skunking solutions include liberal amounts of vinegar, tomato juice, or washing with carbolic soap and water.
If you Find a Baby Skunk
Skunks typically have a single litter of four to six babies in May-June; skunks den in old woodchuck burrows, hollow logs, wood or rock piles, or under buildings and stone walls. The young remain in the den for about eight weeks. The juvenile skunks are weaned by the time they emerge from the den and are about eight inches long. They can make their scent at birth, and by four months of age, can spray with accuracy.
Skunk mothers can get scared away from their babies rather easily, but a lone baby will usually be retrieved later. Mother and baby can track each other by scent. Older babies can typically find their way back to their own dens by scent.
If you find a baby, leave it where it is for up to 12 hours, then recheck to see if it is still there. If the baby is very young with eyes closed, place it in an open shoebox (without the lid) and add a supplemental heat source that is not in direct contact with the young.
Do not feed the baby. If it is injured (bleeding, broken bones, or in a cat’s mouth) or has not been reclaimed by mother after 12 hours or one night, call a permitted wildlife rehabilitator.
Public Health Concerns
Skunks can carry zoonotic diseases that are serious health risks to humans and pets:
Rabies: In Virginia, skunks are a high-risk rabies species. There is no single set of indications that an animal may have rabies; since it is a neurological disease, rabies can manifest itself in many ways. While the stereotypical “furious form” (aggressive behavior, foaming at the mouth) is one manifestation of rabies, infected animals more commonly display the paralytic form of rabies, which is exhibited through lethargy, loss of balance, loss of fear of humans or other animals, and general depression. However, those same depressed signs can also indicate head trauma from an injury, or another disease. It’s also important to note that a mammal may have rabies and not yet be exhibiting any symptoms. Never handle a skunk of any age without wearing gloves.
Roundworm: Baylisacaris columnaris is a skunk roundworm that can be spread to other animals, including humans. Infected skunks shed eggs in their feces; the eggs are very resilient and cannot be killed with bleach or normal disinfectants. While the skunk roundworm is not as prevalent as the raccoon roundworm, all skunk feces should be treated as potentially infected; read more about this zoonotic disease on the CDC website.
Prevent pets from co-mingling with skunks; outdoor food dishes should not be shared between wildlife and pets. There are several diseases skunks and pets can transmit to one another, including rabies, leptospirosis, and distemper. Bring in pet dishes at night.
What NOT to Do
- Do not move quickly or suddenly around skunks.
- Don’t come into direct contact with skunks. If skunks, even babies, are handled without gloves, bites and scratches may possibly occur, which will qualify as exposure. If the health department thinks someone has been exposed, they will require rabies testing of the skunk, even if the animal is not showing symptoms.
- Don’t come into contact with skunk feces. Wear gloves and a dust mask if cleaning an area where skunks have been denning.
- Don’t keep the skunk. In Virginia, it is illegal to keep skunks as pets or to attempt to raise them yourself without a rehabilitation permit.