Skunk Spray and Your Dog

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

Where does skunk spray come from?anal_sacs_2009

Skunks have a pair of specialized sacs located in their anus; each sac is connected to the outside by a small duct that opens just inside the anus. The sacs are merely pouches that store an extremely foul smelling secretion produced by glands that line the sacs.

What is in skunk spray?

Although the actual chemical composition of skunk spray is primarily of interest only to chemists and biologists, it is necessary for the average dog owner to understand a little about the nature of skunk spray in order to neutralize it effectively.

"Skunk odor becomes more pungent when the animal becomes wet."

The secretion itself is a yellow oil that will cling to most surfaces that contacts; like all oils, it does not mix with water. Chemically, skunk spray contains as many as seven different volatile compounds (compounds that readily become gas) that are responsible for its repulsive smell. These compounds are thiols or thioacetates. Most thiols bind strongly and rapidly to skin proteins.

Although thioacetates are usually less smelly than thiols, they are readily converted into thiols when they are mixed with water. This is the reason why skunk odor becomes more pungent when the animal becomes wet.

Why do skunks spray?

Skunks are naturally very docile animals and rarely take the offensive. However, if a skunk becomes alarmed or is threatened by another animal or a person, it will use the spray as a defensive weapon. The distinctive color and markings of skunks acts as an effective visual warning to animals that have had a previous skunk encounter; however, this visual warning is ineffective to 'inexperienced' dogs. Before unleashing its repugnant spray, most skunks try to deter the threatened attack by hissing, stamping their feet, and arching their tails high over their backs. If the threat persists, the skunk will take aim and fire its spray at the target. Skunks are capable of ejecting their spray across a distance of several feet (some sources say up to 5 meters or 15 feet).

When or where is a skunk encounter likely to happen?

Whether you live in a residential jungle or spend time in cottage country, the odds of meeting up with a skunk increase in the warmer months of the year. During the winter months, skunks are generally less active and rarely eat. While they do not hibernate for the winter, they do spend most of their time in their dens for warmth. In the warmer months, they tend to be most active around dawn or dusk, although they may be out foraging for food at other times of the day or night.

In the wild, most skunks live in a den that they dig in the ground, but they may also happily make their home in a tree stump, woodpile, cave, rock pile, or abandoned building. In populated areas, skunks are often content to make a home in your garden shed, beneath your deck, or in the crawl space under your cottage.

Many skunks will select their home based on convenient access to a food source, that may be an ample supply of grubs and insects in the lawn, a handy compost heap, a convenient garbage bin, or a ready-to-eat buffet from your dog's or cat's food dishes if kept outdoors.

Skunks mate in late winter/early spring and the females are pregnant for a little over 2 months. Male skunks do not participate in the rearing of their young. The babies or kits are weaned when they are about 2 months of age, but stay with their mother until they are 6-12 months old. The mother skunk is very protective of her kits, and will spray at any sign of danger to them.

How can I lessen the chances of my dog meeting a skunk?

Since skunks tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, avoid taking your dog for a walk in wooded areas or letting your dog out in the yard during these times of the day. Although you are often able to detect the telltale smell of a skunk before it gets too close, sometimes there may be no warning that a skunk is nearby.

"Since skunks tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, avoid taking your dog for a walk in
wooded areas or letting your dog out in the yard during these times of the day."

Take steps to make your property less attractive to skunks. Eliminate readily available food sources such as garbage or pet food. Board up or otherwise block access to sheds and areas beneath your deck or porch. Remove piles of brush or wood and any dead tree stumps that might make an appealing shelter to a skunk.

How can I get rid of skunk odor on my dog?

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, a skunk will spray your dog. Most commonly, dogs will be sprayed on or around the head. Not only does skunk spray smell extremely foul, it will cause nausea or vomiting and in rare cases severe anemia if swallowed and will act like tear gas if it gets in the eyes. If your dog gets sprayed directly in the eyes or mouth, seek immediate veterinary treatment. This is particularly important if the spray gets in your dog's eyes, since it can damage the delicate cornea of the eye and cause temporary blindness. If the spray is not causing serious distress to your dog, you can take matters into your own hands so that your dog will be welcomed back into your home.

To neutralize the odor associated with skunk spray, you need to break down the oils so that they can be washed off the fur or skin. But you also need to change the chemical structure of the volatile compounds so that they become substances with little to no odor. In spite of the old wives' tale, tomato juice just does not work to do this; it only makes a big mess! Nor does vinegar work effectively.

"To neutralize the odor associated with skunk spray, you need to break down the oils
so that they can be washed off the fur or skin."

Chemists have developed several commercial products; some of these products are more effective than others at neutralizing skunk spray. Unfortunately, many encounters between dogs and skunks occur in the late evening or middle of the night when stores and veterinary clinics are closed, meaning that you cannot go and buy the product when you need it. By studying the nature of the secretions, scientists have determined what combination of products readily available around the home have the potential to help neutralize skunk odor on your dog. Most homemade recipes involve a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish detergent in varying amounts; the most common is 3-4 parts hydrogen peroxide to 1 part of baking soda, with a teaspoon or so of dish detergent added.

The dish detergent breaks down the oil so that it can be washed away, while the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda act as oxidizing agents, changing the chemical structure of the thiols into odorless sulfonic acid compounds. To be effective, the solution must be used while 'fresh', or still bubbling, and must be applied directly to the sprayed areas.

Are there any concerns with using a homemade odor neutralizer?

Yes. You should never use solutions that contain peroxide near the eyes, and you must be very cautious about applying them in the mouth. You need to be aware that the peroxide may bleach your dog's fur, and this is especially noticeable if your dog is black or dark brown. Also, the peroxide can bleach any material it may come in contact with (such as your clothes or furniture).

"You should never use solutions that contain peroxide near the eyes,
and you must be very cautious about applying them in the mouth."

When using the homemade product, it is common to notice the 'eau de skunk' smell every time your dog gets wet over the next few months. This rarely occurs when a commercial odor eliminator is used correctly.

Is there anything else I should be aware of?

In both Canada and the United States, skunks are carriers of rabies virus. On an annual basis, approximately 20% of the animals that test positive for rabies in the United States are skunks, while in Canada, 40% are skunks.

What is the best advice?

If you cannot purchase a commercial odor neutralizer, you can get temporary relief by using the homemade recipe above. For permanent elimination of the smell on your dog, use a commercial odor neutralizer that is recommended by your veterinarian. Use a commercial product that is safe for use on your furnishings or other contaminated clothing. However, the best advice is to avoid contact between your dog and any resident skunks in your area, not only for the sake of your nose, but also to avoid any potential for exposure to rabies.

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