February is the peak of skunk mating season in Northern California, which means skunks are very active right now. At this time of year, the odds of us or our pets encountering a skunk are higher than usual.
This young male skunk may have been out searching for a female when suddenly he found himself trapped at the bottom of a very muddy hole in a construction project in a San Anselmo backyard.
Unable to escape, the skunk floundered in the mud until the homeowners discovered him. Fortunately they knew to call WildCare with a wild animal in distress, and we helped them contact the Marin Humane Society whose officer braved mud and stink to transport the skunk to our Wildlife Hospital.
The first order of business, once the skunk was at WildCare, was to clean him off and warm him up.
But how do you bathe a skunk? Very carefully, of course. And with all the doors open and the fans on. Full-arm washing gloves, eye protection and a deep sink completed the picture.
Of course this skunk patient sprayed during the procedure. The bath was very stressful for him and he reacted with his best defense mechanism– that terrible stink!
But once he was clean, dry and warm, this striped patient began to feel much better. Medical Staff gave him subcutaneous fluids and did an exam, part of which involved checking him for a microchip.
To their surprise, the microchip scanner beeped as it crossed the skunk’s shoulder. We’d had this animal in the Wildlife Hospital before! A bit of research uncovered that he had been an orphaned baby in our care in 2014. He had been successfully released, and, his Foster Care providers were thrilled to note, had survived nearly two years before his unfortunate tumble into the muddy hole. Confirmation like this that our Foster Care program works and results in healthy, self-sufficient wild adult animals is extremely important and gratifying!
As of this writing, the skunk is still recovering at WildCare. His prognosis is very good, and he should be able to return to the wild (a second time!) in time to find a mate during mating season.
That skunk doesn’t want to spray you (or your dog!)
A recent caller to WildCare’s Living with Wildlife Hotline was convinced that the skunk she had seen in her yard was just waiting to spray her or her dog as soon as she left the house.
WildCare’s 24-hour Living with Wildlife Hotline 415-456-SAVE (7283) and our WildCare Solutions service are answering 10 – 20 calls a day about skunks, many of them from callers with similar concerns.
But actually a skunk doesn’t want to spray you OR your dog!
A skunk’s spray is generated in the animal’s anal glands, and the skunk does not have an unlimited supply of it. Other than the spray, skunks have few defenses, so a skunk prefers to conserve his resources whenever possible.
A skunk must “recharge” once he uses his spray, and if he completely depletes his scent glands it can take up to ten days to regenerate the full amount, leaving him vulnerable to predators.
Watch the signs
A skunk will typically give a lot of warning before spraying. He will raise his tail and shake it warningly. He will stamp his feet and turn his head and rear end toward you in a “U” shape. Unless taken completely by surprise, he will give these warnings and wait until the last possible second before deploying the “nuclear option” of spraying. A skunk generally prefers to exit the scene with no spraying involved.
WildCare’s Living with Wildlife Hotline and our WildCare Solutions service save hundreds of wild lives every year with advice on how to live better with skunks.
To every caller they give the same advice— BEFORE stepping into your yard, especially at night, let skunks know you’re coming! Skunks have poor eyesight, they’re not fast and they can’t climb, so if you give them some notice that you want to use your yard, they will almost always vacate it ahead of you. They don’t want to interact with you any more than you do with them!
Flip on the porch light. Make noise opening the door. Clap your hands. Whistle. Do a little tap dance. You might feel slightly silly, but this little bit of warning will alert any skunks passing through that you’re coming out, and give them time to exit your yard or hide.
This alert is especially important before releasing dogs into the yard. Most domestic dogs don’t read the warning signs skunks give and will rush right up to a skunk, even if he has his tail raised. This is why dogs so often get sprayed— the skunk feels he has no other options. Especially at night, be sure to provide an alert and give skunks (and all wildlife!) a few minutes to hide before letting dogs into the yard.
Removing skunk odor
Skunk smell cannot be washed off with tomato juice, ammonia or gasoline. These just mask the odor.
A suggested treatment for odor removal is:
1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup of baking soda
1 teaspoon of liquid soap
The peroxide and baking soda neutralize the odor; the soap removes the oil that holds the smell.
Be careful, though. This solution may bleach hair and other materials.
Skunks are beneficial predators that provide excellent control of garden pests like slugs and snails. They are omnivores, so they’ll also eat insects and help clean up fallen fruit in your yard. Skunks also consume rodents, so they help keep your yard free of rats and mice and other small rodents. If you are a gardener, a skunk is a great asset! But be sure not to use slug/snail bait or any poisons, as skunks can and do die from exposure to these pesticides..
Skunks hunt by scent and use their long front claws to dig up beetle grubs, earthworms, roots, and fungi in the soil and under dead leaves. Skunks don’t climb well, but they will eat fallen nuts, fruit and bird’s eggs, along with pet food and anything that smells good in the trash can after raccoons have tipped it over. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the skunk diet, particularly in winter.
Skunks dig holes in lawns looking for grubs and insects, as do several other species of animal. Digging done by skunks normally appears as small, three- to four-inch cone-shaped holes or patches of upturned earth. Long claw marks may be visible.
Skunks become a “nuisance” when their burrowing and feeding habits conflict with humans. They may burrow under porches or buildings for shelter or for a place to have their young and keep them safe until the babies are able to travel.
During mating season, January through March, male skunks begin to roam widely, often leaving their own territories in search of a mate. During this time, the males are very excitable and may spray more readily. Between these territorial disputes, males fighting and females spraying males they don’t approve of, a lot of skunk odor is generated in early spring. WildCare fields a lot of calls during this time from concerned homeowners who fear they are developing a skunk “problem.” They usually aren’t.
Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. Especially in this season when skunks are at their most active, you may smell their eye-watering musk and be convinced that the animal is right under your house, when in fact a dispute over a mate in the next backyard is the source of the stink.
Skunks in the neighborhood are one thing, but most people don’t want skunks denning under their homes. When you are absolutely certain that no adults or babies will be closed in, you can prevent skunks from denning under buildings by sealing off all foundation openings. February is the LAST month it will be safe to seal holes in the foundation without risking closing in newborn babies. Even in February, great care must be taken to ensure no animals are inadvertently trapped. Call our WildCare Solutions service for advice 415-453-1000 x23.
To properly seal openings and prevent skunk habitation, cover all openings with wire mesh, sheet metal, or concrete. Bury fencing in an “L” shape outward 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep in areas skunks can access by digging. Seal all ground-level openings into poultry buildings and close doors at night. Use tight-fitting lids to keep raccoons out of garbage cans, and make sure the cans can’t be tipped over, which puts them at skunk level.
Properly dispose of garbage and enclose and skunk-proof your compost pile! Easily-accessible food sources will attract skunks. Debris such as lumber, fence posts and junk cars provide shelter. Skunks are often attracted to rodents, so poison-free (!) rodent control may be the first step to solving a skunk problem.
Click for WildCare’s useful 24-point Self Home Inspection to help you make sure your home won’t attract denning skunks or other wildlife.
There are no registered repellents specifically for skunks, but lights and sounds may provide temporary relief from skunk activity. Most mammals, including skunks, can sometimes be discouraged from entering enclosed areas with ammonia-soaked cloths, however remember to never place ammonia or other chemicals in an enclosed space— the fumes can be fatal to animals. However, repellents are only a temporary measure. Permanent solutions require exclusion.
If the smell of skunk is truly excessive and lasts more than 24 hours, WildCare Solutions can help. A trained WildCare Solutions Specialist will conduct a home inspection, and if a skunk or other animal has take up residence, we will humanely and non-lethally evict the nuisance animal, and then permanently seal up the entry points to keep the skunk and other wildlife outside.
This WildCare Solutions approach is called “humane exclusion” and is the only long term solution that works. WildCare never kills healthy animals
Call 415 453-1000 X23 for a free phone consultation.