Why Do Skunks Spray?


Skunks can release a foul-smelling odor into the atmosphere.  If you have ever smelt it, you will never forget it.  I had an email asking me why skunks spray if you want to know why then please read on.

Skunks have many predators and spray as a mechanism to keep themselves safe.  Skunk spray is not dangerous to humans.  It is not toxic and does not transmit any diseases.

Skunks are mammals that are native to North and South America. They vary in size according to the species and have a standard fur color of black and white. There are some skunks which have brown or grey furs. Another common characteristic of the skunk is that they are striped right from birth.

Close encounter of a young skunk and a young bobcat.

Why Do Skunks Spray?

Skunks spray to protect themself and ward off predators. Skunks are small mammals and attractive to several predators.  A major way they can defend themselves to survive is through the awful smelling spray.

There are many predators, including coyotes, badgers, bears, and wolves. A number of these predators rely on their keen sense of smell to detect prey and to hunt. 

Animals with an advanced sense of smell will find the smell of the skunk spray unbearable and overwhelming. 

For this reason, predators will not be able to go anywhere near them.  They also wouldn’t perceive the skunk as a tasty meal.

The spray of the skunk is a weapon that they reluctantly use.  Before a skunk can spray an enemy, the skunk has specific warnings.   First, the skunk has a bold black and white coloration that is meant to make its appearance memorable. 

Many predators would not go near a skunk out of fear for its spray, if witnessed previously. 

Threatened skunks give other warnings, including hissing.  If this doesn’t work, they will stomp their feet several times before portraying threat postures, such as raising their tail high.

If the warning signs don’t work, they turn and face their anal glands towards their target. This is the last warning to the offender before the skunk unleashes the spray.

Skunks do not normally spray other skunks. However, males might do this when fighting over partners. 

When fighting over territories and den space, skunks prefer to do so with their teeth and claws.

Do you have a problem with raccoons digging up your lawn? If you do then I have written an article here.

When Do Skunks Spray People?

Skunks will spray humans for the same reason they will spray a predator. 

This is when they feel threatened or in danger. 

It is a bad idea to disturb a skunk intentionally. If you spot one nearby, leave the animal alone, and go your way. Otherwise, you may be walking around with a stinky odor.

People accidentally frighten skunks when they walk close to their dens without knowing it. These animals live in burrows that they dig for themselves or take over an abandoned one. 

The den is usually covered to keep away predators. If you walk over its dens and unintentionally surprise it, then you might end up getting sprayed. Skunks do this as a defensive measure.

How Can I Avoid Getting Sprayed?

If you encounter a skunk somewhere, leave it alone.  Do not walk towards them or make any sudden movements.  Skunks will only spray you when they perceive you as a threat, or if surprised.  Skunks do not want to be bothered, so try to stay away from them.

What Is Skunk Spray?

The spray of the skunk is a chemical liquid that contains organic compounds referred to as thiols. 

The foul odor of the spray is attributed to its constituents. Thiols are chemical compounds consisting of one sulfur atom that is bonded to a hydrogen atom.

The compounds are chains of carbon and hydrogen with sulfur and a hydrogen thiol group attached on one end.  They are also volatile. This means that they can disperse efficiently in the air.  

Due to the volatility, the human nose picks it up quite fast. 

When the spray from a skunk comes into contact with water, the compounds are rearranged into a potent configuration. 

When you or your pet gets sprayed by a skunk and bathes in water, the smell only becomes worse.  The more you try to wash off the spray, the smellier it becomes. 

This is probably a good reminder that humans or pets should not mess with skunks. 

How Do Skunks Spray?

Skunks have two scent glands located on each side of the anus. The glands produce and store the powerful liquid that they spray on potential threats or predators. Each one of the glands is connected to an external squirter found beneath the tail on each side of its anus.

There are muscles located just next to the spray glands. These anal muscles help skunks eject the stored spray and shoot it out. They are extremely good at aiming, rarely missing the target. 

A skunk is capable of shooting spray with high accuracy reaching targets as far as 3 meters away.

The anal scent glands contain about 15 cubic centimeters of spray.

Skunks have enough spray use to 6 times. 

It can take ten days before they can produce more of the spray.  Due to this, the spray is not something that skunks are willing to use unless they have to. 

When they deplete the stored spray in the scent glands, they are left vulnerable to predators. At this time, the skunk has no other practical way to protect itself and can easily fall prey. 

Mostly, they will try to discharge only small amounts at one time to preserve as much spray as possible.

Is Skunk Spray Dangerous?

Skunk spray is not dangerous to humans.  It is not toxic and will not cause you any complications. Their spray does not transmit any diseases, and it will not burn your skin either.  

Skunk spray is an extreme smell.   Once you have smelt a skunk, you will never forget the smell.

The smell is bad enough to trigger nausea and even vomiting.  This shouldn’t be surprising considering the spray is a chemical defense that has the capability of warding off predators as large as a bear, wolf, or coyote. 

If the liquid happens to get into your eyes, it can cause significant irritation and at times, temporary blindness.  In this situation, seek medical help to avoid issues with your eyes.  Other than getting it into your eyes, skunk spray is not too bad, apart from the smell.

There is no need to worry that skunk spray will cause you harm.

How Do I Remove Skunk Spray?

The problem with skunk spray is when it comes time to remove the smelly substance from your clothes or body.

Basic home remedies tomato and lemon juice, however, these will not remove the smell.  Trying to eliminate the smell of skunk spray using home remedies such as these will not work. 

You can find some commercial skunk odor removers here on Amazon.

How To Make A Homemade Solution 

How to Remove the Spray From Skin

  • First of all, a shower or bath should be the first thing you to get rid of most of the smell.  
  • Use a soap or body gel with a deodorant in it.  
  • Wash your hair with a shampoo designed for oily hair
  • Use baking soda in a bath.  Pour up to 4 cups into warm water.
  • Soak in the bath for up to 20 minutes.
  • Use a shower to remove the baking soda from your skin

How To Remove The Spray From Clothes

  • The smell of a skunk can be removed from most clothes with regular washing.  However, if you do have some baking soda, then I would recommend mixing in 1/2 cup with your regular washing powder.

How To Remove The Spay From Pets

  • The only reliable solution to getting rid of the smell of a skunk from pets is to use a combination of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. 
  • Create a mixture of 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda and one teaspoon of liquid detergent.  
  • Use the mixture on the fur, leaving it on for up to 5 minutes. Do not leave the mixture on for more than 5 minutes. Otherwise, it may slightly change the color of your pet’s fur.
  • Wash your pet with regular pet shampoo.
  • Dispose of any leftover mixture.  Do not keep it, especially in a sealed bottle, as it can explode.
  • This makes a good remedy, perfect for removing skunk odor from their body and fur.  
  • You can also take your pet to the vet and ask them to do this for you if you do not feel comfortable doing this.

Skunks aren’t the only animals in North America with a defense mechanism. To find out how the porcupine uses its quills, I have written an article which you can find here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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