Summer months, with their sunny days and warm nights, are prime time for critter activity. Cityside and countryside, animals are out and about, searching for food and a good place to raise their young. Skunks are no exception, and while they aren’t looking for trouble, they know what to do when it finds them.
Skunks tend to mate in February and give birth to a litter of kits in May or June. So, by late summer, young, inexperienced skunks are beginning to venture out into the world. (Skunk, meet dog.) If we’re our dogs’ best friends, the striped skunk has to be one of their worst. Even the skunk’s scientific name—Mephitis mephitis, from the Latin word meaning “stench”—references the eye-watering odor of their defensive spray.
HOW DO SKUNKS SPRAY AND WHY DOES IT SMELL SO BAD?
It’s only natural that our pooches would be interested in a critter that goes by the name of “polecat,” but woe to those who get too close—a single encounter can leave them stinking to high heaven.
Skunks are armed with dual scent glands, one on either side of the anus, each of which holds almost an ounce of malodorous organic chemicals strong enough to repel a bear. They also get points for distance; powerful muscles surrounding the glands can propel the musk several feet from their body. The odiferous, oily liquid is extremely volatile, meaning, it vaporizes quickly and soaks into everything it touches.
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As to why it smells so bad—here’s some data for your inner chemistry nerd. The pungent odor, which can be described as a mix of rotten eggs and burning tires, comes from volatile organosulfur compounds called thiols, mostly E-2-butene-1-thiol and 3-methyl-1-butanethiol. Thiols are backed up by thioacetates, which, on their own, aren’t especially stinky until they get wet. Thioacetates are why you need to resist the urge to wet down your dog before you attempt to de-skunk him. Water plus thioacetates equals an even smellier dog and a less-effective remedy.
If your dog is sprayed by a skunk, before you wash him, check to make sure he hasn’t taken a direct hit to the eyes. If he has, veterinarian Rebecca Burwell, DACVO, of Eye Care for Animals in Santa Rosa, Calif., recommends using an artificial-tear solution or eye wash to flush out the eyes, and a visit to the vet if they become red, squinty or develop a discharge. A trip to the vet is also recommended if he’s been scratched or bitten.
Fortunately for canine victims, the total volume of spray is small and permanent injury is rare, although there have been reports of serious consequences, and even death, from severe exposures. The thiols in skunk spray can remove an electron from the iron atom in hemoglobin, resulting in an anemia that causes lethargy, black feces and brown urine. According to Mary Thrall, DVM, MS, DACVP, “Life-threatening anemia doesn’t happen very often, but owners should be aware of this possibility, and have their animal checked following a direct spray.”
HOW TO GET RID OF SKUNK SMELL ON DOGS
Several over-the-counter deodorizing products, most of them featuring enzymes, are available in pet supply stores and online. Here’s a good, science-based recipe for a homemade remedy that breaks up the oils and tamps down the odor, developed by chemist Paul Krebaum in the early 1990s. Note: This mix is relatively mild but must be kept out of the dog’s eyes, ears and mouth!
• A clean plastic bucket in which to mix the ingredients.
• 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. (Other strengths are not recommended. Peroxide is usually sold in pint bottles, so you’ll need two. Use fresh peroxide from unopened bottles.)
• 1/4 cup baking soda. (Do not use washing soda, which is much stronger and will burn your dog’s skin.)
• 1 to 2 teaspoons of a liquid detergent. (Softsoap and Ivory Liquid are preferred)
• Latex gloves are also a good idea.
How to Use It:
1. Apply to the DRY dog, working well into the fur.
2. Let stand for about five minutes.
3. Rinse with tepid water.
4. Repeat if necessary. (And yes, it’s likely to be necessary.)
Do not store this mixture; it loses its effectiveness and, more importantly, it releases oxygen gas, which could cause a closed container to explode. It may bleach the dog’s fur (but better that than the smell!). And remember, the sooner you deal with the skunking, the better. Left alone, the smell sets and is harder to eliminate.
Why It Works
This de-skunking mixture contains hydrogen peroxide, a strong oxidizing agent that reacts with the thiol (SH), removes electrons and adds oxygen atoms to generate an odor-free sulfonic acid (SHO3). Baking soda buffers the acid, and detergent helps remove the oily, hydrophobic (water-repelling) sulfonic acids.
HOW TO REMOVE SKUNK SMELL FROM YOURSELF
If you’re the one who got skunked, your first step in neutralizing the odor is to bathe. Wash your entire body with deodorant soap or a grease-cutting dish detergent. Wash your hair with a shampoo made for oily hair.
You can also take a baking-soda bath. Pour 2 to 4 cups of baking soda into hot water, soak for 15 to 20 minutes, then rinse well under the shower to remove the residue from your skin.
No, Tomato Juice Doesn’t Work
A widely held urban myth claims that a tomato-juice bath eliminates skunk odor. Sadly, it’s not true. Tomato products may help mask the odor, but they do not oxidize or destroy the thiols or thioacetates that cause it. (The same goes for remedies containing beer and oatmeal.)
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A SKUNK
We asked a trainer for advice on keeping dogs away from skunks. Here’s what she had to say.
If you spot a skunk while out walking with your dog, immediately stop and maintain your distance. Leash and/or keep your dog close and slowly retreat, encouraging your dog to follow you. When you’re beyond the 10- to 15-foot spray range, move away and continue your walk in open areas, avoiding brush and the wooded areas where skunk encounters are most common. Or, if your dog is already “on point” and close to the skunk, call her to come and quickly walk in the opposite direction, urging her to follow you. This is when a solid recall really pays off!
Despite their odoriferous reputation, skunks are generally easy-going animals and do not bother people unless harassed. They use their powerful defense only when they or their young are threatened and they cannot escape. Dogs, following their curious nature, may heighten the “threat” from the skunk’s perspective. If you find yourself with a skunk problem, the Humane Society offers some compassionate advice.