By Sally Griffith
Iseem to have an unwanted but personal relationship with skunks. About a month ago, as I was picking up mail at our mail boxes, a skunk suddenly appeared from under a bush where she had dug a den. Hopefully, she won’t be able to follow me to our house on the other side of the neighborhood. Just in case, I checked to see if any holes or other hiding places were next to our house. So far, she hasn’t found me.
I have lived in several places where skunks have taken up residence under our porches. Skunks will do that. They prefer pre-dug residences, but if necessary their long, sharp claws work well for digging their own holes. From personal experience, I know that it is much easier to prevent skunks from taking up residence than to move them from pre-existing ones. But I can give you a little advice for co-existing with skunks: the skunk usually wins, so the best you can do is work out an uneasy compromise.
In one instance, our 170-pound dog learned the hard way that he had to stop and look before exiting into our back yard from our back porch. In another place, we learned to yell loudly after leaving our garage, then peek around the corner until our resident skunk exited from below our front porch and danced over to the neighbor’s yard to eat from the outdoor cats’ dishes. Then we’d run as fast as we could to unlock the front door.
My point is that skunks are so numerous that they almost seem like pets. That is until they turn around and raise their tail. They also present an even more serious threat in the form of skunk-based rabies.
It was our vet who suggested I write this article. He gave me a copy of Rabies in Colorado, 2018, a release from the Department of Health and Environment. He pointed out that suddenly Denver County has gone from one to 24 confirmed rabies cases in skunks. Jefferson County, which typically had none, reported three. Between these two counties, they make up 60 percent of all the cases in Colorado so far this year.
Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that infects the central nervous system in mammals. Skunks can only transmit the virus to another animal when they are rabid, meaning the virus is no longer dormant and symptoms are present. Rabies is transmitted in saliva when a rabid skunk bites another animal. Skunks cannot spread rabies through urine, feces or even via their unpleasant spray.
There are two ways in which rabies can present itself. Either the skunk will become aggressive, called the “furious” form of rabies, or he’ll display a complete lack of fear of humans or other animals, called the “dumb” form.
Furious rabies, where a skunk grows aggressive and foams at the mouth, is the most recognized form of the disease and the most likely to lead to a disease-spreading bite. If a skunk wanders into your yard and seems totally fearless of your presence and wanders around disoriented, he may have the “dumb” form. Healthy skunks, like the one in our neighborhood, will typically run away from people or pets, shooting off a dose of foul-smelling spray to keep them away.
There are three types in skunks in Colorado: striped, eastern spotted and western spotted. The striped skunk in the largest in size and the most common. With rare exceptions, all these skunks have the familiar warning colors of white on black. They may have a single stripe, two thin stripes or a series of white spots and broken stripes.
Skunks are about the same size as cats, only with stouter bodies and shorter legs. These shorter legs mean that they waddle wherever they go. If they waddle too fast, it looks like a very strange dance move. I know, I have seen it many times.
Wild skunks usually live alone, except when they are breeding and when mothers are caring for their young, called kits. After breeding in early spring, they have their kits in late spring. The kits stay with their mothers until they are about 8 months old.
Skunks are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal material and changing their diets as the seasons change. Skunk foods may include rats, mice, birds, eggs, chickens, small rabbits, and insects such as grasshoppers, cutworms, grubs and beetles. Skunks love honeybees and are considered the primary predator of bees.
Skunks can spray with a high degree of accuracy as far as 10 feet. The smell is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose up to a mile downwind. They have two glands beneath their tail that produces their “musk perfume” and they seem to be able to fire at will. The good news is that skunks carry just enough for five or six uses after which they require 10 days to produce another supply.
Skunks’ most serious predator is the great horned owl, which has a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell. Coyotes, foxes and cougars will usually not prey on skunks unless there are no other options available. They hate the scent as much as humans.
Skunks are creatures of opportunity and will help themselves to anything that’s available such as garbage, berries, dog food and bird seed. Skunks will even use dog or cat doors to come inside searching for an easy food source. Skunks have been known to fall down uncovered window wells and be unable to get out. In either case, you don’t want to have to extricate a skunk that feels threatened.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, more skunks live in and around towns than in remote locations.
“This is a good time to remind people to clean up possible food sources around their property and seal up openings that skunks might get into,” says Steve Keefer, a wildlife manager with CPW.
Skunks come out at night and take shelter during the day beneath woodpiles, in abandoned cars, or under sheds or buildings. Skunks look for any place dark and secluded. As with most conflicts involving wildlife, prevention is key and begins with removing easy food sources that might attract skunks. Keefer reminds citizens that relocating skunks is illegal. Regulations require that captured skunks must be euthanized.
If any member of your household does get sprayed by a skunk, tomato juice is not recommended. It just masks the scent. It doesn’t get rid of it. I know from trying to bathe a 170-pound dog in tomato juice. We used up our store’s tomato juice allotment for a week and it still didn’t help.
Instead a homemade shampoo can be made by mixing 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of dish soap. You should wear gloves and apply the mixture on the dog’s coat, being very, very careful to avoid the dog’s eyes. Let it remain on the dog for about 10 to 15 minutes and rinse it off. Or you may use vinegar, which means you must endure the vinegar smell. But that usually dissipates in about 5 to 10 minutes. As an alternative, you can purchase a shampoo called Skunk-Off.