Skunks are, of course, known for the defensive spray they can emit from anal glands, and they are generally instantly recognized thanks to the distinctive white back stripes over a solid black body. Almost everyone knows enough to quickly walk in the opposite direction when a skunk is in the area, but it's a bit trickier when you need to get rid of a skunk that has decided your property is a good place to hang around. Any efforts at chasing them away put you at risk of getting sprayed with a very noxious odor. For your pets, the danger is even more serious, as skunks are among the more likely wild animals to carry rabies.
Cartoon character Pepe Le Pew aside, skunks are animals that should be viewed very cautiously, and one that shows up around your home demands that you make efforts to expel it.
The Biology and Behavior of the Skunk
Skunks are small warm-blooded mammals closely related to weasels. In North America, the most common species is the common striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), which readily adapts to the presence of humans and is often found in suburban areas, or even in urban parklands. There are at least 12 regional subspecies within the M. mephitis species.
About the size of a large house cat, skunks are nocturnal omnivores that subsist primarily on insects, though they will also eat other small animals, roots, and other vegetation. They give birth to two to 12 kits born in mid-May to early June from ground dens, which the mother either digs herself or adopts from other animal dens or hollows beneath man-made shelters.
It is not unusual to find mother skunks nesting under raised sheds or outbuildings, especially on farms or rural residences. Thus, this early summer breeding time—along with the winter period semi-dormancy period— is when skunks are most likely to show up near your home. Skunks don't have a true winter hibernation, but they become much less active and spend most of their wintertime underground in a shelter.
In purely wild environments, skunks don't pose problems for humans, but because they have a good defense strategy, they are rather fearless animals. Thus, they are known to be quite prevalent in suburban zones where garbage cans, bird feeders, and outdoor pet food dishes encourage them to visit backyards. Turning on a yard-light at night may well reveal the glittering eyes and upright tail of a skunk searching for food in your yard. Lawns infested by lawn grubs may be regularly visited by a skunk or two digging for treats at night.
By some accounts, skunks are responsible for up to 20 percent of all cases of rabies reported each year in North America. Any skunk whose behavior seems unusual for the species should be avoided at all costs. Instead, call animal control authorities to handle the situation. If you do happen to kill an erratically behaving skunk or find it dead on your property, have a professional handle the removal and disposal.
6 Ways to Get Rid of Skunks
Get Rid of Food Sources
Skunks are omnivorous and will be attracted to any location that offers favorite foods, ranging from grubs and worms in a garden, to bird seeds below a bird feeder, to wet or dry wet food in your pets' outdoor dinner dishes. Skunks have also been known to raid eggs from family chicken coops. If you eliminate these food sources or make them impossible to reach, a skunk will soon slink away in favor of easier hunting grounds.
Make sure to feed your pets indoors, and keep your yard free of spilled garbage and other foods. Keep garbage cans in a garage or enclosure rather than sitting outside. Because they have such broad tastes, though, don't expect skunks to vanish overnight. They will scavenge until convinced that no easy food sources remain.
Get Rid of Shelters
Skunks are mostly nocturnal animals, and they seek dark shelters to sleep through the daylight hours. Woodpiles, elevated sheds, and other outbuildings, and even open garages can offer them places to take temporary shelter during the day. A doghouse that sits outside rather than in a kennel enclosure may be quite attractive to a skunk, as are chicken coops. In winter or during the breeding season, they will seek more permanent dwellings, usually underground.
Use Light and Noise
Skunks are night-loving creatures, and you may be able to chase them away if you keep your yard lighted at night. Some people have good success with bright motion sensor lights that come on only when they detect ground-level motion. The sensors can be "aimed" so that they react only to ground-level movement.
Electronic noise makers activated by motion sensors can also be a good strategy, as skunks prefer things to be quiet. But you do run the risk of offending neighbors by chasing away skunks with noise.
Use Chemical Repellants
There are several commercial products, both liquids and granular, that are effective at repelling skunks. Many of these contain fox or dog urine, which seems to make skunks quite nervous. Spray or sprinkle the products around areas where you have seen skunks. The peppery sprays and granular products used to repel rabbits and squirrels may also work to chase skunks away.
Trapping may be an option, but state regulations vary as to the legality of trapping, types of traps allowed, humane treatment, and specifications for release (when live traps are used).
Live traps are generally available at hardware, agricultural supply, and feed stores, or sporting goods stores. Try baiting the trap with canned or fresh fish, fish-flavored cat food, sardines, chicken entrails, or peanut butter, then covering the trap with a heavy canvas prior to setting it to help decrease the chances of the skunk spraying when it realizes it is caught. Always check your state and local laws prior to attempting to trap any wildlife.
Once you have trapped a live skunk, it's best to consult your local animal control authorities for advice on what to do with it. Often, they will come to pick up the animal for disposal or relocation. Or, they may have advice on where you can legally release the skunk—or how to humanely kill it, if that's the advice. In some areas, skunks are regarded as nuisance animals and any form of live release is illegal.
Hunt the Skunks
Some states allow shooting of skunks, based on the area in which the nuisance animals are sighted, the time of year, hunting license restrictions, whether or not the skunks are protected fur-bearing animals, humane treatment laws, and an array of other regulations. Check your state's Fish and Wildlife Service for applicable laws and restrictions.
Shooting is usually an option only in rural areas. Virtually no urban or suburban communities will allow shooting.
What Causes Skunks?
Skunks are prevalent over large areas of North America that lie in near proximity to wooded areas. This can include some environments that are surprisingly urban, provided there are large parks or semi-developed areas nearby.
Skunks can thrive in any area where they can find easy access to food and shelter. Communities where garbage is collected in open heaps, or rural residences that dump or burn garbage, can be prime locations for skunks. Combine food accessibility with nearby woods, and you have a prescription for skunks to visit.
If you suspect that a skunk (or other wild creature) is living under your home, porch, or other areas, inspect the potential entry point just after dark when the animal has left to seek food. It's likely you will see tracks, which can be verified with a wildlife reference guide. If the ground is not conducive to tracking, lay a thin layer of sand, dust, or baking flour on the ground to pick up any animal tracks.
How to Prevent Skunks
Preventing skunks is largely a matter of denying them the food sources and shelter they need. Special fencing that is well maintained can be essential for keeping skunks out of your yard as these animals don't climb. Skunks will dig beneath fences, so the only way to protect an area with a fence is by burying it 6 to 8 inches deep, with the fencing shaping into an outward-facing L at the base, with the leg extending 8 to 10 inches.
Consider these other strategies:
- Block entries to crawlspaces and raised foundations.
- Close in areas beneath decks and porches with latticework or heavy landscaping.
- Pick up all pet food and water bowls and scraps each night.
- Keep garbage cans covered, and never put food in open compost piles.
- Remove all logs, rocks, lumber, and junk or trash piles under which skunks can find shelter or insects on which to feed. Wood piles should be stacked tightly and raised at least 18 inches off the ground.
- Seal off any openings in foundations or crawlspace with 1/4- to 1/2-inch hardware cloth or other sturdy mesh.
Will Skunks Attack Pets?
Possessing a very good defensive strategy, skunks generally do not attack pets—other than with a shocking spray to the face if the animal gets too close. If a skunk does bite a dog or other pet, it may be an indication that the skunk is rabid. This requires immediate attention from a vet to your pet, as well as a call to animal control to deal with the skunk.
Skunks, do, however, sometimes feed on the eggs of chickens and may even eat newly hatched chicks. This is not a sign of rabies, but rather, a normal feeding behavior.
When Should I Call a Professional?
Given the likelihood of getting sprayed, this is one instance where calling a pro may be your first course of action. In most cases, professionals use some form of trapping to catch skunks in a residential location.
If you have any suspicions that you are dealing with a rabid skunk, call your local animal control agency immediately. After catching the skunk, they will have tests performed to learn if the skunk is carrying disease.
What Are the Symptoms of Rabies in Skunks?
The old stories about animals foaming from the mouth and attacking wildly when they are carrying rabies are rarely borne out in real life. A rabid skunk, will, though, behave abnormally and it may be more aggressive than is typical for the species. Skunks are normally very quiet, docile, and nocturnal animals, and a skunk that is wandering around in the daytime, behaving aggressively, or moving erratically could be suffering from rabies. In later stages, it may seem listless or may quiver and have trouble moving.
Can You Keep a Skunk as a Pet?
Though it might seem unusual, skunks are sometimes kept as pets once their scent-producing anal glands are removed. Like their cousins, the weasel, some skunks can become docile, even affectionate pets, but few experts advise attempting this. While they can become quite friendly over time, skunks by nature are willful, headstrong animals and they demand a lot of attention and cleanup work. Further, the surgical removal of the glands is understandably regarded by animal rights advocates as mutilation of a wild creature. Keeping a domestic skunk may even be prohibited by law in your area.
How Do I Get Rid of Skunk Odor?
If you or a pet does happen to get sprayed by a skunk, there are several strategies for getting rid of the odor. A simple mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and liquid detergent is surprisingly effective. Or, you can buy one of the commercial preparations that are available.
Can I Poison a Skunk?
It's a very bad idea to attempt to poison a skunk, as well as probably illegal. A poison that is capable of killing a skunk will be highly toxic and likely to kill any other animal that finds it—including neighborhood pets. Moreover, an animal that consumes a non-lethal dose of poison may go through intense suffering from internal organ damage.