Plant Palette

Plant Palette


Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

About a year ago, one of my sisters called me with a harrowing tale of her dog Blaize's encounter with a skunk. My sister and her husband were sitting on their patio one night, ready to relax after a long day. That evening proved to be nothing close to relaxing.

As my sister described it, it all started when they saw a skunk emerge from a clump of ornamental grass near their patio. At about exactly the moment they said "oh no, a skunk!" their dog Blaize also realized there was an animal in her yard, and she was going to defend her yard.

Although the appearance of the skunk seemed unusual at the time, it really wasn't. Skunks are crepuscular, which means they are active at dawn or at dusk. They tend to be solitary except when mating in the early spring.

Skunks are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plant and animal material. They especially love insects. They will eat vegetation and young birds, rodents and eggs if the opportunity arises. Urban development has not scared skunks away-- rather, it has created new food sources, primarily garbage, pet food and lawns full of grubs.

The moment Blaize spotted the skunk seemed somewhat in slow motion, as my sister and brother-in-law screamed "Blaize! Nooooooo!" But it was too late. Blaize had the skunk in her mouth, and was shaking it.

Skunks have excellent senses of hearing and smell, but their vision is poor. They cannot see clearly over about ten feet away. This is said to be one reason why so many skunks end up as roadkill. So there is a chance that this poor skunk had no idea what hit it when Blaize picked it up.

When she let the skunk go, did it run off? No. It got its revenge. It stood its ground, unleashing its foul-smelling self defense mechanism. Blaize got hit directly, but as if that wasn't bad enough, the skunk was spraying directly towards the screen door leading to their kitchen, which was open.

We all know that skunks have a horrible odor, but what exactly is it? Skunks spray a foul-smelling sulfur containing fluid from their anal glands. The skunk that is found in Illinois, the Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis (meaning "stench") certainly lived up to its name that night in my sister's yard. There are ten species of skunk in the world; two inhabit Indonesia and the Philippines, the rest inhabit Canada, North America and South America. All have similar means of foul smelling self-defense.

Before spraying, the skunk will lift its tail up and stomp its front feet. According to my sister though, the skunk in her yard was stomping its front feet while spraying. This skunk was mad. It didn't just spray a little puff of nasty smelling spray and run off. My sister describes several horrible seconds where she said you could actually hear the spray coming from the skunk.

A skunk only has about half an ounce of fluid in its anal glands to use for defense. Typically this is enough for five to six sprays which they can accurately direct up to ten to twenty feet away. Judging by what my sister described, it sounded like her skunk emptied every round it had on her, my brother-in-law, their poor dog Blaize, and their kitchen.

The aftermath of the skunk incident was not pretty. The sulfur containing compounds in skunk spray can be irritating. Blaize's eyes were swelled shut after her encounter. Rinsing with lots and lots of water immediately following the skunk attack helped alleviate some of the irritation, but the odor problem still remained, not only on Blaize, but on everyone else involved plus the kitchen.

Thankfully the weather was nice, as my sister and brother-in-law opened every window in the house and hauled everything easily removable from the kitchen outdoors. The smell had drifted into the adjoining living room, so area rugs, pillows and couch cushions also ended up outside.

The odor from skunk spray is very difficult to remove. The classic remedy touted is tomato juice. This doesn't work well, unless you like the smell of skunk plus tomato. The smell of a skunk rapidly saturates our sense of smell. The technical term for this is olfactory fatigue. People think that tomato juice is a solution for skunk spray because the tomato scent is detected by their fatigued sense of smell that simply can't smell the skunk anymore. But anyone coming upon the situation would say the skunk scent was still there.

A better remedy is to mix one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide solution, cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon liquid soap. Use this solution to wash people, pets and items sprayed by the skunk. Use with caution as this solution may bleach out surfaces it touches.

My sister and brother-in-law definitely experienced olfactory fatigue, even after using the hydrogen peroxide solution for cleaning. After being up nearly all night dealing with the skunk smell, my sister thought it was cleaned up pretty well, and headed to work. She was promptly sent home, because though she couldn't smell herself anymore, everyone else could! My brother-in-law had a similar experience riding the train to work. He noticed people sitting down near him, then getting up and moving away. Within a day or two they were both socially acceptable again, the skunk smell having been neutralized with repeated washings in the hydrogen peroxide mixture.

It took several weeks for the majority of the skunk smell to dissipate, even with thorough cleaning. But some of the scent remained, as it is impossible to wash absolutely every surface. Months later the medicine cabinet in their bathroom of all places still smelled faintly of skunk. Blaize's leather collar had to be replaced, as even repeated washings never removed the smell.

Another reason to be cautious of skunks is that they are known carriers of rabies. If you notice skunks that seem unafraid of people or have erratic uncoordinated movements, contact your local animal control office.

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