Wild Ideas: Tales of the ‘striped kitty’

‘Deskunking’ solution

To remove skunk musk from hair or clothes, combine the following in a container outdoors (to avoid fumes):

  • 1 quart hydrogen peroxide (3 percent)
  • one-quarter cup baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon liquid laundry or dish detergent

Thoroughly work the solution into the animal’s or person’s hair, avoiding the eyes, and into affected clothes, then rinse thoroughly. The hydrogen peroxide in the solution can bleach clothes and hair somewhat, but beats the alternative. (This recipe, with slight variations, has been attributed to various sources.)

While skunks are beloved characters in cartoons and children’s books, meeting them in real life is a less pleasurable and infinitely smellier experience. Most commonly, we learn about skunk smell from our dogs’ getting sprayed or from skunks being squashed on roads.

One vivid memory I have of the latter is from a hot summer day when I was a kid. My family decided to beat the heat in Fairfax, where we lived, by heading for the cooler climes of Shenandoah National Park. We got as far as the switchbacks leading to the Thornton Gap entrance when traffic slowed to a crawl. I can’t remember if there was an accident on the road or just a lot of people going to the park, but what I do remember is that an entire family of skunks had recently been run over just at the point on the road where we hit the traffic jam. As sad as the skunk family’s demise was to all of us in the car, what was etched into our memory over the many, many long minutes it took to get past the scene was the overpowering, stomach-churning stench.

I had a close encounter with a live skunk a couple of decades later, when working as a caretaker of a small ranch that was part of a large stock farm in Wyoming. I had been riding in a far pasture at the base of the Big Horn Mountains on a hot day, checking on fencing and livestock and was on my way back home. Coming out of a deep draw, I saw a skunk coming my way at the top of the butte, only a few yards away.

The horse I was riding was my least favorite on the ranch. Too tall to be handy, he was also stubborn, not particularly bright and was prone to responding unpredictably – even explosively – to sudden changes in his environment. Having him shy and take us both over the edge of the butte was not an appealing scenario, but trying to turn him around on the narrow trail was also not a good option. I figured if I could just move him quietly, steadily forward at as oblique an angle to the skunk as space allowed, we could get home alive and reeking only of sweat.

Skunks, such as the two striped skunks above, are known by their markings and their ability to spray a noxious musk in defense. Photo by Tomfriedel via Wikimedia Commons.
Skunks, such as the two striped skunks above, are known by their markings and their ability to spray a noxious musk in defense. Photo by Tomfriedel via Wikimedia Commons.

The skunk kept rambling toward us, with no apparent interest in anything but getting to wherever it was going, even though on this treeless butte it undoubtedly saw us. My mount, on the other hand, had seen the skunk and snorted and tightened up under me. Patting the gelding softly and gently nudging him forward firmly, we slowly eked past the threat. The skunk kept going toward the draw we’d just come out of.

The skunk’s smelly secretions come from glands near its anus. Most mammals have similar glands, which produce pheromones and other chemical compounds used to mark territory and attract mates, conveying information such as status, mood and gender. In skunks, sulfur-containing chemicals in the secretions produce an extremely strong, clinging odor; the delivery system has also been weaponized. A nozzle on each of the two musk glands enable the skunk to aim its load in two different directions at once, covering a wide area. Sometimes standing vertically on its forepaws, it can hit a target up to 10 feet away.

Confident in their defense weaponry (which puts them at a disadvantage with cars), skunks are generally slow moving and, when healthy, not aggressive. Before firing at a perceived threat, a skunk will usually give warning by stamping its forepaws, then raising its tail.

Every dog I’ve owned has run afoul of at least one “striped kitty,” as my dad used to call them. Typically skunks aim their spray at a predator’s face, and a direct hit in the eyes can cause temporary blinding, so most predators soon learn to stay out of their way. Unfortunately for us dog owners, some dogs just don’t get the message.

I have tried to “deskunk” dogs on many occasions. Despite its popularity, I’ve found tomato juice ineffectual, along with any soap itself. After my current dog inadvertently got sprayed at just a few months old after surprising a skunk in an overgrown pasture, I finally did find a recipe for a simple, inexpensive solution that really works (see sidebar).

While Mai Coh was pretty good at avoiding skunks after that, when she found an entire family of skunks traveling along a creek drainage on the golf course behind my parents’ house in Reston a couple of months later, she couldn’t resist following them, albeit warily, from a few feet away. Fortunately, the mom ignored her and kept ambling down the drainage with her five cute little kits, while I managed to call off my dog.

Skunks are common throughout the United States, with the cat-sized striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) being the most common in Virginia. Western Virginia, including Rappahannock County, is also home to the eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius), which is half the size of its striped cousin and less common.

Despite their formidable defense mechanism, I like skunks, with their beautiful, luxurious fur marked in bold black and white, their cute little bulbous noses and their energy, inquisitiveness and affectionate nature. When descented, they’ve been popular as pets and bred for that purpose commercially in a range of coat colors. Their beautiful fur, which is used in clothing and accessories, also makes wild skunks vulnerable to being trapped, which is legal in most states, including Virginia.

The more serious downside to skunks is that they can contract rabies, second only to raccoons among Virginia’s native wildlife. Despite the availability of vaccine, the fear of rabies has led to laws here and in many other states against keeping skunks as pets.

Skunks have a wide-ranging diet and will occasionally makes holes in yards to extract grubs and other goodies. The best way to keep skunks away from houses is to avoid making food available, especially pet food.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”