General: The Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is an easily identifiable member of the weasel family, known for its graphic coloration and extreme odor used for defensive purposes (mephitis meaning “noxious vapor” in Latin.) This shy nocturnal animal is an opportunistic feeder that can often be spotted in backyards searching for its next meal. This is an abundant species with populations across much of North America and is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Description: Striped skunks are known for their graphic black and white coloration. Their all-black bodies are marked with two bold white stripes running the length of the back, originating on the head where they meet in a triangular shape to form a ‘white cap.’ A third white stripe runs between the eyes, from the forehead to the base of the snout. Bushy tails are 6” to 12” in length and are usually a mottled combination of black and white hairs, although the solid stripes may extend onto the tail. Stripe width and length are determined on an individual basis. Color patterns may vary, resulting in the identification of four subspecies. These subspecies typically occur because of geographic barriers1.
Adults grow to an average length of 22” to 32” and a weight of 2.5lbs. to 10lbs., comparable to a housecat, males reaching a larger mature size than females. Striped skunks have small heads with small features and short legs with plantigrade feet and five partially webbed toes2. The front toes have long claws that aid in digging. Their short legs do not allow for running, instead Striped skunks move with distinctive waddles3.
Wild Striped skunks have a life expectancy of 2 to 3 years. In some regions, nearly 90% of skunks perish during their first year. Striped skunks living in captivity have survived as long as 15 years4.
Striped skunks are nocturnal, emerging from their burrows at dusk to search for food. During the day they reside in protective dens, often built using another animal’s abandoned burrow, such as a fox or woodchuck. Striped skunks may also build their own den in the ground or a hollow log or under a building, using their long claws to excavate5. These dens may contain up to five entrances and multiple chambers.
Striped skunks enter a period of inactivity from the late fall to March. Communal winter dens accommodate several females with their young and, on occasion, a male (although males usually live in a separate, solitary den.) Males tend to emerge on mild winter days in search of food, while females remain inactive throughout this period.
Skunks are notorious for their mechanism of defense. Because their coloration offers them no camouflage in their native habitats, they require a physical defense that develops when they are just a few weeks old. When facing an extreme or mortal threat, these animals use two glands located on either side of the anus to accurately spray an intense-smelling compound up to 15’ (the smell can travel for up to a mile.) This foul oily spray is directed at threats or predators and may cause extreme discomfort in the eyes or respiratory system, and nausea. Before spraying, Striped skunks display a series of warning behaviors to ward off predators, including hissing, stomping, arching the back, and erecting the tail.
Striped skunks use scent to announce their presence and/or reproductive status to other individuals, since they have excellent senses of smell. They may also use changes in posture and a variety of sounds to communicate (their good sense of hearing allows them to register hisses, screams, squeals, and chattering made by other skunks6). Skunks are known to have poor vision, resulting in many collisions with automobiles.
Habitat: Striped skunks prefer open areas in close proximity to water. Habitats include woods, grassy fields, agricultural clearings, parks and suburban areas. In their native habitats Striped skunks have several predators, including owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and dogs.
Location: Striped skunks are native to the nearctic region, found across most of North American, from central Canada to northern Mexico7.
Diet: Striped skunks are opportunistic feeders, scavenging for a diet that varies based on season. As omnivores, skunks’ diets include insects (with beetles and beetle larvae, caterpillars, ants, wasps, grasshoppers, crickets, bees, millipedes and centipedes making up roughly 70% of their diets8,) worms, snails, salamanders, crustaceans, turtle eggs, ground-nesting birds and their eggs, slugs, frogs, mice, squirrels, shrews, small rabbits and snakes, fish and fruits and vegetation (including berries, grass, leaves, buds, carrion and nuts)9. Striped skunks commonly dig in search of food (such as grubs,) leaving shallow divots in a lawn that resemble those dug by squirrels.
Reproduction: Striped skunks are a solitary species and typically only interact when mating in the late winter or early spring. Female skunks are monestrous but may have a second estrus in the case of a failed initial pregnancy and males are polygamous, usually seeking out several partners in one mating season. Females build a nest of dried leaves, grass, and weeds usually located in one of the chambers in her den. The nest may also be located under a thicket of dense vegetation, under a rock, or in a burrow. Females nurture the unborn internally, with gestation lasting between 60 and 77 days. Litters contain anywhere from 1 to 10 young (but on average contain 4 or 5,) that are born blind, deaf, and immature, weighing only 33g10. Females provide the helpless young with milk for a month after birth while males provide no care. After about 6 weeks in the den, the young will begin following their mother out hunting and will continue doing so until fully grown, reaching sexual maturity in 10 months11.
Encounters of the Skunk Kind…
It is important to remember that skunks use their spray defense as a last resort, when they feel they or their young are being gravely threatened. Avoiding these animals and knowing the warning signs are your best defenses against you or your pets getting sprayed. The first step is being aware of your surroundings, especially at night when these animals are most active. Keep your pets on a leash or restrained in a fenced-in yard away from areas where skunks may have dens or be feeding. Limit pets’ outdoor-time at night and make sure to supervise them. Also consider eliminating areas that may attract skunks, such as abandoned animal dens or cavities in the ground, open-access to sheds or garages, and animal food storage. If a skunk is encountered, try and remain calm. These generally easy-going animals may ignore humans and other animals all together if they don’t feel threatened. If you stand still and passive, the skunk may wander away from the area. Calmly walk away and remove pets from the area.
You can tell if a skunk feels threatened by looking for these signs:
• Stamping feet and forward lunges
• Raised tail
• Turning of the posterior in your direction
If you or your pets are unfortunate enough to be sprayed, several steps should be taken to avoid physical discomfort and ease the potency of the smell. If the sulfur-alcohol compound12 emitted by the skunk has gotten into your or your pet’s face, immediate flushing with clean water or a saline solution is necessary (making sure to flush your pet’s eyes, nose, and mouth.) This compound may cause severe discomfort and possibly temporary blindness. If your pet continues to rub his/her eyes after rinsing, contact your veterinarian and try to prevent additional rubbing (as this may cause more trauma to the eyes.) If this compound is inhaled (at close range,) it may cause respiratory inflammation and discomfort and extreme nausea13. Proper attention should be sought from medical professionals for you or your pet if symptoms persist or are severe.
In order to eliminate the strong odor, the chemicals emitted by the skunk must be neutralized. The following mixture may be applied to your skin, hair, some clothing, and your pet:
1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide
¼ cup baking soda
1-2 tsp. liquid dish soap
Combine these ingredients and apply immediately using rubber gloves, avoiding your or your pets’ eyes. Keep in mind this mixture will bubble. Rinse, and repeat. For external use only. Keep in mind, hydrogen peroxide is a bleaching agent and should not be left on for more than 2 minutes.
Discard any remaining mixture. Do not store in a closed container because oxygen released will cause the container to explode14.
If possible, discard any contaminated clothing since this oily mixture soaks in to many fabrics. The above mixture may be applied to some clothing but could bleach colors. Contact your local dry cleaner regarding garments you wish to have washed.
If clothing, your home, or other items have absorbed the smell indirectly, you may wash using a solution of household bleach to neutralize odors (1 cup bleach per gallon of water.)
Commercial cleaning solutions, shampoos, or sprays (containing neutroleum alpha) may be available at your veterinarian’s office or your local store that specifically target skunk odors15.
*If you encounter a skunk during the day it is important to contact the appropriate authorities. Skunks are primarily a nocturnal species and abnormal activity during the day could indicate a rabid animal. If you or your pet is bitten (which is uncommon but can happen,) you should immediately contact your doctor or veterinarian, as well as your local health department.
Notes of Interest:
Skunks are one of the four primary carriers of the Rabies virus. Other primary carriers include bats, raccoons, and foxes16.
Before writing skunks off completely, consider their positive attributes, including their tendency to aid in pest control, feeding on mice, squirrels, moles, caterpillars and grubs.
While skunks secrete a very undesirable smell when threatened, their regular musk is a common ingredient in perfumes17.
A member of the weasel family (along with minks, and ermines,) the skunk has a thick coat of glossy fur. Historically, their hides were sought after by the fur industry. In recent decades, this fur has seen a decline in value18.
Skunks may be domesticated and some households choose to keep skunks as pets (having the scent glands removed.) This practice, however, is illegal in many states due to this species’ tendency to carry the rabies virus.