Probably anyone that is not living in the middle of city has experienced skunks in their garden, or at least in their neighborhood. Skunks are nearly ubiquitous in the mainland U.S. and are very adaptable creatures in terms of learning to live side by side with humankind. So the chances of a skunk eventually venturing into your garden and perhaps interacting with your plants or pets is likely. How harmful or dangerous are skunks? This article will touch upon some of the worries and problems with skunks as garden invaders and their interaction with your pets.

Skunks are carnivores in the Mustelidae family and closely related to ferrets, common pets throughout much of the world. Mustelids are known primarily for their noxious anal gland secretions, though all carnivores produce anal gland materials (and all smell bad). Skunks are somewhat unique in that they can actually spray their secretions consciously from their glands over some distance. All Mustelids have some degree of control of these glands, but only skunks are able to spray. But if you think that your cuddly pet ferret does not have nearly as noxious secretions as those of skunks, it is only because nearly all ferrets are de-scented before being sold as pets. As a veterinarian I have done many of these de-scenting procedures and I can personally attest that ferret secretions are nearly as noxious as those of skunks. Unfortunately sometimes a gland is ruptured during the surgery- the first thing that happens is all unessential personnel evacuate the operating room (in other words, everyone but me) leaving only the surgeon to gasp and gag his or her way through the rest of the surgery alone. Though not actually poisonous, mustelid anal gland secretions are noxious enough to be difficult to tolerate--they burn the eyes and other mucus membranes (skunk spray reportedly has some sulphuric acid in it) and can actually cause physical pain and respiratory difficulty. This scent can take days to weeks to fully leave ones skin and hair. It is a very effective means of repellent and anyone who gets this anal material on them will not soon forget the experience.

Fortunately most people are rarely careless or unlucky enough to be sprayed by a wandering skunk in the garden. Unfortunately this is not the case for our pets. Though cats rarely get close enough to a skunk to be sprayed, dogs commonly enjoy this experience, some over and over again. Dogs are just too curious, territorial or careless to avoid garden skunks, and they frequently get sprayed right between the eyes. Few dogs go as far as to catch or kill a skunk as this spraying is fairly effective at deterring even a determined dog (but not always). So if you have dogs in the garden, you may have to deal with skunky odor periodically.

How do you get rid of this scent? There are more de-skunking remedies than I could possibly go over, but veterinarians have tried many of them. My conclusion is that none of them are perfect, and most are fairly equal in terms of effectiveness, or lack thereof. There are several commercial products sold specifically for this purpose and these are about as effective as some of the old homemade remedies. Most groomers and hospitals rely on canned tomato juice baths, baking soda preparations, commercial canine shampoos or dishwashing soap. One recipe that has been fairly popular is 1 quart of Hydrogen Peroxide (the 3% solution for medical use, not the concentrated form for bleaching hair) + ½ cup baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid dish detergent [1]. A good spray of cologne post bath can help a bit, but nothing can really completely cover up or eliminate this odor. However time works wonders and all sprayed dogs eventually smell ‘normal' again in just a week or two.

There are a few reports of an unusual reaction in dogs to skunk spraying in enclosed spaces, though I can find nothing but anecdotal information about this ‘syndrome'. It is called Skunk Toxic Shock Syndrome and as far as I can tell it has only happened to one or more terriers which trapped skunks in underground situations. These dogs then suffered acute anemia and went into shock. Their kidneys were also affected, though whether that was due secondarily to the shock or directly from some compound in the skunk spray is unclear. Either way, unless you have a large burrow full of skunks in your garden, this situation is unlikely to occur to your pet.

Skunks can offer more dangers than just their horrific scent and the rare toxic reactions. Though there are thankfully few incidents of rabies in dogs in the United States, there are still many reports each year of rabies in local skunk populations. Skunks are probably the second most commonly rabies infected hosts next to bats in the U.S. Rabies is a bad disease. I cannot stress this enough, and all pet owners should really be sure their dogs are up-to-date on their vaccines should there be any chance of coming across a skunk in their lives. Once rabies virus makes its slow and steady trip from a bite wound to the brain, it is virtually 100% fatal. I don't know why the skunk is such a common rabies reservoir, but one should obviously be wary of skunks for more than just their stinky nature.

Skunks can also carry their own unwanted parasites into your yard as they search for food. Though skunks are not nearly as likely to be a major flea carrier as are Opossums and patrolling cats, they can drop flea eggs in the yard. Also skunks can be infected with a particularly nasty round worm (Baylisascaris columnaris) that can do some damage to your pet should it eat the infected skunk's feces. This parasite is not as deadly as the raccoon species, but it still not something you want your pet dog to be eating. Baylisascaris in the wrong host (i.e., you or your pet) can cause serious brain or ocular damage.

Other than those dangers, skunks can also bite if attacked, and bites can get infected. Skunk bites are really no more likely to cause an infection than any other wild animal bite, but skunks are easier to catch than most other wild biting animals (except for maybe the opossum) so if a dog is not deterred by the stench, it is likely it will get bit in the fray. Be sure to take your wounded pet to your veterinarian immediately so the wound can be properly cleaned and antibiotics begun.

Of course skunks can also be a nuisance to the garden itself by digging and looking for grubs. However this topic, and how to keep skunks away from your garden will be discussed in another article coming up.

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