April 14, 2024

Pretty much everyone on Earth knows what skunks are, and more importantly what they can do. Skunks are notorious for spraying an incredibly foul, nasty discharge from their backside when threatened, and there’s hardly anything on Earth you can do to eliminate the smell.

Many an unfortunate person, and plenty of unfortunate dogs and cats have crossed a skunk only to come away reeking worse than a sewer. That’s bad enough, but are skunks truly dangerous?

No, skunks are not particularly dangerous, though their foul smelling anal discharge can cause temporary blindness if it strikes your eyes. In extremely rare cases, skunks may bite if cornered.

Generally speaking the worst thing you’ll have to worry about when dealing with a skunk is getting sprayed, and so long as you can avoid that unhappy outcome you’ll be okay.

Skunks would greatly prefer to avoid people and trouble if they can. You can learn more about these beautiful but anxiety-inducing mammals here.

Understanding Skunk Behavior

Skunks are small, mostly solitary mammals, rarely weighing more than 15 to 20 pounds.

North American striped skunks are easily identified by their charismatic and instantly recognizable black fur with two body length white stripes on either flank extending down the tail.

Skunks usually lead a mostly solitary existence, with males wandering over a small home range that is usually no more than six or seven square miles, with females having even smaller ranges.

Most active at dawn or dusk, but occasionally through the night and sometimes seen in the daytime, skunks roam around looking for food and burrow locations.

Skunks are powerful and capable diggers, quickly moving through soil using their front claws.

When the seasons get colder, skunks become for months at a time, and although they do not enter genuine hibernation they will only emerge from this winter solitude occasionally.

Females live together during the winter whereas males most typically den by themselves.

Skunks are possessed of excellent hearing and sense of smell, but their eyesight is stereotypically terrible: skunks can rarely perceive anything with detail beyond 10 feet away.

This is one of the reasons why skunks are so often killed by road traffic.

In nature, skunks move about with very little fear of anything around them. This is because they have precious few predators that are dedicated enough to take them alive after being sprayed!

Skunks do not fear dogs, coyotes, wolves or foxes, though they are very rarely preyed upon by all. The only consistent predators of skunks are great horned owls.

This is a particular concern if you are in an area where skunks are, because much of the time they don’t display any true fear of people.

They might avoid you if they know you are there, but it is hardly unheard of to see skunks moving through a backyard or coming right up to a house.

That can easily set the stage for someone or a pet getting sprayed!

Are Skunks Aggressive Toward Humans?

No. Skunks as a rule tend to avoid people who come too close, but their poor vision combined with their almost total lack of predators means they move through the world with hardly any concern.

A skunk that is overtly aggressive towards people might have a head injury or even have rabies.

Have Skunks Ever Attacked Humans?

Yes. Attacks upon humans are quite common if you consider their anal spray to be an attack.

Although it rarely if ever results in permanent injury that does not occur as a secondary effect of panicked retreat, it can cause genuine harm if it gets into the eyes of a person or animal.

More serious injuries resulting from bites are extremely rare, as skunks will typically avoid biting unless they have no other choice.

How Do Skunks Attack?

Defensively, skunks will lead with their spray. Much of the time, skunks will engage in elaborate threat displays prior to spraying, usually consisting of growling, hissing, stomping of the front feet and lifting their tails straight up.

Pretty much every single animal on earth knows to avoid skunks and those that do not, or those that are bold or foolish, will soon learn why.

If its defensive display is not enough to back off a potential predator, the skunk will turn, aim and fire its spray, which has a range of about 10 feet.

Perhaps most surprising, skunks have uncanny accuracy with this spray, and will easily hit what they are aiming at.

On a particularly troubling note, skunk spray is also highly flammable, so take care of your campfire should you have the misfortune of getting doused while out in the wild.

If a skunk is out of spray, of which they have a quantity usually only good for five to six bursts, and is cornered or grabbed they may resort to biting.

What Causes Skunk Aggression?

Skunks, as a rule, are not aggressive. However, like most animals, if cornered, grabbed or if young are directly threatened they will defend themselves.

As detailed above, skunks prefer to spray as their primary defensive measure, but they can and will bite or scratch if they have no other options.

Do Skunks Eat People?

No, not really. Skunks are omnivorous, and eat a typical diet consisting mostly of insects, insect larvae, worms, small reptiles and amphibians, birds and bird eggs. They round out this diet with plant matter, fungi, berries and nuts.

That being said, skunks do often act as scavengers, eating meat from carcasses, including those of mammals, and breaking into garbage cans or pet food containers around human habitation.

A skunk would never attack you with the intention of eating you, no matter how hungry it was, but if something happened to you and you perished it is not out of the question that a skunk might eat your body, or at least eat some of it: they are very small.

Are Skunks Territorial?

No. Skunks are not particularly territorial, especially when it comes to larger animals.

How Strong is a Skunk?

Skunks have powerful and well developed front legs and strong jaws. That being said, their physical strength is not what makes them a threat or menace to people.

A mature skunk could give you a fairly nasty bite, but aside from the spray they represent a very minimal physical threat.

What Should You Do if You See a Skunk?

If you see a skunk, get as far away from it as you can if you want to avoid being sprayed.

Keep in mind that skunks have such poor vision it is not out of the question that something could startle them and they might spray as a reflex.

Even if you aren’t the target, if any of the volatile compounds in the spray missed on the wind and drift towards you, you could get a secondary dose!

What Should You Do if Attacked by a Skunk?

A skunk showing genuine aggression towards a person is very rare except in the case of a rabid individual. More on that in a moment.

But as mentioned above, skunks exhibit very little fear of any other creature out in the world thanks to their remarkable defenses.

They will generally travel to and fro whenever and wherever they want. If a skunk is moving across your path or is observed from a distance, you can take the time to admire it from a position of safety.

However, if the skunk is heading towards you you need to get out of its way. If retreat or escape is impossible for whatever reason, hold very still, make no sudden movements and do your best to avoid startling the skunk.

Is There Anything You Can Do About Skunk Smell?

Not much. Despite many products on the market that claim to eliminate skunk odor and countless old wives’ tales and urban legends claiming to do the same, only time will alleviate the clinging, cloying disgusting odor of a skunk’s discharge.

Tomato juice is not effective. Lemon juice is not effective. Commercial products which are specially formulated to neutralize the cocktail of the thiol compounds that give skunk spray its punch work better, but are not 100%.

Considerable research has led to most agencies and organizations in the know recommending a mixture of dishwashing soap, baking soda and diluted hydrogen peroxide as your best bet.

In time, the smell will depart from skin and hair, but goods, particularly fabrics, may be ruined forever.

Do Skunks Carry Diseases People Can Catch?

Skunks are known for carrying a few diseases and various parasites, particularly ticks and fleas. However, the most serious virus that skunks carry that can be transmitted to humans is rabies.

Although not as common a carrier as some other small mammals, skunks are the majority carrier of the rabies virus in the Midwestern part of the United States and certain parts of California.

This is why a truly aggressive skunk should be treated with considerable alarm, more than usual anyway, and you should never approach a skunk because they, like any other wild mammal, can carry and infect you with rabies.