Figure 1. Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis).
Photo by Greg Clements.
- Demonstrate the ability to educate clients about control options.
- Provide a diagram of typical sets used to capture skunks.
- Identify the risks involved in working with skunks.
- Describe options for controlling odor.
Legal Status in New York
Protected. Game species with set season. NWCOs may take or possess skunks without any additional permit from the DEC when the animal is damaging or destroying property or found to be a nuisance.
Skunks are a rabies vector species, so you must consult with the county health department and follow their guidelines for disposing of the animal.
Overview of Damage Management and Control Methods
- Remove garbage, debris, and lumber piles
- Close cellar, outside basement, and crawl-space doors
- Seal and cover all openings
- Trench-screen decks and porches
- Install wire mesh fences around poultry yards
- Elevate beehives and install aluminum guards
- Secure the base of fences
- One-way doors
- Limited value
Repellents and Toxicants
In New York, any use of toxicants or repellents by NWCOs requires the NWCO to have a pesticide applicator license.
- Effective, but usually emits odor
- No. 1 foothold
- No. 160 or 220 Conibear®-style or body-gripping traps
- 7- x 7- x 24-inch cage or box trap
Other Control Methods
- Direct capture
Skunks, in the order Carnivora, were classified until fairly recently as part of the family Mustelidae, which includes weasels (genus Mustela, the name bearer of the family), badgers, martins, otters, and wolverines, among others. Many mustelids have an anal scent gland that produces a pungent secretion used as a defensive weapon, a seemingly obvious connection to the skunks. With mounting genetic evidence (DNA trees), it has become apparent that skunks do not belong to the Mustelidae but form a family of their own, the Mephitidae. Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis, Figure 1)
Skunks have short, stocky legs and proportionately large feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable them to be very adept at digging. Skunks can discharge nauseating musk from their anal glands and are capable of several discharges rather than just a single discharge. Striped skunks often are characterized by prominent, lateral white stripes that run down the back; the fur is otherwise jet black. Striped skunks are about the size of an ordinary house cat, up to 29 inches long and weighing about 8 pounds.
Voice and Sounds
Skunks make noises ranging from screeches, whimpers, and chirps. They stomp their front feet in a thump, thump combination when agitated.
Tracks and Signs
Tracks may be used to identify the animal causing damage (Figure 2). Both the hind and forefeet of skunks have 5 toes. In some cases, the fifth toe may not be obvious. Claw marks usually are visible, but the heels of the forefeet normally are not. Tracks from the hind feet are approximately 2½ inches long.
Droppings of skunks can often be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are ¼ to ½ inch in diameter, and 1 to 2 inches long.
Odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. The musk of skunks can be detected for up to a mile away. Opossums also emit a “skunk-like” odor. Sometimes dogs, cats, or other animals that have been sprayed by skunks make owners mistakenly think skunks are present. Odor from skunks that persists for days and increases in intensity typically means a skunk has died and the musk gland has broken open.
Adult skunks begin breeding in late February through March. Gestation is 62-75 days. Litters commonly consist of 4 to 7 young, but may be from 2 to 16. Young or small females have smaller litters than old or large females. Kits forage with the female when they are 7 weeks old and are independent at 3 months old, but stay with the female until fall. Both sexes mature by the following spring. Skunks can live up to 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild.
The normal home range of the skunk is ½ to 2 miles in diameter. During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 miles each night. Females that do not wish to mate with a particular male typically will spray them.
Skunks prefer to den in abandoned woodchuck holes, hollow logs and under decks, porches, sheds or other secluded areas. Dens typically have good drainage and protection from rain.
Skunks are dormant during the coldest part of winter, but may emerge if there is a warm spell. They may den together in winter for warmth, but generally are solitary except for females with young. They are nocturnal, slow moving, deliberate, and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals. In the summer, females may be active during the day while foraging for food for the young.
Skunks inhabit a variety of habitats, but prefers clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests.
Skunks eat plants and animals in about equal amounts during fall and winter. They eat considerably more animal matter during spring and summer when insects, their preferred food, are more available. Grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets are the adult insects most often taken, but they will also eat earthworms, bird eggs, garbage and pet food. Skunks dig in lawns for insect larvae and grubs. Field and house mice are regular and important items in the diet of skunks, particularly in winter. Rats, cottontail rabbits, and other small mammals are taken when other food is scarce.
Damage to Structures
Damage by skunks to structures tends to be of an olfactory nature rather than affecting the integrity of a structure. Odor can penetrate and linger in cloth furniture, clothing, and carpets. Odor from skunks can contaminate items several floors away from the original source.
Damage to Livestock and Pets
Skunks occasionally kill poultry and eat eggs. They normally do not climb fences to get to poultry. By contrast, rats, weasels, mink, and raccoons regularly climb fences. Eggs usually are opened on one end with the edges crushed inward. Weasels, mink, dogs, and raccoons usually kill several chickens or ducks at a time. Dogs often severely mutilate poultry.
Skunks prefer to be left alone. Pets, particularly dogs, with strong territorial instincts soon discover that skunks will spray. Some dogs continue to attack and sometimes kill skunks. Owners should avoid touching pets that have been sprayed with bare hands and keep them outdoors. Pets should be washed before they are handled. If possible, have the skunk tested for rabies. Owners should consult their veterinarian about further treatment for their pets and consult the local health department about their own need for rabies post-exposure vaccination.
Damage to Landscapes
Skunks dig holes in lawns, golf courses, and gardens to search for insect grubs found in the soil. Digging normally appears as small, 3- to 4-inch, cone-shaped holes or patches of upturned earth (Figure 3). Skunks typically are very precise in their digging and they are known to remove insects systematically from the turf in a section-by-section fashion. In general, damage stops after 3 weeks because food is no longer available. Several other animals, including raccoons and domestic dogs also dig in lawns.
Skunks occasionally feed on corn, eating only the lower ears. If the cornstalk is knocked over, raccoons more likely are the cause of damage. Damage to the upper ears of corn often is indicative of birds, deer, or squirrels.
Health and Safety Concerns
Skunks are a rabies vector species. Avoid being bitten by and coming into unprotected contact with bodily fluids of skunks. Skunk spray is not known to contain the rabies virus. If exposure has occurred, promptly seek medical advice. Have the skunk tested for rabies if possible. Some clients will respond with asthmatic symptoms when exposed to odor from skunks. Advise clients to leave the area.
Rabid skunks are prime vectors for spread of the virus. Avoid overly aggressive skunks that approach without hesitation. Any skunk showing abnormal behavior, such as daytime activity, may be rabid and should be treated with caution. Report skunks that are behaving abnormally to local animal control authorities.
Laboratory testing is the only way to definitively determine the presence of rabies in an animal. Rabies can be prevented but it cannot be cured once the virus reaches brain tissue.
Skunks will not defend themselves unless they are cornered or harmed. They usually provide a warning before discharging their scent by stamping their forefeet rapidly and arching their tails over their backs. Anyone experiencing such a threat should retreat quietly and slowly. Loud noises and quick, aggressive actions should be avoided.
Always follow the safety and first-aid guidelines on the product label of all deodorant products. Carefully read the label prior to mixing and applying any product. The following guidelines can be used when other instructions are not available.
Eyes exposed to musk of skunks or deodorant may show severe burning and excessive tearing. Flush eyes with copious amounts of lukewarm water for 15 minutes. Ensure run-off water does not contaminate the unaffected eye. Use a large cup and hold it 2 to 4 inches above the eye while pouring. Seek medical advice.
If ingestion of deodorants occurs, follow the directions on the product label and call the Poison Control Center.
Inhalation of the musk of skunks may cause headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Move the victim to fresh air immediately. Seek medical advice.
If skin exposure to the musk of skunks occurs, remove contaminated clothing and flush skin with water for at least 10 minutes to prevent chemical burns. Seek medical advice.
Skunks become a nuisance when their burrowing or feeding habits conflict with humans. They may burrow under porches or buildings by entering foundation openings. Garbage or refuse left outdoors may be disturbed by skunks. Skunks also may damage beehives by attempting to feed on bees. Many homeowners experience odor-related concerns.
Damage Prevention and
Skunks may be controlled whenever damage is occurring.
Remove garbage, debris, and lumber piles to reduce attractiveness of an area to skunks. In general, skunks prefer cover and debris-filled areas as these provide excellent hunting grounds. Properly dispose of garbage or other food sources that will attract skunks. Skunks often are attracted to rodents living in barns, crawl spaces, sheds, and garages. Control programs for rodents may be necessary to eliminate these attractive food sources.
Seal all ground-level openings into poultry buildings and close doors at night. Poultry yards and coops without subsurface foundations may be fenced with 3-foot wire mesh fences. Bury the fence to prevent digging under it (Figure 5). Skunks can be excluded from window wells or similar pits with mesh fence or window well covers. All pits greater than 3 inches deep should be secured to prevent entrapment of juvenile skunks. Place beehives on stands 3 feet high. It may be necessary to install aluminum guards around the bases of hives if skunks attempt to climb the supports, though skunks normally do not climb. Use tight-fitting lids to keep skunks out of garbage cans.
Keep skunks from denning under buildings by sealing off all foundation openings. Cover all openings with wire mesh, sheet metal, or concrete. Where skunks can gain access by digging, follow these guidelines. Bury ½-inch weave fences 2 inches below the ground and extend the mesh out perpendicular from the location being protected at least 12 inches (Figure 4). Increase depth and extension of mesh in sandy soil or when skunks are highly motivated to enter the location.
Skunks can be excluded from a structure using a 1-way door. Secure the perimeter of a deck or shed with trench-screen. Install a 1-way door (minimum size 4 x 4 inches, Figure 5) over the entrance in a manner that ensures the skunks can easily exit. Return after several days of good weather to evaluate the location. Remove the 1-way door and secure the opening.
Be sure to remove the animal and/or young before sealing up the den or structure. You may try to convince your customers to wait until the young are mobile before removing them from the site. If that is unacceptable, you can try to capture and remove the female and all of her young and hope that she will retrieve them and continue to care for them. If the young ae older and mobile, install a 1-way door over the entry hole. They will leave but won’t be able to re-enter. Wait 3 – 4 days before sealing the entry.
No frightening devices are effective for the control of skunks.
Repellents and Toxicants
In New York, any use of toxicants or repellents by NWCOs requires the NWCO to have a pesticide applicator license.
Before using any product, you must check the New York State Pesticide Administrator Database (NYSPAD) to see if the product is registered for use in NY and for the target species. For example, if the product is registered for use on squirrels, it cannot be used for deer. The following are presented as examples of repellents and toxicants that may be effective.
No repellents are registered for the control of skunks.
Gas cartridges may be registered for the fumigating burrows of skunks. Fumigation kills skunks and any other animals present in the burrows by suffocation or toxic gases. If legal, follow label directions and take care to avoid fire hazards and exposure of gases to non-targets when used near structures. Light and hold gas cartridges until they ignite before placing them deep in burrows. Seal openings of the burrow with soil to secure the fumigant in the burrow.
Shooting is effective, but there is no reliable method of shooting skunks without emitting odor. If odor is not a problem, use a .22-caliber rifle or shotgun with No. 6 shot.
Cage and Box Traps
Cage traps should be covered at least 50% of their length, especially when trapping skunks. Otherwise, use box traps. Some manufactures market box traps specifically for skunks. The traps are made out of plastic to prevent the skunk from becoming agitated and to provide a visual barrier.
Covers reduce rather than eliminate the ability of skunks to spray. Always approach a trap slowly and quietly to avoid upsetting a trapped skunk. Hold a small tarp or blanket in front as you approach a trapped skunk. Stop if the skunk shows signs of agitation. When you are close, gently drape the tarp over the trap. Gently remove the trap from the area and release or kill the trapped skunk. Removing and transporting cage- or box-trapped skunks may appear to be precarious business, but covered traps are a proven, save, and effective method for moving skunks.
To remove skunks that are already established under buildings, first seal all possible entrances along the foundation. Leave the main burrow open. Set traps in a barricade to force them into the traps. A minimum of 3 cage or box traps are recommended. Two-door traps are very effective, as are single-door traps (Figure 6). Place traps so that a skunk in 1 trap cannot reach to trip the adjoining trap.
After the first night, replace or reset the traps. If no skunk is caught, set test sticks over the den entrance to determine if more skunks are present (Figure 7). If no activity is observed in 2 to 3 days, the den likely is empty. Fish-flavored cat food, peanut butter, sardines, and chicken entrails are effective baits for skunks. Sweet baits such as marshmallow spread, fruit preserves, and jellies also may be effective when domestic cats are present.
Body-gripping or Conibear®-style traps generally kill the trapped animal. Avoid trapping domestic animals, such as cats and dogs. It is not advisable to use a body-gripping trap under or near a structure due to concerns with odor.
Number 160- or 220-sized traps should be used. Out-of-the-way dens in rural areas are the best places to set these traps. Place traps in front of dens and stake them solidly to prevent the trap from moving as an animal approaches and to prevent trap loss. Always make sure the trap has room to fire, or it will be thrown out of position by the closing action of the jaws.
Most trappers push sticks into the ground between the springs and slightly inside of the jaws to help stabilize the trap. Cover den sets with chicken wire to prevent domestic animals from entering the trap, but make sure room is available for the trap to fire.
Foothold traps should not be used to catch skunks near houses because of the tendency of skunks to spray.
When rescuing skunks from window wells and garages, on-site release is the preferred option. Be sure the client and neighbors keep their doors closed, pets restrained, and children away from the area. Release the skunk in an out-of-the-way area with ground cover. If possible, release the skunk close to nightfall.
Relocation and Translocation
Relocation and translocation are not advised because skunks are a rabies vector species. NWCOs must contact the County Health Department Office in the county where the animal was caught to get guidance on if and where the animal can be released off-site. Prior to release, NWCOs must obtain permission from the owner of the land where the animal will be released.
Translocation of skunks is not advised because they are a rabies vector species. In many situations translocation may be restricted, so check state and local regulations.
Carbon dioxide is the preferred method of euthanasia for skunks. Skunks are tolerant to CO2, so it may take up to 20 minutes to die. Observe the chest for motion for at least 3 minute to ensure that breathing has ceased. Skunks have been known to spray during asphyxiation. Often, their sphincters loosen, allowing some fluid to release.
Where odor issues are not a priority, .22-caliber, rim-fire firearms or a shotgun with No. 6 shot, can be used where allowed and safe. The shot usually is directed to the head. An extremely intense odor event almost always will be associated with the shot. Other methods may be preferable. Follow firearm safety instructions at all times and take a certified firearm safety course before attempting to shoot.
Check state and local regulations regarding disposal of carcasses.
Other Control Methods
Sometimes skunks must be captured directly, without the use of traps because the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Skunks that are sick or in high-visibility areas typically require direct removal. You cannot guarantee an odor-free removal. Equipment needed includes, gloves, light-colored blanket (large enough to cover the holding cage and protect the lower half of your body), cat grasper, and a transport cage.
- Restrict the movement of the skunk.
- Keep the blanket between you and the skunk.
- Keep a low profile. Skunks feel threatened when large objects approach.
- Watch how the skunk behaves. Approach slowly and stop when the skunk seems agitated. Speak softly or not at all.
- When close enough, move quickly and precisely. Cover the skunk with the blanket, capture it with the cat-grasper, and insert it into the open cage. Sometimes skunks will walk right into an open cage.
- Deodorize as needed.
Removal of Skunks
If a skunk enters a garage, cellar, or house, open the doors to allow the skunk to exit on its own, set a trap, or encourage the animal to leave with a water hose. Watch the behavior of the animal. If it thumps its front feet and turns its back side to you, these are signs that the skunk is agitated and about to spray.
A skunk trapped in a cellar window well or similar pit can be removed by using a ramp. Nail cleats at 6-inch intervals to a board (Figure 8), or securing hardware cloth between 2, 2 x 4 boards. Lower the board into the well and allow the skunk to climb out on its own.
Skunks are famous for their pungent defensive spray, known as musk. The musk is a yellow-tinted, oily liquid stored in 2 sacks located on opposite sides of the anus. Each sack holds about a teaspoon of musk; enough to allow multiple sprays. It is discharged through “nipples” that provide skunks with several key advantages. Each nipple has its own musk sack, allowing the skunk to shoot with “both barrels.” The nipples can be directed to aim at a specific target and adjusted to discharge musk in either a mist or stream.
Musk of skunks is not known to transmit the rabies virus but it can temporarily blind and stun individuals that are sprayed in the face. Victims will experience watering eyes and may vomit. Musk of skunks is composed primarily of 3 volatile chemicals known as thiols that give musk of skunks its awful smell. Humans can smell musk of skunks in concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion.
Odor Control Theory
Three essential aspects must be present before someone can smell an odor: there must be a source of the odor, it must be released, and it must be perceived. Remove any part of the triad and you will be unable to perceive the odor. Methods of control that endeavor to encapsulate odors usually are impractical for most situations. The vast majority of techniques for odor seek to remove the first and/or third parts of the triad.
General deodorizing principles will work for musk of skunks and other odors. Whenever possible, treat the source of the odor. Deodorants work best when applied directly onto the objects that have been sprayed. Avoid unnecessary movement of contaminated materials to reduce spreading odors to new areas. A key exception to this principle is when contaminated materials are being moved to a less-inhabited area. Ventilate with fresh air.
Odors may “reactivate” during periods of high humidity. If the odor does not seem to decrease in strength after 1 or 2 weeks, the skunk likely re-sprayed or died on the property. Use air fresheners to mask residual odor. Women are more likely to notice odors than men are. While the research is not conclusive, it appears that women have more sensitive noses than men.
Deodorizing treatments may be needed to reduce odor from skunks. An odor from the musk of skunks can be controlled effectively at its source by chemically changing the active compound. In the case of musk, relief can be achieved by oxidizing the thiols. We will use the term “neutralize” for those products that chemically interact with musk of skunks. “Scent” will be used to describe products that simply mask odor. “Deodorizing” will be a neutral term to describe all products that mitigate odor from skunks regardless of the mechanism.
Deodorant products may cause adverse reactions in people that are sensitive to the ingredients. People do not always know what substances cause allergicreactions. Some deodorants contain toxic compounds. All chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, should be used in a manner that reduces exposure. Avoid exposing children, pets, and plants to chemicals. Remove foodstuffs and secure food preparation areas whenever possible. Read and follow all product label directions and warnings. Use deodorants in well-ventilated areas. Some products may discolor fabrics and other materials. Test the product on a less noticeable area prior to treating more visible areas.
Repeatedly apply deodorants when odors penetrate porous surfaces such as sheet rock or unpainted wood. Occasionally, removal of contaminated materials will be the only solution. Expectations should be lowered to reduce the likelihood of disappointment.
Over-the-counter solutions can help reduce odors. Paul Krebaum discovered a formula that has proven its ability to chemically neutralize the thiols in musk of skunks. Mix 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid dish detergent. Ingredients must be mixed in an open container and used immediately. Never mix the ingredients in advance, as the released oxygen may cause the container to explode. This formula can be used on people and pets, but avoid splashing the product in the eyes or mouth. Allow the solution to remain in hair for 5 minutes before rinsing with water. Repeat as needed.
For inanimate objects, mix 1 cup of liquid laundry bleach into 1 gallon of water. Be careful, as bleach is corrosive and can stain fabrics. It is unclear if “color safe” bleach is an effective deodorizer for musk of skunks. A variety of odor control products are available at area stores (Skunk-Off®, Odor-Mute®). Homeowners may find these products helpful in deodorizing their property. Tomato juice is not recommended. It, along with many other home-remedies, only appears to be effective because these scents exploit olfactory fatigue. Olfactory fatigue occurs when the nose is so overwhelmed with odor that it can only smell something “new”, thereby giving the appearance that the original odor has been eliminated.
Professional deodorants are available for use by the public. Neutroleum Alpha® has been used to control odor from skunks in a variety of settings, including medical facilities. It deodorizes by masking the odor with a different one that is described as “minty.” Use it directly on surfaces. It also can be used as an air deodorizer by dabbing on napkins and hanging them in the area. Generally, a single application is sufficient.
Neutroleum Alpha® has toxic and irritating properties. Applicators should use the product in well-ventilated areas and avoid direct contact with skin or mucous membranes. Wear rubber gloves when mixing the solution. The product dissolves best in warm water. Use the solution when it is fresh and dispose of any leftover solution. Unmixed Neutroleum Alpha® must be stored in a cool, dark place to prevent explosion.
Freshwave® is the retail name of the industrial product known as Ecosorb®. It neutralizes odors by using Van Der Waal forces. The product captures the malodorous compounds and chemically modifies them. Freshwave® may be sprayed on affected surfaces and repeated as needed. Freshwave® does have a slight smell that has been described as “tea tree” in nature. For lingering odors, pour the product in a wide-mouthed jar and allow it to spread into the air. To hasten the process, place the jar in front of a fan. Avoid splashing the product into eyes. Freshwave® also is sold in candle form. Use appropriate fire precautions with candles.
Epoleon N100® is a water-based organic odor neutralizer that is nearly odorless. Epoleon® is sold as a concentrate and must be diluted in water before use. Unfortunately, the manufacturer does not give specific mixing instructions for odor from skunks. One professional, who has used the product frequently, suggests a 1 to 20 ratio up to a 1 to 5 ratio depending on need. The diluted chemical can then be sprayed or atomized. The product will leave a slight residue as the water evaporates. Wipe down surfaces with a wet towel to gather up any remaining product. Epoleon® can be used in a variety of settings except where food is prepared.
Bioshield® is an anti-microbial product (EPA Registration Number 70871). It deodorizes by killing odor-causing bacteria. It has been successfully used by NWCOs, though given its toxicity and warnings regarding use, it is advisable that homeowners do not use this product. It has a slight alcohol scent but otherwise smells neutral.
Electric atomizing sprayers and foggers can reach large spaces or tight areas with deodorant. Sometimes, odor from skunks is so dispersed that fogging a deodorant is necessary. As a rule of thumb, 16 ounces of neutralizing deodorant solution atomized with a droplet size of 15 microns can deodorize a 1,500-square-foot residence. Atomizers provide 2 key advantages for odor control over hand-pump sprayers. First, atomized droplets stay airborne longer, thereby circulating throughout the treatment area. The tiny nooks and crannies present in crawl spaces and attics can be completely treated by exploiting natural air movements. Second, smaller droplets allow for less of the product to be used because they have a greater surface area-to-volume ratio than larger droplets. Several atomizers are available. Below are several tips to help you determine the type of atomizer best suited to your needs.
- Portability – How balanced is the device? How much will it weigh when the storage tank is filled to capacity? Is it battery powered or will you be tied to an electrical cord?
- Versatility – Does the atomizer have a flexible spray hose that will enable you to direct the fog to different areas of the room? How small of a droplet does the atomizer create (you want a 22 micron droplet or smaller)?
- Cost – How often will you use the device in relation to its cost? Adequate atomizers can be purchased for about $200 or less.
Fabrics can be deodorized through time, air, soap and water, or ammonia in water. Musk of skunks is an oily compound and can be removed by methods used to remove oily substances. The odor molecule can be destroyed with a weak acid. White vinegar, dry-cleaning fluid, or household chlorine bleach in a weak solution is suggested for removing odor from clothing. Do not mix these products together.
Other recommended treatments include washing items with a strong soap, a heavy-duty liquid detergent, or borax. Neutroleum Alpha® also can be used to deodorize washable items. Use 1 ounce per 2 gallons of warm water.
For clothing that cannot be washed or dry-cleaned, such as shoes, some have suggested burying them in fine, dry soil for several days. The fine particles of soil are purported to absorb the odor, leaving the original article free of odor. Kitty litter, sweeping compound, and other fine-particle materials also are alleged to work. Odorous materials can be suspended outdoors to enable fresh air to carry away the volatile thiols. The odor will decrease over time.
Material is updated and adapted from the book, Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage, 1994, published by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension.
Reviewers of Original Document
Michael Beran, All Animal Control of Northwest Louisiana; Tim L. Hiller, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; and G. R. Welsh, University of Maryland