Prepared by the National Wildlife Control Training Program. http://WildlifeControlTraining.com
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- Demonstrate the ability to educate clients about management options.
- Identify the risks involved in working with skunks.
- Describe options for controlling odor.
The odor of skunk spray (musk) is pungent, nauseating, and can cause severe reactions in some people. Skunks may kill poultry and eat eggs. Skunks damage turf when digging for grubs and other soil-born insects. They may also carry rabies.
Striped skunks are not protected by law in some states. However, they are protected furbearers or non-game species in others. Check with state wildlife officials before removing any skunks.
Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are members of the weasel family. Most are black with white stripes the length of the body (Figure 1), and are easily recognized by most people. However, coat color is quite variable, and skunks may range from nearly all black, to all white.
Striped skunks have short, stocky legs and feet equipped with well-developed claws that enable them to dig well. Skunks can discharge a nauseating musk from their anal glands and are capable of several discharges up to 10 feet.
Striped skunks are about the size of an ordinary house cat, up to 29 inches long and weighing about 8 pounds.
Striped skunks are common throughout the northeastern US in both rural and suburban areas.
Health and Safety Concerns
Striped skunks are carriers of rabies. Any skunk showing abnormal behavior, such as daytime activity, may be rabid and should be treated with caution. Clients should report skunks that are behaving abnormally to the local police department or animal control office. If bitten or scratched by a skunk, contact your local health department, and promptly seek medical advice. Have the skunk tested for rabies if possible.
Skunks usually provide a warning before discharging their scent by stamping their forefeet rapidly, and arching their tails over their backs. Anyone observing such a threat should retreat quietly and slowly. Avoid making loud noises and quick, aggressive actions. Skunk spray is not known to contain the rabies virus.
General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior
Adult skunks begin breeding in late January. Gestation usually is 7 to 10 weeks, and litters commonly consist of 4 to 6 young. Young stay with the female until fall. Both sexes mature by the following spring. Skunk can live up to 10 years, but few live beyond 3 years in the wild.
During the breeding season, a male may travel 4 to 5 miles each night. A female that does not wish to mate with a particular male will typically spray him.
Skunks prefer to den under logs, in brush piles, and in abandoned woodchuck holes. They also den under decks, porches, crawl-spaces, and other secluded areas.
Skunks may be dormant for about a month or 2 during the coldest part of winter. They may den together in winter for warmth, but generally are not sociable. They are nocturnal, slow-moving, deliberate, and have great confidence in defending themselves against other animals.
Skunks inhabit clearings, pastures, and open lands bordering forests. Often, skunks inhabit wooded urban areas
Insects are the preferred food of skunks. Grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets are the adult insects most often taken. Skunks dig in lawns for grubs and other insect larvae. Mice are a regular and important item in the diet of skunks, particularly in winter. Rats, cottontail rabbits, and other small mammals are taken when other food is scarce.
Voice, Sounds, Tracks, and Signs
Skunks make noises ranging from screeches and whimpers to chirps. They stomp their front feet in a thump-thump combination when agitated.
Tracks of the hind feet of striped skunks are approximately 2½ inches long (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.
Droppings of skunks often can be identified by the undigested insect parts they contain. Droppings are ¼ to ½ inch in diameter, and 1 to 2 inches long.
The musk of skunks can be detected for up to a mile away, but odor is not always a reliable indicator of the presence or absence of skunks. Opossums also emit a skunk-like odor, and any sprayed animal can carry the odor long distances.
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). Several other animals, including raccoons and domestic dogs, also may dig in lawns.
Damage to Crops and Livestock
Skunks occasionally feed on corn, eating only the lower ears. If a cornstalk is knocked over, raccoons are more likely the cause of damage. Damage to the upper ears of corn often is indicative of birds, deer, or squirrels.
Rabid skunks bite and can transmit rabies to cattle, horses, dogs, and other domestic animals, which can in turn transmit rabies to humans.
Skunks occasionally kill poultry and eat eggs. They normally do not climb fences to get to poultry. Rats, weasels, mink, and raccoons regularly climb fences. If skunks gain access, they normally feed on eggs, and occasionally kill fowl. 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.
Damage to Structures
Damage to structures by skunks is usually due to sprayed musk. Odor can penetrate and linger in cloth furniture, clothing, and carpets. Skunk odor can contaminate items several floors away from the original source.
Damage Prevention and Control Methods
Remove garbage, debris, and lumber piles to reduce attractiveness of an area to skunks. Skunks prefer cover, and debris-filled areas provide excellent hunting grounds. Properly dispose of garbage or other food sources that will attract skunks. Skunks are often attracted to rodents living in barns, crawl spaces, sheds, and garages. Control programs for rodents may be necessary to reduce the attraction.
Seal all ground-level openings to poultry buildings and close doors at night. Enclose poultry yards and coops that lack subsurface foundations with 3-foot, wire-mesh fencing buried a few inches below ground (Figure 4). Skunks can be excluded from window wells or similar pits with mesh fences or window well covers. Use tight-fitting lids on garbage cans.
Keep skunks from denning under buildings by sealing all foundation openings. Cover all openings with wire mesh, sheet metal, or concrete. Where skunks can gain access by digging, bury ¼-inch mesh fences 2 inches below the ground, and extend the mesh out perpendicular from the location being protected at least 12 inches (Figure 4).
Skunks can be excluded from a structure using a one-way door (Figure 5). Secure the perimeter of a deck or shed with trench screen. Install a one-way door (minimum size 4 x 4 inches), over the entrance so that skunks can easily exit. Return after several days of good weather to evaluate the location. When confident the skunks are gone, remove the one-way door and secure the opening.
No frightening devices are effective on skunks.
No repellents are registered for use on skunks.
Gas cartridges are registered for fumigating skunk burrows. Follow label directions and take care to avoid fire hazards and exposing non-target animals, especially when used near structures. Light and hold the gas cartridge until it ignites before placing it deep in a burrow. Seal openings of the burrow with soil to secure the fumigant in the burrow.
Shooting is effective, but will likely result in the skunk emitting odor. If odor is not a problem, use a .22-caliber rifle, or shotgun with No. 6 shot.
Skunks can be captured with cage or box traps located in areas where skunks are active. Because of the potential for skunks to spray, or transmit rabies, it probably is best to hire a wildlife control professional to trap skunks.
Sometimes skunks must be captured directly, without the use of traps because the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Again, contact a wildlife control professional.
Skunks occasionally spray structures, pets, and people. Avoid touching sprayed surfaces with bare hands. Keep sprayed animals outdoors and wash them before handling. Deodorize a sprayed surface, skin, or hair by applying a mixture of ¼ cup baking soda, 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1 teaspoon of dish soap, and 1 gallon of water. Rinse with water. Avoid getting the mixture in eyes.
If a skunk is suspected of being rabid, it should be humanely killed, while avoiding a shot to the head. Call your local health department and follow instructions for submitting the skunk for testing.
Pet owners must, by law, protect their animals through timely vaccinations against rabies. Owners of livestock in areas with rabies outbreaks also should consider pre-exposure vaccinations. Owners should consult a veterinarian about further treatment for pets and livestock potentially exposed to rabid animals. For human exposures, consult a physician and local health department about post-exposure rabies vaccination.
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.
Translocation of skunks is not advised because they may transmit rabies. In some situations, translocation may be restricted, so check state and local regulations.
Carbon dioxide is the preferred euthanasia method for skunks. Skunks are tolerant to CO2, so it may take up to 20 minutes an animal to die. Observe the chest for motion for at least 3 minutes to ensure that breathing has stopped. Skunks have been known to spray during asphyxiation. Often, their sphincters loosen, allowing for some fluid release.
Where odor issues are not a priority, use a .22-caliber firearm, where allowed and safe. The shot usually is directed to the head, unless rabies testing is required. Some professionals use low-power ammunition such as .22-caliber “CB caps” or “short” rounds. An extremely intense spraying is almost always 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. Shooting is best left to someone with experience, and is usually limited to rural areas.
Government or private agencies, universities, extension service
- APHIS – Managing Skunk ProblemsPDF – APHIS – Managing skunk problems
- UC IPM – Striped SkunkPDF – California – UC IPM striped skunk
- Managing Skunk Problems in MissouriPDF – Missouri – Managing skunk problems
- Skunks in VirginiaPDF – Virginia – Skunks
- Wildlife Damage and Control Handbook – SkunksPDF – Wildlife Damage and Control Handbook – Skunks
- BMP – Trapping Striped SkunkPDF – BMP – Trapping striped skunk
- Managing Skunk Problems in KentuckyPDF – Kentucky – Managing skunk problems
- Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage – SkunksPDF – Preventiona and Control of Wildlife Damage – Skunks
- Living with Skunks in WashingtonPDF – Washington – Living with skunks
Skunk, NWCO, wildlife control, wildlife damage management