Jul 24 2014

Getting “Skunked”: It’s not just about the stink!

By Diane B. Tortorice, DVM, ABVP

Summer is here, and if you have an inquisitive pooch, there is a good chance that they may have an encounter with the smelliest of our suburban wildlife, the skunk!  Newer evidence reveals that in addition to the “rotten egg” “skunky” smell, dogs exposed to skunk spray can suffer some serious medical problems.

Skunks are most active during dawn and dusk.  Skunks have excellent hearing and sense of smell.  They do not have very good vision which sometimes leads to a chance encounter with a human or their canine companion (cats rarely get “skunked”).  Passive in nature, skunks will avoid contact with humans and domestic animals; however, when challenged they are amply prepared to protect themselves.

If a skunk feels threatened, it will give a warning which includes hissing, stomping of feet, and elevation of the tail.  Failure to heed the warning signs will result in the unlucky aggressor being sprayed with the skunk’s anal gland secretions.  Skunks are highly accurate in their aim and can spray 7 to 15 feet away!

Skunk with Tail Up

Skunk with Tail Up

The skunk’s spray contains 7 different sulfur containing chemicals.  The chemical group that is responsible for the majority of the horrible rotten egg smell is not water soluble, not even with soap.  Most skunk bath remedies use a combination of peroxide and baking soda which change these chemicals so they can be washed off with soap and water. Additionally, a second group of chemicals in the skunk spray remain on the hair coat and become activated (and smelly) when they are exposed to water in the future.  This explains why pet owners frequently complain about the skunk smell coming back when the pet gets wet long after the first encounter.

The symptoms associated with being “skunked” will vary depending on the proximity to the skunk and the location on the body that is exposed to the spray.  The spray is not well absorbed from the skin, so symptoms are usually minimal.

Dogs that have been sprayed in the face will rub their faces, roll, sneeze and vomit.  Direct injury to the eyes can include ulcers, inflammation, and sometimes temporary blindness.

Internal absorption of the toxic chemicals from the spray may occur via inhalation or absorption through the eyes or the mouth.  In rare instances a toxic reaction can cause anemia, or serious damage to the red blood cells.  This reaction may occur within hours or up to 24 hours after exposure. In serious cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary. One documented fatality occurred in a dog with multiple repeated heavy exposures to skunk spray.

Treatment for most cases of skunk spray exposure involves decontamination with a skunk bath.  Dogs that have been sprayed in the face and show symptoms of irritation to the eyes should be seen by a veterinarian. Any dog that has received a heavy spray or multiple exposures should have blood work performed.

If your canine companion has had previous encounters with these critters, consider being prepared. Effective skunk shampoo, such as “Skunk-off” Pet Shampoo can be purchased from your veterinarian to have on hand.  Keep the “home recipe” for the skunk shampoo readily available.  Saline eye drops can be used immediately after exposure to start the decontamination.

A trip to your veterinarian will be necessary if there is a spray in the face, a heavy exposure, or if your pet has red eyes, lethargy, vomiting, or shows any signs of illness after the exposure.

Skunk Odor Removal Formula

This recipe needs to be mixed and used promptly- it cannot be stored for any length of time.  Do not store in a closed container due to gas production.

Mix the following ingredients:

1 quart fresh 3% peroxide

¼ cup baking soda

1-2 tsp liquid dishwashing detergent.

*add 1 quart warm water for large dogs to ensure complete coverage

Bathe your pet outdoors (to prevent bleaching of fabric).  Keep the mixture on your pet for 5

Minutes, then rinse off. Repeat.

*Acknowledgement to the following journal article that provided the informational content of this article : Means C.  Skunk Spray Toxicosis. Veterinary Medicine Apr2013: 172-178.




Co-owner of Valley Cottage Animal Hospital, Dr. Diane Tortorice was awarded her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 1991 from North Carolina State University. Dr. Tortorice joined the Valley Cottage Animal Hospital medical team in 1997 and became a partner in 1999. She is a member of the Westchester / Rockland Veterinary Medical Association and has served as secretary, vice president and president.

Dr. Diane Tortorice is a board certified Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners specializing in Canine and Feline Practice. The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners was established in 1978 to recognize excellence in clinical practice through the certification of species-oriented specialists.

Dr. Tortorice has served as a veterinary volunteer at both the World Trade Center and New Orleans animal disaster sites. She has been a member of the Rockland County Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) since 2004 and in 2006 served as the founding veterinary member of the County Animal Response Team of Rockland (CARToR). In 2008, the Westchester / Rockland Veterinary Medical Association awarded her with both the Past-President Award and the Merit Award for leadership and contributions to emergency and disaster preparedness for Rockland County.

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