Farm Horizons, November 2011

Unwelcome company: how to get rid of a skunk without a big stink

By Ivan Raconteur, Herald Journal Editor

The sight of a skunk, with its distinctive black-and-white markings, is enough to cause concern for anyone. It is not the sight of them we need to worry about, however, it is their foul-smelling spray, which they can shoot up to 15 feet.

Skunks generally have a body length of 25 to 30 inches, and a tail that is 8 to 11 inches long. They weigh from 3 to 10 pounds, and have black fur with two white stripes on their back and tail.

Skunks make a hissing sound when they are ready to spray.

Given a choice, however, healthy skunks will avoid people and other animals when they can.

They also provide the benefit of eating pests, such as mice, rats, and insects.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, no one knows how many skunks live in Minnesota. The skunk population appears to rise and fall from year to year, depending on weather conditions, disease, and how much food is available.

Property owners, especially those in rural areas, may come into contact with skunks, which often choose den sites near human dwellings.

Skunks can be found in their natural habitats of forest borders, brushy areas, and grassy fields. In urban areas, they are often found under buildings and porches, and in culverts.

Skunks, like raccoons, are omnivores. Their diet consists mainly of insects, but also includes mice and other small mammals, eggs, fruits, nuts, vegetation, carrion, and garbage. This varied diet is one of the reasons that skunks have adapted so well to living in close proximity to humans.

One way to discourage skunks from entering property is to use natural deterrents.

Skunks are nocturnal, and sensitive to light, so a flood light equipped with a motion sensor may deter skunks.

Certain scents may also act as a deterrent. Skunks dislike the smell of citrus, so orange or lemon peels scattered around the yard may help keep them away. The urine of predators such as dogs and coyotes, may also be a deterrent. These are commercially available, and need to be re-applied after it rains.

These methods may be inconvenient, and may not be effective.

If property owners don’t remove the reason for a skunk coming into their garden in the first place, the skunk will just keep trying to come back, or other skunks may come along.

There are two reasons a skunk will enter a garden or yard – food and shelter.

The best way to discourage skunks may be to remove these attractions.

Skunks may feed on insects, rodents, pet food, bird food, compost piles, or fruits or vegetables in a garden. Eliminating these things or securing them, either by keeping them in sealed containers or surrounding them with a fence (skunks are generally not good climbers), may prevent them from becoming a food source for skunks.

Keeping sheds and outbuildings free of mice and other rodents will eliminate another potential food source.

The other way to discourage skunks is to remove potential shelter areas.

Skunks may seek shelter under sheds, porches, decks, or other structures.

Skunks are nocturnal, and in some cases, it is possible to fill in a burrow after a skunk has left for the night. However, it should be noted that skunks breed in late winter to early spring, and usually give birth to litters of three to 10 young in May or June.

The young skunks remain in the burrow for six to eight weeks prior to venturing out, and may be left in the burrow when the mother skunk goes out. Therefore, it is recommended that homeowners not fill in or block off a burrow until any young skunks have left.

Some sources also recommend not attempting to prevent skunks from returning to a burrow during the winter months, because it can be difficult for them to find an alternate den site at this time of the year.

The best time to take action is late summer or early fall. The most effective steps may be to employ deterrent methods, such as noise and light to encourage skunks to move on, and then prevent future access by filling in dens or sealing off access under decks and other potential den sites with fencing, screens, or hardware cloth.

Another common problem area for skunks is window wells. Skunks often fall into these areas, and it can be risky for the homeowner to remove them.

One method is to carefully (so as not to startle or frighten the skunk into spraying) insert a rough board into the window well to serve as a ramp that the skunk can use to climb out.

The best prevention is to install tight-fitting covers over window wells to keep skunks out.

If deterrents do not work, the best method for getting rid of skunks may be to use live traps and relocate them to an area away from human dwellings.

Traps should be approximately 7-inches-by-7-inches-by-20 inches, and should be located near the entrance to the burrow. Bait may include raw meat, fish-flavored cat food, or peanut butter on bread crusts.

Covering the trap with a heavy cloth such as canvas or an old tarp while transporting it may help to avoid startling the skunk.

Property owners who are not comfortable taking on this job may contact an extermination company that specializes in removal of skunks and other unwanted creatures.

It should be noted that skunks may carry rabies, and caution should be used around them, especially if they exhibit unusual behavior, such as being active during daylight hours.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, rabies is more common in striped skunks than in any other Minnesota mammal.

What can a person do if he or a pet is sprayed?

If a person is unfortunate enough to be sprayed or have a dog or other pet that is sprayed by a skunk, the result will be unpleasant, but not harmful.

If sprayed in the eyes, the eyes should be flushed with liberal amounts of water.

Some sources say the old advice about tomato juice baths are ineffective, or, at best, simply mask the skunk smell.

Many recommend combining hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and liquid dish soap and using this to shampoo a dog or person who has been sprayed by a skunk.

Caution should be used around the eyes, and pet owners may want to seek the advice of a veterinarian. Vets may also have commercial shampoos designed to combat skunk odor.

Soaking clothing in a solution of 10 percent bleach may help eliminate skunk smell.

Information for this story was compiled from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the University of Minnesota Extension Service, and other sources.

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