Skunk Facts

Tadashi

Tadashi

Published: 19 Feb 2022

Striped Skunk

Skunks make for quite the iconic animal. Their distinctive appearance and defensive ability put them among animals that are most recognizable to people around the world. Learn more about this amazing creature with these 40 skunk facts.

  1. Skunks typically grow between 40 and 94 cm long.
  2. Their weight also usually varies between 500 g and 8.2 kg.
  3. Skunks also have five toes on every foot.
  4. Most skunks usually live for only a year.
  5. Skunks in the wild can rarely reach a maximum age of up to 7 years.
  1. Skunks first evolved in North America as far back as the Pleistocene Epoch, around 1.8 million years ago.
  2. They began spreading south to Central and South America around 70,000 years ago.
  3. Skunks flourished across North America after the last Ice Age ended around 10,000 years ago.
  4. The Native Americans kept skunks as pets long before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
  5. Christopher Columbus mentioned skunks among the American animals he encountered in the New World.
  6. Europeans became widely aware of skunks in the 17th century.
  7. American farmers kept tame skunks in the 19th century to keep mice and rats away.
  8. Most US states banned the taming of skunks in the 20th century, as part of measures to contain the spread of rabies.
  9. The legal status of skunks in the US experienced reforms in the 1990s.
  10. Canada followed the American example in the 2000s.
  1. Stink badgers from Asia make up their closest relatives.
  2. The skunk’s other relatives include polecats and weasels.
  3. Skunks also enjoy the “least concern” designation for conservation purposes.
  4. Skunks sometimes enter houses to open and root through cupboards.
  5. They also sometimes crawl into reclining chairs and other machines.
Table of Contents

The skunk’s name has quite the history.

Skunk itself comes from the Native American Abenaki language, specifically the word seganku, meaning urinating fox. This refers to the skunk’s ability to spray its enemies with a bad-smelling liquid. The name had also historically seen used outside of referring to the animal in question.

During the 19th century, skunks referred to players who managed to win games or sports without letting their opponents score even once. It also saw use as an insult, implying the other person smelled bad. In modern times, skunk also exists as slang for certain kinds of marijuana, which smell similar to the animal’s spray.

Skunks have a distinctive appearance.

They have somewhat elongated bodies with short and muscular legs, as well as long claws on their forepaws for digging. Most skunks typically have black fur, but some subspecies have brown, grey, or even cream-colored fur. Skunks bred in captivity show even greater variety in the color of their fur, such as apricot, champagne, lavender, and mahogany, among others. Some breeders even deliberately breed albino skunks for people who want an especially distinctive-looking pet skunk.

However, except for albino skunks, all skunks have one shared physical characteristic. Specifically, a white stripe running down their back and over their tail. This stripe works as a form of warning against other animals and potential predators, about a skunk’s ability to defend itself.

side view of skunk
Image from Adobe Stock

Skunks eat many kinds of food.

Skunks can eat either or both meat and plants for food. For meat, they primarily target insects and other invertebrates, such as earthworms, grubs, and larvae. That said, they also target smaller vertebrates, such as birds, frogs, lizards, and salamanders. They also sometimes prey on animals as big as themselves, such as moles.

Plants, though, make up most of their diet, such as berries, grass, leaves, nuts, and roots. Skunks also sometimes eat fungi, as well as eggs of various amphibians, birds, and reptiles. People have also seen them scavenging dead birds or even rats, as well as rooting through garbage to get at leftovers.

They especially love eating honeybees.

In fact, skunks make up one of the honeybee’s main predators, their fur keeping them safe from the insects’ stings. The skunks use their claws to tear open a beehive and proceed to eat the bees as they swarm to investigate and defend their home. Skunks may also eat any honey inside the hive after they finish eating all the bees and their larvae. Scientists have even seen adult skunks teaching their young how to prey on beehives.

In addition to bees, skunks also prey on hornets, their fur also protecting them from any stings. This usually happens in the summer, when the heat dries out the soil where hornets make their nests. This actually makes it easier for a skunk to crack the nest open, and get at the insects and larvae inside.

Skunks don’t particularly socialize with each other.

In fact, outside of the mating season, skunks only gather closely together during wintertime. In that season, skunks will nest together in large, communal dens to pool and share their body heat. Even then, it’s usually the female skunks that gather together. While they don’t quite hibernate, they stay largely inactive, thus, still technically avoiding each other.

In contrast, male skunks still spend the winter alone, holed up in their dens and only going out to find food. That said, individual skunks can tolerate each other’s territory overlapping with each other. These vary between genders, with females having overlapping territories from 2 to 4 km², while males can have overlapping territories with areas of up to 20 km².

skunks in nest
Image from Adobe Stock

Skunks don’t have permanent mates.

The mating season takes place in spring, usually from February to April. Female skunks that fail to get pregnant in that time may enter a second fertility in May. Multiple females typically mate with a single male several times during the breeding season.

Once the breeding season ends, the male and the females go their separate ways, with the male playing no further role. Female skunks then stay pregnant for around 2 months, before giving birth to litters of between two and twelve kits.

Kits are born blind and almost hairless, with their eyes not opening until three weeks after birth. They usually stay with their mother for up to three months at most, before leaving to live lives of their own.

A skunk’s spray makes up its most infamous ability.

They produce this using a pair of glands located around their anus. Multiple chemicals make up the spray, all of which contain sulfur, the reason for the spray’s powerful smell. The many different chemicals in the spray also make it difficult to wash away, with just water being completely useless. Together with the strong smell, this makes it a powerful incentive for other animals to stay away from a skunk.

They also typically have enough stored liquid for five to six sprays before completely running out. Afterward, it takes them around 10 days to fully recover. A common belief among people involves the use of tomato juice to remove skunk spray. Scientists have proven this untrue, however, and advise using hydrogen peroxide diluted with water instead.

Skunks only have a few predators.

These mammalian predators such as badgers, foxes, and wolves, among others, all tend to avoid skunks rather than risk getting sprayed. In fact, they’d only consider attacking a skunk when they’re starving, and have no other choice for food.

However, birds of prey have no such limitation, with the fact that they can’t smell the skunk’s spray. This makes them immune to its effect, allowing them to prey freely on skunks. In particular, the Great Horned Owl makes up the skunk’s most common predator. At one point, scientists found bones belonging to the skeletons of 57 different skunks in the nest of a single Great Horned Owl.

Skunks may spread rabies.

Skunks get rabies from eating infected meat, or by getting bitten by an infected animal. They also suffer from what veterinarians call mad dog syndrome, where the disease doesn’t kill the skunk, but instead, drives it to bite other animals. This, in turn, spreads the disease even further.

Statistics estimate that between 21% and 25% of all skunks in the US alone carry the rabies virus. As infected skunks can pass the disease onto humans by biting, governments worldwide mandate the killing of any skunk found infected. Despite criticism from animal rights groups, the lack of an approved and licensed rabies vaccine for skunks means the regulation remains in place to this day.

Rabies Viruses Rendered
Image from Wikipedia

They also suffer from other diseases.

These include canine parvovirus, which they get from contact with infected feces. Symptoms vary from diarrhea, lethargy, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. In particular, vomiting and diarrhea cause dehydration. Together with the loss of appetite, this causes the skunk to lose weight, which ultimately leads to death in 91% of all cases.

Other symptoms include blood poisoning and secondary infections from the weakening of the animal’s immune system. An infected skunk’s feces can also further pass the disease along, though, thankfully, humans can’t get canine parvovirus. However, skunks can suffer from leptospirosis, which humans can be infected with, and which skunks can pass onto them.

Skunks have many different subspecies.

These include the most common, the striped skunk or Mephitis mephitis, native to the US, Southern Canada, and Northern Mexico. Then we have the Andes skunk, native to countries along the Andes Mountains, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Chile, among other countries.

There’s also the Patagonian hog-nosed skunk, native to the Patagonian region of Chile and Southern Argentina. We also have the American hog-nosed skunk, native to both North and Central America, and also the biggest of their kind. Finally, the eastern spotted skunk, among the smallest of their kind, native to the Eastern USA, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.

Skunk fur has value.

In fact, skunk fur comes in second after that of the muskrat as the most harvested animal fur in North America. The value of skunk fur depends on the degree of blackness, with the blackest furs commanding the highest prices. This means that skunks from northern regions find themselves hunted the most, as they usually have the blackest fur.

That being said, hunting skunks requires special equipment, such as box traps, to prevent them from panicking. Panicking skunks tend to spray wildly, which can contaminate their fur, leaving it useless. The demand for skunk fur peaked in Europe before WWI, so much so that Americans began breeding skunks in captivity to keep up with demand.

People also keep skunks as pets.

Of course, it depends on whether or not doing so counts as legal in the owners’ respective countries. In the USA, only 17 states allow people to keep skunks as pets, with other countries including Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland. Even then, certain requirements need to be met, such as the removal of a pet skunk’s stink glands. However, Britain dropped this requirement in 2006, when the British government marked it as a form of animal cruelty.

Skunk Facts, Pet Skunk
Image from Wikipedia

Experts have good advice for those who keep skunks as pets.

For one thing, they advise against playing rough when raising skunks from infancy, as this causes them to grow with a tendency for violence. They also advise wearing gloves when playing with adults, as skunks have a tendency to nip and scratch even when playing.

Experts also note that skunks have a poor sense of direction, and as such, owners must not let them go outside without supervision. Otherwise, the skunk will likely wander off and get lost. They also may find themselves vulnerable to wild or feral animals, as most skunks may have had their stink glands removed. Their natural nearsightedness also makes them vulnerable to vehicles, if left unsupervised outside.

Pet skunks have specific dietary needs.

Much like dogs, skunks find chocolate delicious, but also poisonous. They also have a habit to overeat, so owners must limit their food, or risk the skunk becoming obese. Experts generally suggest owners to feed their pet skunks with an even 50-50 diet of vegetables and meat.

They also suggest small amounts of sugar, but owners must be careful not to overdo it, or risk the development of diabetes. In particular, they suggest using fresh fruit to add sugar to a pet skunk’s diet, while also limiting the risk of diabetes. And while skunks don’t drink as much water as other pets do, they must always have fresh water available.

Their medical care also has specific requirements.

Some of those requirements reflect the legal requirements in the area to even own a pet skunk in the first place. These include deworming, neutering or spaying, as well as various vaccinations to prevent diseases. Experts also recommend annual blood tests, as well as other tests to rule out parasites. Roundworms, in particular, make up the most common parasites affecting pet skunks. They also recommend against declawing skunks, as skunks use their claws to pick up food when they eat.

Various organizations support skunk pet owners.

These include the American Domestic Skunk Association, which provides various services to pet skunk owners. These services include awareness programs, 24-hour phone and web support, adoption and rescue services, as well as organizing annual skunk shows, among others. Owners of Pet Skunks (OOPS) also make up a similar organization, as does Skunk Haven Skunk Rescue, Shelter, and Education, Inc.

Pet skunks have had a turbulent legal history lately.

Back in the 1990s, a proposal pushed to test whether or not a rabies vaccine for ferrets could also prove applicable for skunks. Despite strong support from skunk advocates, no tests have even begun to this day, due to low expected profits for the companies involved.

Later on, in 2001, an attempt to legalize pet skunks in Maryland faced opposition from conservationists. They argued that it would encourage Bambi syndrome, wherein people would actually look for and try to tame wild animals.

Around the same time in Canada, while breeding skunks in the country remained illegal, it became legal to import them from the US and other countries, so long as they had an implanted microchip tracker.

Skunk Facts, Microchip Tracker
Image from Wikipedia

People also have other uses for skunks.

Back during the 19th and early-20th centuries, Chinese immigrants heavily depended on skunk meat for food. Even before then, both Native Americans, as well as skunk hunters, also ate skunk meat for food.

Today, skunk meat remains a niche food item, with food critics describing the meat as delicate, sweet, and tender. People once tried using skunk fat as an alternative to lubricating oil, while their gallbladders found a place in traditional Chinese medicine.

They have appeared in popular culture.

The title of the most infamous skunk of them all probably goes to the Looney Tunes character Pepe le Pew. A male skunk with a stereotypical French accent, Pepe goes around looking for a mate, only to find himself constantly avoided because of his smell.

A running gag in his episodes involves him mistaking a cat with an accidentally painted stripe for a female skunk, and constantly chasing after her. Aside from Pepe, a female skunk also appears in the classic Disney film Bambi, with the ironic name of Flower.