Why Do Skunks Spray? Understanding Their Unique Defense

Skunks are well-known for their powerful stench, but the question remains: Why do these small animals emit such a strong spray?

Oct 20, 2023By Lisa Szymanski
why do skunks spray understanding their unique defense

One thing you don’t want to do is upset a skunk. Whether you or your dog becomes the target of these furry creatures, you’re bound to experience the foul-smelling spray they’re very well known for. There is a lot more to a skunk than their pungent odor, and that includes their ability to adapt to various habitats. To better understand these animals, we look at a few interesting facts about them and answer the question, why do skunks spray?

What Type of Animal is a Skunk?

brown skunk walking on rocks
A brown skunk.

Most people think that skunks belong to the weasel, badger, or rodent family of mice and rats, but surprisingly, skunks aren’t rodents at all. Recent studies into the origins of skunks reveal that these black and white animals are part of the Mephitidae family. This family name actually means “foul-smelling animal” and consists of skunk-like animals from millions of years ago. Striped skunks are commonly found around residential areas in search of food. There are 12 species of skunk that are found in North America, Canada, and South America.

Skunk Habitats and What They Eat

striped skunk walking in green wilderness
A skunk forages in the wilderness.

Skunks are the type of animals that won’t go hungry. They are omnivores and consume a little bit of everything, from insects, tiny invertebrates, and fruit to pet food and garbage. Easy access to food attracts skunks to our homes, which is why we run into them so frequently. A skunk typically makes its den close to shrubs and forest areas. When they have a healthy helping of food, like your leftovers, they tend to build their dens under porches and in backyards.

Skunks are considered pests when they get too close to urban areas. They’ll burrow and dig up gardens, and there’s a high chance of running into them in your backyard. It’s also the reason that dogs and cats are often the victims of their pungent spray.

Why Skunks Smell So Bad

two skunks living in tree trunk
Two skunks hiding out in a broken tree trunk.

Every skunk has special scent glands or ducts located below its tail. These glands produce a liquid containing different compounds of sulfur that are responsible for their vile odor when they spray. Their scent is extremely overpowering and similar to the smell of putrefied eggs! If you or your pet are sprayed by a skunk, the odor they release is incredibly hard to remove using regular soaps and disinfectants. That’s because the sulfur atoms in their spray are known to adhere to surfaces, including skin, clothing, and pet fur.

To eliminate the rotten egg smell from your clothing or pets, you can use a mild solution of hydrogen peroxide, dish detergent, and baking soda.

Why Do Skunks Spray People and Animals?

black and white skunk hissing while standing on tree trunk
A skunk rearing up.

A skunk will only produce its putrid-smelling spray when it feels threatened. It is purely a defense mechanism these animals use when they are frightened. They’re most likely to spray when they are cornered, physically restrained, or attacked. Skunks rely on their black-and-white coloring to warn predators and people that they should be left alone. Before spraying, they will stomp their feet or move toward their target to get them to back off. If this doesn’t work as a deterrent, they will produce a pungent stream, otherwise known as “skunk spray.”

Contrary to popular belief, a skunk doesn’t constantly produce its smelly liquid. They carry a small amount of liquid in their glands, and once released, they have to top up their reserves over a few days.

Skunks Can Aim Their Spray

striped skunk standing with tail in the air
Skunk lifting its tail.

Did you know that a skunk has some control over the direction of its spray? They have a degree of muscle control and coordination around their scent glands. This helps them target their spray at a predator, such as a fox, owl, or coyote, with precision. If a skunk is chased, it produces a smelly cloud that reaches the eyes and nostrils of the predator. This is usually enough to end the chase and give the skunk the opportunity to escape. If their pungent mist isn’t a deterrent, they use their ducts to deliver a surge of liquid in the face of a threat.

Skunk spray can cover a distance of almost 6 feet, so there is a high chance of getting hit. Apart from the intense odor, skunk spray can cause severe eye irritation and difficulty breathing.

How to Avoid Getting Sprayed by a Skunk

skunk hiding under rock
A striped skunk hiding out.

If you find yourself close to a skunk, the best thing to do is to make a noise by shouting or singing. Along with shouting or singing, you can tap your feet to scare them off. Skunks don’t randomly spray, so if you come across one in your yard or while along a trail, give them space. If a skunk doesn’t see you as a threat, they will continue to forage and keep to themselves. These little creatures can produce a strong scent, but only in defense. By respecting your local skunks, they’ll be sure to respect you.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.