You‘re taking out the garbage late one night. The sound of cans clanking startles you. You think you see something waddle past your periphery. Then the stink hits you. You freeze. You know before you look down. It’s a skunk. It’s aiming its butt at you with its tail raised. Oh no. The skunk stamps its feet and hisses. This is it. How long will this stink last? And why do people bathe in tomato juice after being sprayed?
Skunk spray is so powerful that humans can smell its musk in concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion. But did you know one in 1,000 people can’t smell skunk spray at all? These people are said to have specific anosmia, which means they cannot smell musky odors. But unless you’re one of these chosen few, you’re definitely going to want to keep watching. What if the spray gets into your system? And how can a skunk kill you?
Skunks are nocturnal. And believe it or not, their offensive odor is used primarily for defense. The liquid is produced and stored inside two sacs within a skunk’s anus. Each sac has about 5 ml of fluid in it. Which is enough to spray you five or six times. It exits the sacs through a duct in the tissue. The skunk can aim this stream directly at its target. This nasty juice contains thiols, a sulfur-based, oily chemical that is also found in the stench of decomposing flesh and fecal matter. How pleasant. The two white stripes on the skunk’s back point to the anus, serving as a visual warning to animals and humans that this thing is locked and loaded.
You and your dog are out for an evening walk. Your dog freezes. Its eyes are fixed on something crouched in the dark. The smell is the first thing to hit you, but before you can turn and run, there’s the skunk. Your dog starts barking. It pounds its front paws against the ground as a warning. Get back, get back! It turns its butt toward you and looks over its shoulder as if to say, “Not one more step.”. You thought you were far away enough not to get hit. Nope. Unfortunately for you, a skunk’s spray can shoot up to 4.5 m (15ft). You don’t hear the spray. You don’t see it. But you feel it. And you smell it. Everything goes dark. Your final thought: you should have got a cat. The skunk squirts you directly in the face. You can’t see anything. The chemicals cause irritation and inflammation, temporarily blinding you. Then, the heat hits you. It feels like you’ve been pepper sprayed. Gah, it burns! Your eyes water. You start sniffing uncontrollably as if trying to clear a massive booger. You can’t breathe. You’re hyperventilating, and your lungs are on fire. Yuck, it got in your mouth! Nausea sets in like a punch to the gut. Your stomach churns and you nearly vomit. Your sight comes back in time to see your poor dog rubbing his head in the dirt. He’s been sprayed in the face too.
You strip off all of your clothes and leave them in the front yard. You consider shaving your dog hairless. Maybe later. The sooner you take a shower the better. The smell can get into your furniture, floors and walls. It can even get in your air conditioner filters. So, bathe right away and make sure to flush your eyes with cold water. Hopping into a bathtub full of tomato juice isn’t a cure-all. It will help hide the stench, but only slightly. Despite its own strong odor, tomato juice does not react chemically with skunk spray and so it doesn’t neutralize the smell. There is a de-skunking formula you can whip up. Fill a bath with water and then add a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap. If your dog jumps in the bath with you, be advised that the mixture may lighten any dark fur. While all this is underway, keep your clothes and shoes outside to ventilate in the fresh air. Skunk spray is yellowish, oily and highly flammable. You could try washing the clothes with laundry detergent and chlorine bleach. But you may want to consider just getting rid of them and cutting your losses. To top it all off, skunks can also carry rabies, but not to worry. Rabies can only be transmitted through bites, so consider yourself lucky you only got sprayed.
Ever Wonder About Skunk Spray? (2013). Science World.
Removing Skunk Odor. Vantassel, M S. & Hygnstrom, E S. (2011). University of Nebraska.
Facts About Skunks. Bradford, A (2021). Live Science.
Why Skunks Have Stripes: To Point to Fierce Anal Glands? Kaufman, R (2011). National Geographic.
Bold coloration and the evolution of aposematism in terrestrial carnivores. Stankowich, T. & Cox, T. (2011).