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COLUMN: Being a victim of a pesky skunk can really stink

If you have been sprayed, you have to fight science with science, and that doesn't include tomato juice, says outdoors columnist
198303_Forget Site_stried skunk (Hawke)
The striped skunk that lives in our region is well known for its stinky defence mechanism.

It was about 5:30 a.m. when we first noticed that we’d been hit. Some slight stirring from slumber caused by an annoyingly odd odour to the air. Then came the difficulty in breathing. Skunk! The air is full of skunk smell!

The human nose is capable of detecting skunk odour in as small as one part per billion and when a skunk has let fly outside the bedroom window, well, it’s not only escaping heat that lets you know you have poor insulation. The cloud of stink wafts around the room and dissipates down the hall. Yuck!

Interestingly, I had just received an email the evening before from some friends who had a skunk spray under their house and they were wondering, “What can we do?”

The striped skunk that lives in our region is well known for its defence mechanism. While there are other skunk species in North America, this is the only one found in our neighbourhood. But they all are capable of spraying, so our concerns are continent-wide. We are not alone in our olfactory misery.

Before we go totally down on skunks, one should realize that they are a very important player in the local ecology. They love to eat grubs, especially the ones that eat the roots of your lawn grass.

Skunks also dine on a wide variety of insects, many of which can give your garden grief. So, skunks have a role and should first and foremost be appreciated for that.

But lines can be crossed, and when your pet, your child or somehow even you (an adult who should know better, right?) gets sprayed, then skunks are no longer viewed as just an interesting element of the natural world around us.

There has been a considerable amount of time spent studying this noxious spray, the way it is ejected, how it is absorbed by a variety of materials and how the heck you get it off the dog.

The gooey, icky, oily spray material is a type of thiol. Thiols are comprised of sulphur and hydrogen atoms, which, when bonded together, make a heck of a stink. Skunks are really good at making and storing thiol.

Interesting side note: The strong garlic smell of thiols is used to give aroma-free natural gas an added element of smell so we can detect it if escaping from a sealed line.

Skunks do not shoot their spray willy-nilly as it takes about 10 days to brew up a batch. It may discharge in several small bursts or one big blast of an attack, but afterward it is very vulnerable to attack from predators without this odiferous shield of protection.

The two ‘sprayers’ on a skunk are situated on either side of the anus and can be independently rotated, allowing for aim to be adjusted to provide accuracy from one to four metres. So, it’s not just a general fog of droplets that are dispensed; it is actually a stream of putrid oil aimed right at you.

Mixed in with this thiol are other compounds called thioacitates. This is the stuff that, when mixed with water, reignites the thiol. So, if the dog is given a bath or you are trying to clean your clothing, or its raining on the shed or shrubs that were also hit, this water will just bring back vivid memories.

As mentioned, this spray is usually applied as a defence technique. However, when two competitive males are trying to woo fair maiden skunk, they will sometimes have a duel. And if said fair maiden skunk does not wish to have the attentions of said suitor, he may in turn get some ‘mace to the face.’

The old fable of using tomato juice to rinse off the smell is quite false. You need to alter the chemical structure of the oil to both break the smell combo and the stickiness. Use science to fight science.

To make an oxidizing agent, mix one quart of three per cent hydrogen peroxide (or white vinegar) with one-quarter cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid detergent. Be careful when applying this to Rover’s fur or to your clothes as it will lighten the colour of the pigments.

Furniture and cars can be washed with a 10/90 mix of white vinegar and water, and an open bowl of white vinegar can be left in a room to absorb odours. Just make sure no pets can get at the bowl.

One last tidbit of info that I was intrigued with is that the thiol that comes spraying out of the hindquarters of a skunk is flammable. Thankfully, skunk evolution has not yet gotten to the stage where a skunk can ignite itself. Imagine a world with tussling males outfitted with anal flame throwers!