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Why do Skunks Smell so Bad?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Skunks are notorious for their strong odor, which is sometimes difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it. Anyone who has run over a skunk or had pets sprayed by one is familiar with the intense smell, along with various techniques for getting it out of fur and upholstery. The odor is caused by a combination of chemical compounds which these animals can release from their scent glands when under stress or attack. In addition to smelling awful, the spray can cause vomiting and have effects similar to tear gas. As an interesting side note, the spray is also phosphorescent, so it will glow in the dark.

The smell of skunk spray is caused by sulfurous compounds called thiols which combine to form a substance called mercaptan. These thiols have a strong odor, and mix with other chemicals which make the scent stick. This is why animals who have been sprayed sometimes have a faint odor for several weeks, because although the thiols have been mostly neutralized, trace amounts of them still cling to fur. The chemicals which cause skunk spray to cling are used in cosmetics and perfumes for lasting odor power, after the thiols have been removed.

Skunks use the volatile fluid defensively, and it is highly effective. Most animals who have had run ins with skunks avoid the distinctive black and white mammals forever after, thanks to the retching and eye irritation that result from the spray, aside from the intense smell. When skunks are frightened or cornered, they will spray the viscous fluid, sometimes as far as 15 feet (five meters). Killing skunks will also cause them to release mercaptan, due to the muscle relaxation which accompanies death.

Knowing what causes the smell helps to determine what can be used to get rid of it. The thiols must be oxidized into odor neutral sulfonic acid, and a number of things can be used to accomplish this. If the skunk smell is on pets or people, a mild oxidant like hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, or vinegar, should be used. Hydrogen peroxide is the most effective, although it may bleach the pet's fur slightly. Getting rid of the odor is well worth enduring a slightly odd color for a few weeks.

If something which is not alive has been sprayed, such as a deck or piece of furniture, bleach is the most suitable way to get rid of the smell. The bleach will also, of course, affect the color of the object it is used on, so make sure to apply it evenly to make the effect look deliberate. Otherwise, you may have to dispose of the item altogether. Contrary to popular belief, tomato juice is not effective at eliminating the smell.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Dec 02, 2012

@Azuza - It does sound like a pretty great line of defense. And it's also kind of cool that we've been able to use some of the chemicals from skunk spray for perfume.

By Azuza — On Dec 01, 2012

I think the whole bad smelling spray as a defense thing is pretty great for the skunks. Yes, it's horrible for people and pets who get sprayed and then have to worry about how to get rid of skunk smell. However, it sounds like the spraying is pretty effective for the skunks.

They're pretty small animals, but the spray probably works to keep fairly large animals away from them. Also, since the spray works from 15 feet they can defend themselves against predators before they get too close.

By SZapper — On Dec 01, 2012

@Pharoah - That is kind of funny, but I feel bad for the skunk. I don't think skunks are really meant to be pets. They should be in the wild, running around being skunks. I just hope your mom's friends kept the skunk til it passed away and didn't try to release it into the wild.

By Pharoah — On Dec 01, 2012
@Perdido - My mom actually had a friend when she was in high school who had a pet skunk. This was in the 1970's, so obviously times have changed since then. I'm pretty sure my mom told me the skunk was de-scented (although she called it de-skunked) by the vet. I don't know when they started breeding skunks without the scent glands.

Anyway, my mom said the skunk was a pretty good pet for her friend, and they used to take it places and scare people with it. Most people recognize skunks for their distinctive odor and don't want to get sprayed.

By JackWhack — On Nov 30, 2012

My dog got sprayed by a skunk the night before his yearly veterinary exam. The vet was overwhelmed by the smell as she gave him his vaccinations!

She gave me a “recipe” for a de-skunking bath to try at home. I don't remember the exact quantities, but it involved baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. She said it's the only thing that will get the smell out.

By Oceana — On Nov 29, 2012

@ysmina – The scent does stick around for a long time! Have you ever hit a skunk with your car? That smell stays on your car!

I ran over an already dead skunk once, and the scent got all over the outside of my vehicle. It also traveled to the inside, and every time that I got into my car for days after that, I would smell the skunk.

I washed my car, but the scent lingered. Time was the only thing that got rid of it. Oh, and I put an open container of baking soda inside my car to absorb some of the smell.

By Perdido — On Nov 28, 2012

@lighth0se33 – You cannot do it yourself. Some vets even refuse to descent skunks, because if you release it back into the wild at some point, it will be completely defenseless. Also, vets don't want to risk the skunk spraying inside their clinics!

The best thing to do is to buy a domesticated skunk from a breeder. These skunks have been bred to be pets, and they are different than wild skunks. They eat different things and behave differently.

The breeder will descent the skunk when it is young, so you will be buying it already descented. Just don't release it into the woods one day, because it will die out there without its line of defense.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 28, 2012

How do you remove a skunk's scent glands if you are going to keep it as a pet? Can you do it yourself, or does a vet have to do it for you?

By stoneMason — On Nov 27, 2012

Do skunks normally smell bad or is it the skunk's spray that smells bad?

By ZipLine — On Nov 27, 2012

Every animal has a defense mechanism and the smell of skunks is their defense mechanism.

It's annoying for us but like the article said, it works really well for them.

By ysmina — On Nov 26, 2012

I always know when a skunk has sprayed in our neighborhood because the scent lingers forever.

I think skunks are cute but I never go near them or let my dogs go near them because I know they will spray us and we will smell disgusting thereafter.

We did have yard furniture sprayed by a skunk once Removing skunk smell is impossible. We tried everything and eventually threw it away.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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