Skunks can cause more than smelly problems for pet owners

Trisha Gedon
OSU Extension Center

STILLWATER – The nose knows. Even the slightest hint of a skunk’s presence can send pet owners scrambling to find a way to get rid of the scent.

But it isn’t just the odor that is cause for concern. Skunks are the primary reservoirs of rabies in Oklahoma, followed by bats, said Dr. Barry Whitworth, Oklahoma State University Extension veterinarian.

When it comes to rabies, Whitworth said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“Economically, it’s much cheaper to prevent disease than to treat it, and disease prevention is better for the animal. Some diseases, including rabies and canine distemper, usually are fatal,” he said.

Oklahoma recognizes one- or three-year vaccines; however, local governments may have ordinances that require yearly vaccines. Small pet owners need to consult a veterinarian about which rabies prevention vaccine is best for their location. In addition, pets should be seen at least once per year for a general checkup.

Rabies clinics often take place in the spring or early summer because that’s when skunks are more active. However, Whitworth said dogs and cats should be vaccinated for rabies based on the age of the animal, not necessarily the time of year. In small animals, that is usually at 3 months of age with a booster for 1-year-olds.

“Rabies can present in a couple of ways. First is the aggressive form most people recognize, the typical ‘mad dog.’ Animals with this form will be aggressive, hypersalivate, vocalize and wander,” Whitworth said. “The second form is the paralytic or dumb form, which often isn’t recognized by pet owners. These animals appear to be in a stupor, and the infection is seen in wild animals that people encounter.”

In such cases, the rabid animal isn’t afraid of people; nocturnal creatures will be seen more often during daytime; and in some cases, the infected animal will approach humans or try to get into their homes. Unfortunately, this is when people most often get exposed because they don’t realize the animal is sick.

“It’s important for pet owners to realize rabies is almost always fatal and that’s why vaccines are so important. Experimentally, animals have survived the disease, but treatment isn’t practical in clinical settings,” he said. “The dangers to veterinarians and staff don’t warrant treating animals.”

Rabies aside, what should pet owners do if a furry friend has a skunk encounter and comes out on the smelly end of things? Although getting a dog inside the house and into a bathtub might seem like the obvious solution, it’s best to keep the pet outside, said Dr. Rosslyn Biggs, OSU Extension veterinarian and director of continuing education for the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Scent molecules spread from surface to surface and stick around.

“Skunk spray is produced by the anal glands of the skunk to defend against predators and contains sulfurous chemicals called thiols,” Biggs said. “The best recipe for getting rid of that smell is a mixture of food-grade hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and liquid soap.”

In a bucket, mix 4 cups peroxide, one-quarter cup of baking soda and 2 teaspoons of liquid soap. While the mixture is still bubbling, apply it to the dog’s dry coat, taking care not to get it into the pet’s eyes or mouth. Lather and rub the mixture into the coat and skin for about five minutes or until the smell starts to dissipate.

To de-skunk the face and ears, apply the mixture with a sponge, making sure to cover the dog’s chin, cheeks, forehead and ears. Rinse thoroughly, making sure to tilt the dog’s head upward to avoid getting the solution into its eyes and mouth. This process may need to be repeated.

Biggs stressed that a horrible odor is still not as problematic as rabies, however.

“If you suspect your pet has been bitten by a rabid animal, contact your veterinarian immediately,” Biggs said.