And, the only thing worse than smelling a skunk is smelling your dog or cat sprayed by a skunk.
We don’t see many skunks here in Long Beach, MS. Which is not to say they are not here, because we have plenty of wildlife right here in town. Among them we smell the occasional skunk, but rarely see them.
Our children and grandchildren live in Louisville, KY. Metropolitan Louisville is a beautiful place, dotted with parks designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Despite its size, they actually have more and varied wildlife in the city limits than we do. Many more skunks live there than here and we see and smell them everywhere around town when we visit. Our youngest son called last week for advice because a friend’s dog had been “hit.”
Having your pet “skunked” may not be the worst thing that can happen to your dog, but, at the time, you might think so.
THE SKUNK AND HIS WEAPON
Skunks spray as a method of protection. Their discharge doesn’t usually cause any permanent damage, but it is convincing enough to make most predators change their minds about attacking.
Skunks have anal sacs, much like our dogs and cats do. However, evolution has modified the glands that empty into the sacs to produce a much more potent, and chemically unique, discharge. Further, it is less viscous, allowing the skunk to deliver the material up to 16 feet.
Now, let’s make one thing very clear. Dog and cat anal sac material smells bad. No one is going to argue that. However, skunk anal sac material is in a class by itself. The chief offensive agent is mercaptan, an organic molecule containing sulfur. It is the same ingredient added to natural gas, which is odorless, to make it detectable in case of leaks. The human olfactory system is so sensitive to this agent that we can detect1 part in 10 billion.
As if the situation wasn’t stinky enough, the chemical composition of skunk spray isn’t uniform. First, it varies among species of skunks, of which there are four in North America alone. Second, the chemical makeup varies from one individual to another. The presence of this variation has also been studied in dogs. American readers would not be surprised to learn that our tax dollars paid for such research. We are off the hook this time, though, most of it was performed in Europe.
This variance in skunk musk composition affects the dog or cat victim’s owner in two ways.
One, the treatment used for removing the smell from a dog sprayed by skunk A might not work on another dog sprayed by skunk B.
Two, in a portion of the scent sprayed, a chemical reaction occurs between the thiol-(sulfur)containing molecules and acetic acid, forming thioacetates. More on thioacetates in a moment.
TECHNIQUE FOR A BETTER-SMELLING DOG OR CAT
Wear gloves. Remember 1 part in 10 billion? If you get any skunk smell on your hands you may be smelling it for weeks.
Nature has programmed skunks to aim for the face. They will actually turn their heads around and look at the victim to aim accurately. That means there is likely to be skunk spray in and around the eyes. Rinse the eyes with copious amounts of eye rinse available at your pet’s doctor’s office or from any drug store. Keep the de-stinking agent out of your pet’s eyes.
You are wasting your time (and wear and tear on your nose) if you try to cover up the smell with perfume.
Pet owners report mixed results with tomato sauce and tomato juice. These might work in the mildest cases of exposure, but they are acidic on the pH scale, and thus are physically inappropriate for the job. Our recommendation is skip the tomato products.
Chemically speaking, you need an oxidizer. Physically speaking, you need a basic or alkaline pH. Start with 3% hydrogen peroxide. That’s the standard concentration in the brown plastic bottle. Never use metal containers with peroxide; a violent reaction can occur. In a plastic bucket, mix the peroxide with some baking soda, one quart of peroxide plus 1/4 to one cup of baking soda. Some recipes call for adding a little dishwashing detergent, too, about a capful.
The above quantities will be suitable for a 10-20 pound dog. If yours is bigger, double or triple the recipe.
Leave the mixture on your pet for about 15 minutes and rinse thoroughly. You don’t want to leave any residue. Repeat as needed. Use any dog-safe shampoo after the last treatment.
Back to thioacetates. You are all finished and your dog is smelling pretty good. A week later he jumps into the creek and, voila! He stinks again. Thioacetates have no smell, but may survive your de-stinking efforts. When wet, thioacetates break down into, you guessed it, mercaptans. If the smell is bad enough, repeat your treatment technique, followed by another bath.
Storing the above concoction in a closed container can result in explosion. Instead, make a new batch each time you need it.
Bleach is an excellent oxidizer, and is fine for removing the odor from your clothes (burning works well, too!). Do not put bleach on your dog or cat!
One last warning: In 2005 a case report was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, reporting that a skunk-sprayed dog suffered life-threatening anemia, presumably caused by ingredients in the spray. If your dog becomes lethargic after a skunk encounter, be sure he sees his veterinarian right away.
Also, skunks are excellent harbors for rabies virus. If your pet is bitten, he could contract rabies and/or suffer a bacterial infection of the bite wound.
This whole situation makes a nice, indoor cat a pretty attractive option, doesn’t it?
See you next week, Dr. Randolph.