Welcome to another installment of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs, cats and their nutrition.
The saying “curiosity killed the cat” applies as much to our dogs as it does our cats. But canine inquisitiveness — and the desire to give all creatures a good sniff — can have smelly consequences when your dog meets a skunk.
If you ask most people how to rid your dog of “eau de skunk,” the most common answer is the subject of this month’s myth: A tomato juice bath removes skunk spray. The fact is, however, more effective options are available. We’ll explain what those are and the best way to approach bath time. But first, why is skunk spray (also called skunk musk) so stinky and tough to remove?
What’s skunk spray and why’s it so stinky?
Skunk musk is an oily, repulsive-smelling liquid secreted by and stored in a skunk’s anal glands, which are located on each side of the anus. When threatened or surprised, all six species of North American skunks can spray this secretion, either as a mist or directed stream, for 7 to 15 feet in order to repel predators. And skunks are highly accurate in their aim.
Chemists have been both fascinated and repelled by skunk spray. Research into the chemical components of skunk musk dates back to 1862 and, even today, studies continue into the effects of skunk spray on those unlucky enough to be “skunked,” as well as strategies for neutralizing the odor.
The overpowering, offensive scent of skunk spray is attributed to sulfur-based organic chemicals called thiols and thioacetates, which stick to hair and other surfaces. Thiol compounds give skunk spray its blast of immediately pungent smell that’s reminiscent of rotten eggs.
The thioacetates aren’t initially as smelly as the thiol components, but are converted to (guess what?) thiols when water is added. It’s these compounds that give skunk spray its smelly staying power.
If your dog (or cat) has a close encounter of the skunk kind, don’t panic. Follow these steps to ensure your pet hasn’t been injured and quickly and effectively get rid of the smell.
DON’T take your pet inside
While your first instinct is to get your skunked dog inside and in the bathtub, DON’T DO IT.
The skunk smell can quickly pervade your home and home furnishings, where it can linger even after your pet is clean. Your best bet is to “decontaminate” your dog outside, if at all possible. You’ll want to wear old clothes and gloves to keep the skunk musk from transferring to your skin.
Get your cleaning supplies together and then get to work.
Evaluate your pet for symptoms and injuries
Skunks often spray dogs in the face (not terribly surprising given some dogs’ propensity to sniff everything!). Before you start bathing, check your dog’s eyes, nose and mouth for signs of irritation such as redness, squinting, watering, sneezing or drooling. Skunk spray is very irritating and may even cause temporary blindness. It can also cause vomiting if your dog is sprayed in the mouth. So if you notice your dog’s eyes are red or irritated, gently rinse them with cool, clean water and contact your veterinary clinic or nearest emergency veterinary hospital.
You also need to check your pet for any scratches or bites. While it’s unlikely your dog got close enough to the skunk to be bitten — given the range a skunk can spray — skunks can carry rabies. Again, if you notice any injuries, seek veterinary care immediately.
“De-skunking” your pet
Now’s the time to remove the skunk stink from your dog. To get rid of skunk odor, the chemical compounds in skunk musk must be removed from the pet’s coat or chemically altered.
If you’re thinking that a tomato juice bath is the answer, it isn’t. Tomato juice might wash off some of the thiols and thioacetates that cause skunk odor, but it doesn’t chemically alter or neutralize those compounds and, subsequently, their smell. Changing the thiols into chemicals that have little or no odor is the key to getting rid of skunk stink.
The best option for removing skunk spray from your pet is an over-the-counter skunk odor remover. These products are specifically formulated for removing skunk spray and can be bought from your veterinarian or local pet store.
But if you’re dealing with a skunked pet after your pet store or veterinary clinic has closed (which seems to happen more often than not), there’s another option available. And it requires ingredients you likely have already in your kitchen and bathroom.
DIY skunk odor remover
Paul Krebaum, a chemist in Lisle, Illinois, is credited with developing the first home remedy for removing skunk spray from pets. His formula was published in Chemical and Engineering News in October 1993. Here are step-by-step instructions for Krebaum’s DIY remedy, courtesy of Covetrus and dvm360:
- Mix the following ingredients in an open container or large bowl:
- 1 quart of fresh 3 percent hydrogen peroxide
- ¼ cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
- 1-2 teaspoons of liquid dishwashing detergent
Notes: For large dogs, add 1 quart of lukewarm water to ensure complete coverage. The solution will begin to fizz when the ingredients are mixed because you’ve created a chemical reaction that releases oxygen gas. Use the mixture immediately for maximum potency. Do NOT cover the container as it could explode.
- Liberally massage the mixture into your dog’s (or cat’s) fur down to the skin. Wear rubber gloves.
- Use a washcloth to wipe your pet’s face, avoiding their eyes and mouth if your pet got sprayed in the face.
- Let the mixture sit (and work) for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Rinse completely and thoroughly with lots of lukewarm water.
- Repeat as needed until the smell is gone.
- You can then wash your dog with their normal pet shampoo and rinse again. Towel your dog dry.
Here are several safety tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t use a hydrogen peroxide solution that’s stronger than 3 percent as it can be irritating to skin.
- Be extremely careful not to get the DIY remedy in your dog’s eyes.
- The formula may bleach your dog’s fur, as well as your clothing, towels and carpeting, if the mixture is left on for too long. You’ll be more likely to notice the bleaching if your pet has black or brown fur.
- Do not store the mixture. Use it immediately and get rid of any excess by diluting with a large amount of water.
Getting skunked happens. So short of training your dog to stay at least 15 feet away from skunks (good luck with that), your best bet is to be prepared to handle the situation. Keep the supplies for the DIY skunk odor remover on hand, maybe as part of your pet emergency kit. Or talk with your veterinarian about which commercial product they recommend and stock up on it.
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