In recent years, we’ve all learned the value of washing hands and keeping personal hygiene.
However, for skunks and some people using public transportation that often proves to be a challenging task – you can smell them from a distance.
So, what do skunks smell like?
From away, skunks have an organic, earthy, and musky smell. From close, skunks have a nauseating and overpowering smell that resembles rotten eggs and burnt rubber.
Skunks smell similar to minks, their close relatives – both species have an odor that is very strong and unpleasant to most people.
Their smell is actually a defense mechanism to keep predators away; skunks will spray a fetid liquid from their scent glands when afraid or excited. And if you really need to know, those glands are located on each side of their anus.
Such little paired sacs are not unique just to skunks – they are found in all carnivores. Humans have them too, except they are located inside our anus.
Animals will use the stinky liquid produced by the sacs to identify each other; dogs might use it to mark their territory while skunks use it to protect themselves.
The chemical composition of such a strong odor is quite fascinating.
Why Do Skunks Smell So Bad?
Skunks smell so bad due to organic compounds known as thiols that have sulfur as their main component. Sulfur has that classic rotten egg smell that makes skunk’s smell so intensely musky and overpowering.
The human nose can detect the thiols in skunk spray at levels as low as 10 parts per billion (ppb) – this is equivalent to one sheet in a roll of toilet paper stretching from London to New York.
Because of such foul-smelling properties, people have been adding thiols to natural gas. Since it is odorless and colorless, thiols are added to make the gas easier to detect.
In the case of skunks’ spray, the thiol is so potent and pungent that it is easy to smell from half a mile away.
Together with thiols that help intensify odor, skunk spray also contains thioacetates that allow the smell to persist. After coming in contact with water, thioacetates will “wake up” and add to the power – this can result in the smell staying for days.
To escape danger, skunks will lift their tails and eject their spray, but they do it sparingly.
The main reason is that it takes time for the spray to be produced – a single use can almost completely drain the liquid and it takes up to 10 days to refill the glands that produce it.
That’s why these smelly animals will never use it in skunk-on-skunk combats, only on predators.
And they have a pretty accurate aim. According to a study from the University of Nebraska, a skunk can hit a target that is as far as 20 feet away (but they are more precise when the target is within 10 feet).
Skunks do not want to waste too much of their precious liquid as they can be very vulnerable to coyotes, badgers, wolves, or owls as they reload.
Before showering enemies with the nausea-inducing smell, skunks will try to deter them with their noticeable white coloration running down their backs, by arching their fluffy tails, stomping their feet, hissing, and growling – spotted skunks might also do a handstand as a final warning before they spray you.
How awesome is that?!
Do Skunks Smell Before Spraying?
Generally speaking, skunks do not smell so bad before spraying.
Sometimes, their smell might depend on how recently they have sprayed and how much of the spray landed on the animal. In situations where it did, a skunk will have a smell that is bad and can be detected from away.
When the mating season comes, they might give off a pheromone smell that other non-skunk species might possibly find offensive – some say that that concentrated smell resembles rotting garlic and cabbage.
In situations where they haven’t sprayed recently, you most likely won’t be able to detect a skunk.
When keeping them as pets, owners might take their skunks to veterinarians to remove their scent glands which will significantly reduce their smell, making them almost completely odorless.
Can Skunks Smell Themselves?
Skunks rarely spray each other, but it happens. Juveniles will spray adults and females will also spray overly-aggressive males during the breeding season.
And when they get to taste a bit of their own medicine, it’s not pleasant.
Yes, skunks can smell themselves. However, they do not like the intense smell of their own spray or that of other skunks – especially if it gets in the face and eyes.
To get rid of the stink, they will rub their faces in the dirt, sneeze, or try to groom themselves.
Is Skunk Smell Dangerous?
Generally speaking, a skunk’s spray does not cause a lot of harm – you might feel nauseated from the smell and feel stinging or temporary blindness in your eyes.
Redness and tearing are also common with opening eyes for a few minutes being difficult.
More often than not, your dog might get sprayed by a skunk.
This may result in the animal drooling, sneezing, having red and swollen eyes, or having temporary blindness. Not to mention the lingering stench they will bring to your home that is almost impossible to neutralize.
Skunk odor has the potential to be harmful to people with asthma symptoms or damage red blood cells in dogs that were heavily exposed to the spray, but both cases are quite rare.
And in case you read that tomato juice may help remove the skunk smell, we have bad news for you.
It does NOT work!
Making a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and liquid dish detergent should remove the skunk smell with ease. Plus, tomato juice goes better with pasta or pizza.
How Do People Describe Skunk Smell?
Quite a few people have had close encounters with skunks – all of them say that they will remember it for the rest of their lives.
One person describes a skunk smell as “unbearable and overwhelming,” adding that “it will literally take your breath away.”
Another person says that from distance it smells like “that black mud you pull from the bottom of a lake” while up close, a skunk smells like “burning tires mixed with raw garlic,” causing you to want to gag or puke.
There was even one person comparing it to the coffee smell – this might be true as the aroma chemicals found in coffee closely resemble the smelly chemicals found in the abominable skunk spray.
Now let’s get to the fun side of the internet – people that actually like the smell of a skunk.
One person said that it reminded him of marijuana – marijuana contains a musky compound known as myrcene that is most distinctly similar in scent to skunk spray.
Another said that “skunk’s scent speaks of warm, calm, summer nights.” There was even one saying that it “reminded her of growing up in Minnesota.”
Either way, we won’t judge.
Summary – What Do Skunks Smell Like?
Skunks are small animals, but they can be extremely smelly!
They are born with the ability to spray foul-smelling thiols from their backsides – even if you manage to run away, another compound called thioacetate will ensure that the smell stays with you for days.
Whether you like or hate the smell, the best would be to stay away – the spray is not toxic but might cause nausea, tearing, and temporary blindness.
Either way, keep your distance and use your nose for more pleasant stuff to smell.
And if you enjoyed the stench of this article, here are a couple of more that are similar: What does a bear smell like?