Ask a Vet: What Can I Do if My Dog Gets Sprayed by a Skunk?
In my garage, near the main garage door and away from the entrance to the house, I keep the following items: a box of baking soda, a small container of dish soap, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a bottle of sterile and preservative-free eye irrigation solution, rubber gloves, an old washrag, and a cheap disposable bowl. Why, you ask?
Let me tell you about something that happens virtually every night that I am at work. In fact, it often happens several times per night. I will be busy treating patients or writing medical records at around 11 p.m., when the phone rings at the front desk. I can only hear one side of the conversation, but I can generally suss out what's happened right away.
The technician answers the phone and listens for a few moments. Her conversation generally goes something like this, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. ... No, it's not a medical emergency. ... Yes, the eyes water because it's irritating to them, but it will wear off in about 15 minutes, and you can gently irrigate the eyes with sterile eye-rinsing solution to speed up the process. ... Dogs often drool and may even throw up at first, but that also wears off quickly. ... No, your dog doesn't need to come in. ... Let me get you a recipe. ... Yes, I'm sure your dog doesn't need to be seen. ... Here's the recipe ..."
In case you're still wondering, the conversation I'm overhearing is when a distressed owner of a skunked dog calls the emergency vet.
I'm not sure what role skunks were born to play in this world other than nuisance to dogs and their owners. My pal Buster was skunked once several years ago, and it was a horrible experience. The incident was especially memorable -- and miserable -- for me because he was on leash and I was holding the other end of the leash. Therefore, I was close by and squarely in the blast zone. Buster wasn't the only individual who got skunked that night. I, too, suffered the ignominy of being skunked, and I therefore have firsthand knowledge of what it's like.
Note that I wrote "that night." Skunks are nocturnal creatures. If you or your dog has an interaction with one during the day, you should take flight -- rabid skunks are prone to wandering when the sun is out. Nighttime skunk encounters are the norm. Dogs most frequently encounter skunks in the yard during their pre-bedtime bathroom sojourns. This makes the average skunking all the more unpleasant, since everyone is usually tired and ready for bed at the time of the spraying.
Like I said, I do not know why skunks exist. But I do know what to expect when dogs encounter them -- something about skunks makes dogs want to give chase.
Skunks, unlike raccoons, generally try to mind their own business. They spray when startled or frightened. Sadly, they are more given to spraying than to evasion. When a dog goes after a skunk, it will often spray before trying to escape.
Skunk spray is modified anal gland fluid. Skunks that feel threatened turn their backsides towards the perceived threat, aka the dog (or person). When the perceived threat is closing in, the skunk sprays the contents of its anal glands in the direction of the perceived threat.
For dogs, this generally means a blast right in the face.
Skunk fluid is a complex mixture of organic chemicals. The notable ones, however, are primarily mercaptans and disulfides. Mercaptans are organic compounds that contain sulfur. So, as the name implies, are disulfides. Before I was a vet, I did a stint as a university lecturer in organic chemistry, and here is what I remember from that time about mercaptans and disulfides: They smell bad. No surprise.
As I mentioned, I have personal experience with skunk fluid. At close range and in high concentration, skunk fluid does more than smell bad. The compounds in the juice are so noxious that they are outright lachrymators. "Lachrymator" is a fancy chemical term for a compound, such as tear gas, that causes irritation to the eyes and membranes of the face.
Thus, dogs who get nailed by skunks often suffer from significant watering of the eyes and drooling. Vomiting can occur. The whole thing is miserable.
But here's the good news: It's almost never a veterinary emergency. In fact, most veterinary clinics actively refuse to treat skunked dogs unless there are exceptional circumstances, because a skunked dog who enters a veterinary hospital will make the place stink to high heaven for weeks.
This explains the supplies that I keep in my garage. The sterile, preservative-free eye irrigation solution can be used to help rinse the lachrymators out of the eyes. The other materials comprise an effective (or rather, as effective as can be hoped) skunk remedy. For your information, here are the instructions from my previous post on skunks:
Mix 4 cups hydrogen peroxide, 1/2 cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon liquid soap together in a bowl that can be thrown away. Wear gloves to protect your hands from skunk odor. Use a wash rag to apply the remedy to the skunked area (do not get it in the eyes or mouth). Do not rinse or wet down your dog before applying the remedy. Let stand for 10 minutes, rinse, and repeat as necessary.
Sadly, since most dogs get sprayed in the face, the part about keeping the solution away from the eyes and mouth can complicate matters. And, even though the remedy is quite effective, a lingering skunky smell can be expected for weeks (or even months). However, if you apply the remedy outdoors, before your dog has entered the dwelling, there is hope that your home will remain inhabitable.
Some people ask whether dogs learn their lesson after being skunked. Perhaps your dog is smarter than mine; in that case, consider yourself lucky. About two months after Buster was skunked, we went camping in Big Sur. A skunk walked through camp at around 10:30 p.m. Fortunately, Buster had already retired to the tent. He awoke and attempted to attack, but the tent prevented him, despite several lunges, from getting close to the pest. I fled the camp for as long as it took for the skunk to clear out. Disaster was narrowly averted.
Has your dog ever been skunked? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments!
Learn more about dogs with Dogster:
- Why Do Dogs Lick People?
- 6 Ways to Thwart an Off-Leash Dog Rushing You and Your Dog
- I Worked at a Large Commercial Pet Store, And What they Do to Puppies Will Shock You
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)