Skunks are not recommended as pets: they are wild animals that are natives of North America. In the past twenty years, however, there’s been a growing trend in the USA for skunks to be domesticated from birth, and kept as pets. A small number of these have then been imported into Europe, and even in Ireland, a few skunks have been bred to produce young animals for the pet market.
Skunks are best known for the strong smell that they produce. They are born with two anal scent glands, which they can use as a defensive weapon. These glands produce a mixture of sulphur-containing chemicals which have a highly offensive smell, said to resemble a combination of the odors of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber. The odour of the fluid is strong enough to frighten off bears and other potential attackers. Muscles located next to the scent glands give skunks the ability to spray with a high degree of accuracy, like a high powered water pistol, for up to three metres. The spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness and the smell is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose anywhere up to a mile downwind.
Apart from this smelliness, skunks are intriguing creatures, similar to ferrets in some ways, with striking black and white fur, and a large, hairy tail. Skunks have some fascinating behavioural characteristics derived from their wild background. Wild skunks warn predators and competitors by stomping their front feet and raising their tails in full bloom. They run directly toward a threat and stop (sometimes within inches), then jump up and down on their front feet, hissing and squealing. If the enemy doesn’t heed the warnings, the skunk turns around and sprays.
Pet skunks display these same behaviours, often as a form of play, when they’re excited. The one big difference is that they are not able to spray: most have been descented by breeders when they’re just a few weeks old. This is a controversial procedure involving the surgical removal of their anal glands. It’s unethical for vets to do it because it’s regarded as a cosmetic operation, which is not in the interest of the animal. The fact that some breeders do it themselves in very young animals raises serious animal welfare concerns, but for very practical reasons, skunks cannot be kept as pets otherwise.
The ideal answer is for skunks not to be kept as pets at all, but once someone like Josh has one in his possession, he needs help to ensure that the animal has the best possible quality of life.
Snuggles has already been descented, but there’s another surgical procedure that’s soon going to be necessary: she needs to be spayed. Like ferrets, skunks come into season continually if they’re not mated, and this can cause them to fall ill. They can also become aggressive when they’re affected by their hormones. Spaying, which is a similar procedure to a cat being spayed, prevents these problems.
Skunks also need to have their nails clipped regularly: they grow quickly, and they have sharp tips. Snuggles would never scratch Josh deliberately, but she does wriggle when he’s holding her sometimes, and if her nails were sharp he could receive a nasty scratch.
Snuggles lives in a cage, like a guinea pig or a rabbit, but Josh takes her out frequently to play. She’s been used to humans from an early age, and she enjoys running around the garden with him, like a small dog or a cat. A skunk wouldn’t be everyone’s choice of pet, but Josh adores her.
- Skunks are best left alone as free living animals in the wild rather than being kept in captivity
- If kept as pets, they need to be de-scented, which is controversial
- Skunks also need to be spayed, for both health and behavioural reasons