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What Should I Do if My Cat Is Sprayed by a Skunk?

Cats are known for their curious nature, and if allowed to roam outdoors, it’s not uncommon for them to find themselves in some sticky situations with wildlife. Occasionally, this can include a small striped mammal that no one wants to have a run-in with — the skunk. An encounter with a skunk can result in a very smelly situation for both you and your feline friend. Let’s discuss what the stink is all about, i.e., what skunk spray is and what to do if your cat ends up on the receiving end of it.

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Skunks 101: what are they and where do they live?

Skunks are small to medium-sized mammals known for their elongated, weasel-like bodies, signature stripes, long fluffy tails, and, most notably — the noxious odor they emit when threatened. While the 'classic' skunk everyone is familiar with is the black-and-white striped version, several species of skunks exist. Some are spotted instead of striped, and solid colors of black, brown, gray, cream, or white also be found in the skunk family.

Skunks inhabit a wide variety of landscapes across North and South America. In the United States, they exist in all states except Alaska and Hawaii. Skunks can be found in all types of forested areas, prairies, and farmlands, and they are even found in urban neighborhoods and city parks. If you live anywhere in the lower 48 states, there’s always a chance of a skunk encounter.

While most skunks will shy away from interactions with people or other animals, they can be a danger if provoked. Besides the risk of their smelly spray, skunks are also among the animals most commonly infected with Rabies in the US. Rabies can't be spread through skunk spray but it can be spread by bites or scratches, and it's something pet owners should have on their radar if their pet has a skunk encounter.

What is skunk spray?

The skunk has a unique, albeit stinky, defense mechanism when threatened. It sprays an oily, foul-smelling liquid in the direction of the perceived threat. This liquid is produced by glands under the skunk's tail and contains several smelly, irritating compounds, including thiol, a sulphuric compound that gives skunk spray its signature 'rotten egg' smell.

Skunks can spray up to 15 feet, and because the spray contains an oily substance, it tends to stick to the skin and fur of whatever was sprayed. While the smell is enough to ward off anything near the skunk, it can also irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. While most skunks use their spray against a would-be predator like a coyote or mountain lion, sometimes an unlucky human or curious cat ends up in the path.

What should I do if my cat got sprayed by a skunk?

Whether you witnessed the skunk spraying firsthand or your cat came home smelling like they’ve rolled in a carton of rotten eggs, you’ll want to take some crucial steps immediately. If you can, put on a pair of gloves before handling your pet. Protective eyewear like goggles and a mask can also be helpful if you have them.

Assess your pet

The first thing you’ll want to do is remain calm and assess your cat. Your cat will likely be agitated from the encounter, and yes — they will be very smelly, but you’ll need to look beyond that for the moment. Look at your cat's eyes, nose, and mouth and check for signs of redness, irritation, drooling, and sneezing. You’ll also want to check their body for any scratches or bite marks in case their encounter with the skunk went beyond just a spray.

If your cat is showing signs of being sprayed in the face, you’ll want to start by flushing its eyes before heading to the vet. If you have a sterile eyewash solution, this is best; otherwise, just use cool water. If your cat is vomiting, breathing abnormally, or has any bites or scratches from the skunk, you'll want to take it to the nearest veterinary emergency room immediately.

If your cat’s symptoms are minor irritation or just the smell, you can proceed with cleaning it at home. However, it’s still a good idea to call your vet’s office and let them know what happened; they may have specific advice for your pet.

Contain the smell

Try to isolate your cat in one area to contain the smell and keep it from spreading all over your house. If you can safely do this outside without your cat getting away (by using a travel carrier or a second person to help hold), it is best to contain it in a bathroom or laundry room and open the windows for ventilation.

Your cat will understandably be upset and might not want to be handled during this time. Try using treats as a distraction or wrapping them in a towel to help keep them calm and prevent scratching. The process will go much smoother if you have a second person who can help.

De-skunk your cat

Once you've assessed and contained your cat, it’s time to start the bathing process. The best way to de-skunk your cat is using a specially formulated de-skunking shampoo, which you can find at pet stores (do not use tomato juice, this common myth does not work). If you don’t have any on hand and cannot send someone out to get some promptly, you can use a vet-approved home remedy.

Here's a vet-approved home remedy for de-skunking:

  • 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide (preferably, a fresh, unopened bottle)
  • 1/4 cup baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap

Mix these ingredients in a plastic bucket or large plastic bowl and use plastic utensils to stir (do not use metal). Only mix right before use, and do not mix or store in a bottle as the gases released can cause a pressure buildup in the bottle. This mixture will also be flammable, so keep away from any open flames.

Apply the mixture to your cat, working it into the fur with gloved hands and avoiding the eye, nose, and mouth area. The oxygen bubbles from the hydrogen peroxide and baking soda help neutralize the smelly compounds, while the dish soap enzymes break down the skunk spray's oils. Be aware that some semi-permanent (it will grow back) lightening of your cat’s fur may occur from the hydrogen peroxide.

Allow the mixture to sit for a few minutes, then thoroughly rinse. Be careful not to get any in their eyes, nose, or mouth, and do not let them lick or drink the mixture or the water. Once you’ve rinsed all of the mixture away, use your regular cat shampoo to bathe and rinse again. Depending on the severity of the skunk spray, you may need to repeat this process to fully remove the smell. In some cases, your cat may even need a trip to the vet or groomer for a professional bath if home remedies aren’t working. Don't use any harsh soaps or perfumes on your cat.

Does pet insurance cover skunk encounters?

Pet insurance coverage for skunk encounters can vary depending on the provider and the situation. Typically, anything bathing or grooming-related is not covered. However, if your cat was injured by the skunk and needed veterinary treatment, that would likely be covered. It’s important to check your individual policy for coverage details on wildlife encounters.

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Skunk prevention for cats

Want to reduce the chances you’ll have to remember how to get the skunk smell off a cat again? Here are some skunk prevention tips for your cat and home:

  • Keep your cat indoors. Outdoor cats are much more likely to get sprayed by a skunk than indoor cats. If you cannot keep your cat indoors full-time, keep them inside overnight. Skunks are primarily nocturnal, and most cat-skunk encounters happen around dusk or dawn when skunks are most active.
  • Keep your cat up-to-date on vaccines and parasite preventatives. Smell isn’t the only thing you have to worry about with skunks. They can carry the rabies virus and infect your cat (or dog) through bites or scratches. Skunks can also carry parasites. Be sure your cat is protected by keeping them up-to-date on all of their vaccines and parasite preventatives.
  • Spay or neuter your cat. Spaying or neutering your cat might make them less likely to want to roam and end up in potential conflicts with wildlife like skunks.
  • Skunk-proof your yard. Make your yard less inviting to skunks by picking up any outside pet food bowls, securing trash cans, blocking off any crawl spaces (like under porches), and removing debris (such as wood piles) that might look like a good denning spot for them. This is especially important in the spring when skunks are looking to nest. Motion-activated bright lights and sprinklers can also help deter skunks from your yard.
  • Be prepared. While prevention is one of the best ways to avoid a cat-skunk encounter, they can still happen, especially if you live in a heavily wooded area. Be prepared by keeping a bottle of de-skunking shampoo, some old towels, and gloves on hand, just in case.

Like most wildlife, skunks don’t want much to do with humans or pets and only react when threatened. By taking some simple preventative steps, we can ensure that our pets are safe and our local wildlife, like skunks, are left to live in peace.

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