Skunky McSkunkface: Skunk Spray Can be Lethal

Posted By Tony Johnson D.V.M.
In Canine Health Learn!

Everyone knows about the hazards that skunk spray poses to your nostrils: a drive on a warm summer day is often ruined for a few minutes as you pass through a cloud left behind by some poor run-down skunk. For them, it’s a defense mechanism that is evolutionarily derived from those pesky glands that frame a dog’s butt: the anal glands. You might have had the bad luck to come into contact with the secretions of those glands from your dog (dogs often empty them when they get excited or scared), but the stuff coming from a skunk’s nether regions is about 10,000 times more odoriferous. (That’s my estimation – totally made up and non-scientific.)

One little-known fact, and as an ER vet I have to admit that I didn’t know this for years, is that the stuff coming from a scared skunk isn’t just nose-wrinklingly nasty, it can be deadly toxic as well. If a dog happens to get a face full of skunk spray, which is loaded with chemical compounds like 2-quinolinemethanethiol and 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, severe damage can ensue. If ingested by the unfortunate dog, those nasties can do more than ruin the carpet: they can wreak havoc on a dog’s system and cause a disease known as hemolytic anemia where the toxin destroys a dog’s red blood cells. Both skunk toxin hemolytic anemia and immune mediated hemolytic anemia destroy red blood cells, but through different mechanisms.

Of the few case reports I’ve been able to track down, dogs have survived the exposure, but a few needed blood transfusions and other supportive measures. If your dog tangles with a skunk, made sure you keep a close eye for signs of anemia: weakness, loss of appetite, and severe lethargy are the most common. If you suspect something amiss, it’s always best to have your vet take a look. Initial tests for anemia are inexpensive and can usually be done in-house, although additional testing may be needed to rule out other causes of anemia, and may require sending samples to an outside lab, or even visiting another hospital for a referral.

What if your dog gets skunked but doesn’t have any serious medical issues…just a funky smell? The old saw about tomato juice might work, but you’ll go through a whole ocean of tomato juice and barely touch the smell. (I think the whole rumor got started just to increase tomato juice sales.) Tomato juice is better as masking the smell, like bathroom spray does, than really getting rid of it.

What’s a better option? How can you actually make the horrid smell go away? Try the recipe that’s taped up inside the cabinets of every veterinary ER in the country: a mix of peroxide, baking soda, and soap (and this one’s even been tested and verified by Mythbusters…TV never lies):

One quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide
One quarter cup of baking soda
One teaspoon of liquid hand soap (not detergent or dishwashing soap)

Bathe your dog in this mixture a few times and rinse well with warm water. The peroxide in this solution could definitely hurt your dog’s eyes, so make sure to avoid getting any there, and rinse well with tap water or contact lens saline if you do.

Safety tip: there’s no way to safely store it. If you put all the ingredients in a bottle and place it on a shelf it will explode, so just make enough for one bath.

The best way to avoid having a smelly house, smelly dog, and potentially serious medical issues is to keep your dog under control, on a leash and away from skunks. But if you’re camping, hiking, or live in the country, this isn’t always possible. Clip and save the recipe above, and keep the phone number of your vet and local veterinary ER handy if things are more than just smelly.

Here’s to a safe, stink-free and skunk-free summer!