Skunks are well-known animals that are usually smelled far more often than seen. These elusive animals occasionally make their way into our yards and leave a smelly reminder that they were here. Why do skunks spray in our yards?
Skunks will spray in your yard if a predator approaches them. Young skunks will spray far more often than adult skunks. Skunks will also spray in your yard if they get frightened by sprinklers or a loud noise. Male skunks will spray if they are fighting over a female during the breeding season.
Whatever the reason may be, it’s never pleasant to smell skunk odor in your yard. Below, we’ll go over why skunks are spraying in your yard and what you can do to stop it!
Why Are Skunks In Your Yard Anyways?
The best way to prevent skunks from spraying in your yard is to deter them from your yard in the first place.
First, you’ll need to figure out what in your yard is attracting these elusive animals. A lot of times you may be unintentionally attracting them with simple things around the yard like a garden or bird feeder.
Other times, the attractant may be more subtle like having an unsealed space under your deck or shed.
1. They LOVE Unsealed Garbage Cans
Just like raccoons, skunks have no qualms about diving into the trash can to look for food scraps.
Trash cans that fall over and expose garbage are like an open buffet for skunks and many other critters. Skunks may not see the garbage but they can certainly smell it!
According to the University of California, skunks have terrible vision but they make up for it by having a keen sense of smell and excellent hearing.
To keep skunks from feasting on a buffet of garbage in your yard, try using a lid lock such as Blazer Brand’s Strong Strap Stretch Latch. It fits most garbage cans and doesn’t require tools to install.
Alternatively, you can keep your garbage stored in a shed or garage until pick-up day or try using bungee cords to secure the lid.
2. Outdoor Pet Food Can Attract Skunks
Skunks are pretty food motivated. If they find a source of food that’s easy to obtain and requires little energy, they’ll keep coming back night after night.
Pet food that is left out overnight is likely to attract skunks who wander into your yard. They will see it as an easy meal and chow down even if it is not their preferred food.
Skunks are typically nocturnal and may be active at dawn and dusk as well. However, they are unlikely to steal pet food during the day, especially if your pet is around.
For this reason, it’s best to pick up any left-out pet food in the evening when skunks are most active. You can replace it again in the morning.
Or, better yet, feed your pet indoors!
3. Skunks Often Look For Bugs In Your Soil
Skunks are omnivores that eat both plant and animal matter. Their preferred food is insects and grubs that they find by digging in the soil.
Unfortunately, the better you take care of your lawn the more likely you are to have insects and grubs beneath the soil that will attract skunks. A healthy lawn is packed with nutrients and water that make a great environment for soil-dwelling insects.
If skunks are raiding your lawn for insects and grubs, they’ll leave behind signs. According to Colorado State University, they create cone-shaped holes that are around 3-4 inches in depth.
Your first thought may be to eliminate the insects in the soil by using an insecticide on your lawn. Unfortunately, this can have repercussions by upsetting the natural balance of beneficial organisms in the soil.
It’s better to use other ways of keeping skunks out of your yard. More on that later!
4. Your Yard Could Offer Skunks Shelter
Skunks are den animals. They live in burrows that may be dug out by other critters and widened to accommodate a skunk.
While burrows may be easy to find in forests, they’re not so easy in suburban neighborhoods. Skunks that live close to people may resort to other areas to make their burrows such as:
- Under a porch
- Under a shed
- Beneath a brush pile
- Underneath old building materials or wood
If you have any of these structures or materials in the yard, it may be attracting skunks who are looking to establish a den. Make sure to seal these areas up and remove any brush piles or building materials laying around the yard.
Why Are Skunks Spraying In Your Yard?
There’s nothing worse than having the smell of a skunk permeate the air as you drink your morning coffee or enjoy a nice family dinner. The smell seems to permeate every inch of your house and yard.
An article in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology found that, when compared to grey foxes, predators were far more hesitant to approach skunk-shaped and skunk-colored bait stations than fox stations.
You know your smell is rank when even coyotes leave you alone!
You may be surprised to learn that skunks only use their spray as an absolute last resort when facing off against an enemy – whether it be a dog, cat, predator, or the dreaded sprinkler system.
Skunks are hesitant to use their spray because it takes a while for their bodies to refill the glands, around 10-14 days. During that time, they are vulnerable to predators.
With that knowledge, it begs the question: why are skunks spraying in your yard?
1. Young Skunks Spray More Often Than Adult Skunks
Baby skunks, called kits, are typically born in May. These miniature odor machines are born into a scary world where their best defense mechanism is to spray.
As adults, skunks will use all manner of warnings before they spray. They’ll stomp, hiss, lift their tail, and growl before they resort to spraying.
Kits are less knowledgeable about how long it takes to refill their spray glands. According to an article in the Journal of Ethology Ecology & Evolution, instead of displaying all the warning signs to a potential predator, young skunks are more likely to spray right away.
While the smell of a skunk develops after just seven days of being born, kits cannot expel the smell at a predator until they are 17 days old.
If you are smelling skunks more often around May and June, it could be due to the presence of kits that are easily frightened and using the best defense mechanism they know.
2. Skunks Spray If A Predator Approaches Them
The main reason why skunks spray at all is to protect themselves. Other animals can camouflage, some have spikes or quills, and others can sting or bite.
Skunks? They just plain old smell!
Skunks use smell paired with what is called aposematic coloration to defend themselves. Their black and white stripes warn predators that they should not be trifled with or the predator will regret it.
Some examples of aposematic coloring include:
- Black and yellow wasps and bees (stinging)
- Bright blue poison dart frogs (poisonous)
- Red and yellow coral snakes (venomous)
The vivid contrasting colors are a warning to predators: Back off! I don’t taste good!
If a predator approaches a skunk, the skunk has to rely on their aposematic coloring and hope that the predator has had an experience with them before.
However, if the skunk is a novel prey item to a predator, the predator may bypass the skunk’s warning signals and continue to approach. This will result in the skunk using its last-resort defense mechanism: spraying.
Unfortunately, this can take place in your yard and make your yard and whole neighborhood stink.
If you’re interested, here’s a list of common skunk predators that you can review to see if you have these animals near your property that could be drawing in skunks!
3. Skunks May Spray If Your Dog Is Outside
Dogs can be an excellent tool to keep predators like coyotes, foxes, and raccoons at bay. Their barks and growls will keep chickens, sheep, and goats safe.
Unfortunately, if you don’t want skunks spraying in your yard, your dog can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Dogs are far less familiar with skunks than wild predators. Unless they’ve been sprayed before, your dogs probably have no idea what this strange-looking critter in the yard is and will want to investigate.
In general, dogs are excellent communicators and will understand warning signals from other dogs and animals. If a skunk is stomping its feet and hissing, the dog will get the idea that this animal is not very happy and wants the dog to back off.
That being said, dogs that are protecting the yard are not going to back off until the skunk skedaddles off.
With both the skunk and the dog standing their ground, a smelly end is just about the only possible outcome.
Besides a direct confrontation, skunks may also spray if they are startled by your dog because it suddenly starts barking or running toward the skunk.
4. Skunks Will Spray If They Are Frightened
Most animals have some kind of reaction if they are frightened. Cats puff up their tails and arch their back, rattlesnakes rattle their tails, and opossums play dead.
Skunks that are suddenly frightened and have no time to react with other warning signals will spray out of fear.
Here are some things that might scare a skunk into spraying in your yard:
- Car backfiring
- Car horn
- Dog bark
Think of things that make you jump if you hear them. Skunks are going to get frightened too and may think there is no time for other warning signals.
You can read more about all the sounds and noises that scare skunks here.
5. Males Will Spray When Fighting Over Females
When February and March roll around, male skunks begin searching for females to breed with. While their normal home range is only ½ to 2 miles in diameter, males will travel up to 5 miles each night in search of a female.
During this time, males often come in contact with other males that are searching for the same female. According to the University of California, males will spray when fighting over females.
If you notice a signature skunk odor around February or March, it could be due to males fighting over females.
Does Skunk Smell Mean A Skunk Is In Your Yard?
The smell of a skunk is unmistakable. If you get up for your morning commute and smell a skunk you’re not likely to confuse it with some other smell.
If you smell the pungent odor of a skunk, especially at night, does it mean a skunk is in your yard or living under your porch?
According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln, skunk odor can be smelled up to a mile away by humans. Even if the smell seems strong, the actual spraying could have taken place far down the road.
How To Tell If A Skunk Was In Your Yard
There are a few different ways to tell if a skunk has been in your yard besides their pungent odor. Just because you smell a skunk does not always mean it is in your yard.
Look for these signs that a skunk was in your yard:
- Cone-shaped holes: Skunks dig out cone-shaped holes when they are searching for insects and grubs in the soil.
- Missing vegetables & fruit: If you have a garden and notice vegetables are going missing, especially corn, it may be due to a skunk. The same can be said for fallen fruit from fruit trees. This can be a sign of other animals, too, so make sure to look for other signs of skunks.
- Faint skunk odor: If the signature skunk smell is barely perceptible, it doesn’t always mean that skunks are far away. Faint skunk smells can mean skunks are traveling through your yard on a nightly basis without spraying.
- Rolled sections of soil: Skunks will roll back soil in search of insects. This is a sign of raccoons as well.
- Missing chickens: According to Penn State University, skunks will feed on chickens and other poultry. They will not usually climb over fences, so missing chickens is likely to occur only in free-range chickens that are not protected at night or if the skunk burrows under the poultry fence.
- Burrows under buildings: Look for recently-dug earth that leads under sheds, porches, and houses. These are signs that a skunk has moved in. You can read more about how to identify a skunk den here.
If there are stray cats or dogs in the neighborhood, skunk odor may not be indicative of a skunk. The stray animals could have been sprayed and then traveled through your yard.
It’s best to look for a combination of clues to truly identify if these odorous animals are nearby.
How To Get Skunks Out Of Your Yard
It’s never fun dealing with wild animals that have made their way into the yard. Skunks can be a special nuisance because of the pungent odor they leave behind.
Luckily, there are a few easy and attainable ways to repel skunks from your yard.
Use Fencing To Keep Skunks Out Of Your Yard
Fencing is by far the most reliable way to keep skunks out of your yard. However, it’s also the most expensive.
If you don’t want to enclose your entire yard, you can place fencing around problem areas or things you want to protect such as your garden or flower bed.
For a proper skunk fence, use hardware cloth such as FOXIVO’s 36” x 100’ ½ inch Hardware Cloth. Skunks can be super determined to get into places, so using ½-inch openings is a great way to prevent them from prying open the fence.
Use hardware cloth to:
- Seal off entry under decks, porches, and sheds
- Protect gardens
- Protect flowerbeds
- Protect newly established trees
- Exclude skunks from certain areas
To build a skunk-proof fence, make sure the fencing is 2 feet aboveground. Bury the fencing 3 inches into the ground and bend 6-12 inches of the fence outward in an ‘L’ shape.
Bending the fence underground is important. Skunks may not be the best climbers but they are talented diggers and will make their way under a fence if it’s not properly protected. This, coupled with using scents that skunks hate is a great way to keep them out!
Keep Skunks Out Of Your Yard By Using Motion-Detecting Light
Skunks are nocturnal animals that enjoy slinking around in the dark of the night. Skunks are also elusive and do not want to be seen by humans or predators if they can help it.
A sudden flash of bright light is a great way to deter skunks from entering your yard. It’s not only frightening but also exposes them to potential predators, causing them to run and hide as fast as they can.
HMCITY’s Solar Lights are made for the outdoors with 120 LED. They have three different lighting modes, one that will come on when a skunk passes by and one that will stay on all night but flash brighter when a sneaky skunk comes near.
The great thing about these solar lights is that they run on solar – no need to wire into any electrical outlets.
Fake Owls And Owl Noises Can Deter Skunks
Despite being one of the smelliest critters in the animal kingdom, there are still predators out there that prey on skunks.
Great horned owls are one of the few predators that are willing to risk an odorous encounter for a big meal.
A study in the Journal of Animal Behavior found that when exposed to the sounds of coyotes, great-horned owls, and peregrine falcons, skunks ran away faster and were more vigilant when they heard great-horned owls.
The reason may be related to the fact that great horned owls are an aerial predator, so they are harder to detect than a coyote. Skunks were less afraid of peregrine falcons simply because these birds are active during the day and skunks are mostly active at night.
Dalen Store’s Enemy Scarecrow 360 Rotating Head Owl Decoy is 18 inches tall with a head that will bob and rotate with the wind.
Decoys like this are only effective if they are moved to different positions every few days. If they are left in the same place night after night, skunks will eventually lose their fear of it.
Alternatively, you can use coyote decoys as they are another major predator of skunks.
Predator Urine Is A Great Skunk Repellent
We mentioned before that skunks have poor eyesight. Instead of using their eyes to navigate the world, they depend on their sense of smell to determine when danger is nearby.
We can use this to our advantage!
You can use something like American Heritage Industries 16 oz Coyote Urine to repel skunks from your yard.
To use coyote urine to keep skunks away you can spread the product around the outer perimeter of your yard. There is a pungent odor that comes with this product (it is smelly after all!), so it’s not recommended to use it too close to the house.
Alternatively, you can use scent tags and soak those in the scent and then hang them in specific areas you want to protect such as your garden or flowerbed.
Scent tags are a better option if you want to test out the smell closer to your home. If the odor is too strong, simply remove the scent tags and move them further away from the home.
When skunks smell the scent, they will be fooled into thinking a coyote is nearby. This will help repel them from your yard. Keep in mind that this method can attract coyotes to your yard since the scent will make them think more coyotes are nearby!
That’s A Wrap!
Skunks are notorious for being one of the smelliest critters to have in the neighborhood. Despite this, they are rather docile animals that rarely cause too much trouble except to stink up the place.
If you catch a whiff of skunk in your yard, there are a few reasons why they might be spraying on your property.
To recap, the 5 reasons why skunks spray in your yard include:
- They are young – kits spray more often than adults when frightened or threatened
- Outdoor dog
- Predator approaches
- Frightened by something (sprinkler, loud noise)
- Males will spray when fighting over females (late winter)
To deter skunks from coming into your yard, you’ll want to eliminate any potential food, water, or shelter.
Once those are eliminated, you can use frightening techniques such as fake owls, predator urine, or motion-activated lights to deter skunks from meandering too close to your home.
If all else fails, you can always reach out to a professional to help you with your skunk problem. Our nationwide pest control finder can get you in contact with a wildlife professional near you.
Fisher, K. A., & Stankowich, T. (2018, September). Antipredator strategies of striped skunks in response to cues of aerial and terrestrial predators. Animal Behavior, 143, 25-34.
Hunter, J. S. (2009, November-December). Familiarity breeds contempt: effects of striped skunk color, shape, and abundance on wild carnivore behavior. Behavioral Ecology, 20(6), 1315-1322.
Medill, S. A., Renard, A., & Lariviere, S. (2011, January 13). Ontogeny of antipredator behavior in striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis). Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 23(1), 41-48.
Wood, W. F. (1999, April). The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research. The Chemical Educator, 4, 44-50.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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