Local chump provides opportunity for skunk-related science

Look, everybody!: A cat!
Look, everybody!: A cat!Courtesy justinleif
In a delightful reverse-Pepe Le Pew scenario, a Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, woman recently mistook a skunk for a cat and was blasted with skunk juice.

Supposedly the woman had mistaken the wild animal for her neighbor’s cat, and was petting it (or attempting to pet it?) when it sprayed her. The skunk then ran into the woman’s home. Police spent hours at the scene (seriously) although there has been no confirmation as to whether or not they were able to retrieve the skunk.

So… first of all: wow. I hope this woman wasn’t extraordinarily elderly, or suffering from some condition that prevents her from distinguishing cats from skunks, because then that would make me a bad person for making fun of her. And I’m surely doing that in my head right now.

Cats, after all, belong to the order felidae, skunks to caniformia. (Skunks technically aren’t mustelids any more—how about that?) Also unlike cats, skunks are characterized by short, powerful legs, long front claws for digging, and a unique black and white striped pattern. And, of course, their pungent anal scent glands, which brink us back to ol’ ma’am skunk.

Close enough to pet the animal, the lady was well inside what we in the skunk business like to call “the danger zone.” Muscles located around their scent producing glands, after all, allow skunks to accurately spray at ranges up to 15 feet. Her close proximity likely means that the woman received a full dose of spray, something around 3 ml. Skunks carry enough scent for about 5 sprays before they need to spend more than a week “recharging.”

If the spray catches you directly in the eyes, it can cause severe burning and eye watering, or even 10 – 15 minutes of blindness in some cases. Most of the time, however, the smell will be your main concern. As this site details, skunk spray is mainly composed of seven volatile molecules. The stinkiest three of them are called “thiols,” compounds that contain a sulfur and hydrogen group. Thiols are known for their powerful repellent odor and, uh-oh, they bond strongly to the proteins in our skin. The remaining four molecules in skunk spray aren’t as stinky initially, but they can be converted to thiols when they interact with water. This is why hair sprayed by a skunk can stink for months after the incident when it becomes damp. This is also why I hate my roommate’s golden retriever.

To deodorize these thiols, one must convert them into compounds that have little odor. Thiols can be changed into less stinky sulfonic acids by oxidizing them with baking soda or hydrogen peroxide, but this, unfortunately, can leave you looking a little fried.

Except for the possibility that there might yet be a skunk in the her house, the Pennsylvania woman may have gotten off pretty light, all things considered. Skunks will only expend spray if they can’t warn another creature off by posturing: they will hiss, stamp their feet, and raise their tails threateningly. These are not generally the actions of a happy cat. It could be that some additional mistakes and oversights were made on the part of the lady, or it could be that the skunk was behaving erratically. If this was the case, it raises another concern: rabies. The CDC states that skunks make up about a third of the reported rabies cases in all species in this country. There haven’t been any reported cases of skunks transmitting rabies to humans in the last couple decades, but it seems to me that this woman has something of the pioneer spirit, and would be a likely candidate for getting bitten by a rabid skunk. But not this time.

And so we salute you, skunk lady, for mistaking a skunk for a cat. I like to think that all of us are a little wiser for it.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

ASHL3Y SHANA3's picture


posted on Tue, 09/16/2008 - 5:06pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Whoever gave this story to the press didn't have the facts straight and, since the woman in this story is a friend of mine, I would like to give you the FACTS!

She was inside her home at her computer when the skunk just walked up to her. She assumed it was domesticated since it didn't appear nervous at all and thought it was someone's pet. She NEVER thought it was a cat.

She opened the door expecting it to leave and it didn't so after a while she tried to pick it up and put it outside and that's when she got sprayed.

Animal control was called to remove the little critter from her home. She has no idea how it got in the house to begin with since her doors were closed.

posted on Thu, 09/18/2008 - 4:55pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Why didn't I notice this comment before? It's too bad, because the FACTS are very important to me.

The stuff about skunk smell and rabies stands, but, as of now, I'm officially changing the post (I won't actually be editing it, though) so that the woman did not think that the skunk was a cat. Now the story goes as follows: she was minding her own business at her computer, probably looking up information on how to tell skunks and cats apart, for her book on the subject, when a no-good, house-breaking skunk stormed into her domicile and stink-assaulted her.

So there.

posted on Thu, 10/23/2008 - 5:09pm
sandy09's picture
sandy09 says:

eeewww stinky! skunk smell is pretty smelly!!! Hopefully that lady is ok now!! =)

posted on Thu, 10/23/2008 - 4:58pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options