Human/Animal Bond

Stunk by the Skunk

I really did not want to get on a plane smelling like skunk

January 27, 2020 (published)
Teri Ann Oursler, DVM

Jackson the innocent. Photo courtesy Dr. Teri Ann Oursler

We have one dog, a 2011 model Jack Russell terrier named Jackson. We recently relocated from a Wyoming home with a large grassy, fenced-in-yard to an unfenced, xeriscaped city lot in Nevada. This change has necessitated twice daily dog walks to harvest poop. The early morning trip outside for the dog to ‘do his duties’ means standing on the back porch watching the dog through bleary eyes. Thankfully, Jackson is really good about staying with us and coming when called.

At least he was until that day.

It all started one day, near the end of summer, as the days are getting shorter and the sun is getting up later. I had a quick flight scheduled from Reno to Los Angeles for an overnight business trip. I was jerked awake at 5:30 a.m. by my husband's highly unusual and repeated yelling of "Jackson!!" The stress in Dale’s voice ratcheted up while calling the dog, so I quickly stumbled out of bed.

Just as I got to the top of the stairs, Dale and the dog came in. With an odor. An unmistakable skunk odor!

Let me say that at 5:30 a.m., brain cells are not firing on all cylinders (or any cylinders for that matter!) for either me or my husband. Not realizing what had happened, Dale let the dog into the house. Jackson immediately jumped up on the couch and started trying to rub the smell off. After stumbling around for an eternity, which was really only a few minutes, we managed to get the dog off the couch and out to the garage. I grabbed the couch cushion and moved it to the outdoor patio in an attempt to mitigate the odor in my house.

That attempt was an abject failure.

As the three of us stood in the garage, the dog rubbing his face frantically on a rug, my brain was scrambling to remember the shampoo recipe that renders the skunk odor less debilitating. I thought about running up to the computer, but as I remembered the first ingredient (hydrogen peroxide), I also recalled I had none. I was not allowed to put liquids on the moving truck, so had tossed it out before leaving Wyoming. I abandoned the research idea.

When I owned a veterinary clinic, I had access to a nice elevated tub for bathing dogs and cats. In this new house, I had only a garden tub with no hose for easy rinsing of said creatures. It was time to improvise. Our nice walk-in shower with no door was immediately dismissed as we could see only a wet, odiferous dog escaping into the house. The only thing that smells worse than a skunked dog is a WET skunked dog! Grabbing the dish detergent and some swim towels, up the stairs we went to a bathroom to use the shower that has doors. Once there, the dog and I showered together in an attempt to get the stink off.

Apply Dawn. Rub. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Hand dog out to husband and shower myself, hoping that the skunk smell had not gotten onto me.

Obligatory education fact No. 1: While many mammals have anal sacs – including dogs – skunks are the only species to weaponize their anal glands as a defense system. National Geographic says, “Unlike other mammals with similar abilities, a skunk’s anal glands have evolved into two nipples that protrude out of the anus in order to spray. The skunk can manipulate its sphincter muscles in order to control the direction these nipples spray, and it can adjust the consistency of the spray by making the opening of the nipples larger or smaller. If a skunk knows exactly who its threat is, it is likely to project a stream directly at its enemy’s face, but if it is unsure of who or what is pursuing it, it will spray a fine mist so that its attacker must run through a cloud of the acrid liquid in order to reach it. Skunk spray is so potent that it can induce vomiting and cause temporary blindness."

Since he was furiously rubbing his face, I presume that Jackson got a stream of skunk spray right in his curious little face. It’s painful if it gets into the eyes and can cause corneal ulcers.

Obligatory education fact No. 2: Skunk spray is a mixture of sulfur-containing chemicals. Several characters in Greek mythology and Dante, the man who wrote The Inferno, believe that hell smells like sulfur. Coincidence? Not in the least. By the way, you know that whole “fire and brimstone” thing? Brimstone is sulfur. So now we know the dog’s enemy: a small dark species that travels at night with Hell weaponized on his butt.

All of that was frustrating, but livable.

My flight was at 10:45 a.m. out of Reno to LAX. Air travel has always been nerve-wracking to me because being 10 minutes late can make or break your trip, and that was before TSA and all of today’s rigamarole. This summer, I managed to ratchet up the ‘nerve-wracking’ part of air travel to a personal best. The travel adventure was funny, but only in hindsight.

I really did not want to get on an airplane smelling like skunk. I thought I was ok. I blithely packed one set of clothes into my computer bag, got into my car and headed to Reno. I briefly stopped at my aunt’s house to meet some workers. I really, really believed I was ok. Then, I opened my car door to head to the airport after that quick stop. The smell bellowed out of the car. Turns out, I was not ok, I was just nose blind! However, I could not call work and say I was missing a meeting because my dog got skunked, so on to the airport and into the plane I went. I ended up in a row of three. To the best of my knowledge, no one scrunched their nose at me, but I was so mortified that I refused to make eye contact. My seatmates were polite and hopefully thought I had just smoked something before boarding. I would rather they believed that than thinking “Man, she needs to shower before coming out in public. Ugh.”

I scrunched into my window seat and could not wait to get off the plane. I did not ask the nice Uber driver (of my very first Uber ride) if I stunk. Finally, I checked into the hotel. In my room, I found that not only did I smell, but so did my backpack, the clothes in my backpack, and my work computer. My hands stunk again after using the laptop keyboard while looking for nearby clothing stores. I hung my clothes on hangers all over the room in an attempt to air them out and Ubered to the mall to shop for some replacement clothing. I felt like the permanently pungent Pepé Le Pew, except unlike Pepé I knew how badly I smelled. Then I went to the hotel bar where wine was very expensive, but I needed it. I really, really needed it!

The next day, my workmate said the clothes were alright, although I swear all I could smell was eau de skunk wafting up from my shoes. After our meeting, I found a shipping store and sent my stinky clothing home because there was not room for two sets of clothes in one backpack. This obviously was NOT the trip to go light with no suitcase! I feel sorry for the UPS drivers who had to handle that box!

I gave a brief synopsis to my aunt in Utah. She promptly texted me a photo of her skunk shampoo that she keeps by her back door in case she is ever skunked on her morning walks. Ah, that information was imparted a little too late, Aunt Sue.

Being prepared for the unexpected skunk is now Mission Critical. Neither of us thinks for a second that Jackson learned anything about skunks. For a couple of weeks after his encounter, my brave, brave dog would peer out from around Dale's legs, looking for boogeymen before leaving the porch, and would spook at rabbits while on his walk. He obviously did not know exactly what got him and I am absolutely sure he will chase one again given the opportunity. To that end, Dale bought a really BIG bottle of skunk odor eliminator as well as some dog shampoo. They might just as well label it “stupid dog size.” I can tell you, they both live right in my shower, within easy reach. I do not want to have to go scrambling for it while the dog stinks up my house. Again.

As for the couch cushion, it was salvageable. After I returned home from LA, I took it outside and sprayed it with the skunk odor eliminator and let it dry in the sun. In my absence, the house had returned to its non-odiferous state. The dog? Well, he was still a bit odiferous for another month or so, especially if his head got wet. I am not sure either my husband or I are fully recovered, but we are certainly less laissez faire about letting the dog out in the pre-dawn hours! As much as I like spring, I am not sure I am looking forward to it, when the skunks return to their normal dawn and dusk activity, which will once again coincide with Jackson's need to go out.


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