Skunks were formerly considered to be a subfamily of the Mustelidae family of weasels and related animals (where some taxonomists still place them), but recent genetic evidence shows that they are not as closely related to the Mustelidae as formerly thought.
Although the most common fur color is black and white, some skunks are brown or gray, and a few are cream-colored. All skunks are striped, even from birth. They may have a single thick stripe across back and tail, two thinner stripes, or a series of white spots and broken stripes (in the case of the spotted skunk). Some also have stripes on their legs.
In settled areas, skunks also seek human garbage. Less often, skunks may be found acting as scavengers, eating bird and rodent carcasses left by cats or other animals. Pet owners, particularly those of cats, may experience a skunk finding its way into a garage or basement where pet food is kept.
Skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings. The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate. Mother skunks are known to teach this to their young. A skunk family can virtually depopulate a healthy hive in just a few days.
Skunks tend to be gluttonous feeders. They gain weight quickly if their diet becomes too fatty.
Skunks do not hibernate in the winter. However, they do remain generally inactive and feed rarely. They often overwinter in a huddle of one male and multiple (as many as twelve) females. The same winter den is often repeatedly used.
Although they have excellent senses of smell and hearing — vital attributes in a crepuscular omnivore — they have poor vision. They cannot see objects more than about 3 metres away with any clarity, which makes them vulnerable to road traffic. Roughly half of all skunk deaths are caused by humans, as roadkill, or as a result of shooting and poisoning. They are short-lived animals: fewer than 10% survive for longer than three years.
When born, skunk kits are blind, deaf, and covered in a soft layer of fur. About three weeks after birth, their eyes open. The kits are weaned about two months after birth, but generally stay with their mother until they are ready to mate, at about one year of age.
The mother is very protective of her kits, and will often spray at any sign of danger. The male plays no part in raising the young and may even kill them.
We saw also a couple of Zorrillos, or skunks—odious animals, which are far from uncommon. In general appearance the Zorrillo resembles a polecat, but it is rather larger, and much thicker in proportion. Conscious of its power, it roams by day about the open plain, and fears neither dog nor man. If a dog is urged to the attack, its courage is instantly checked by a few drops of the fetid oil, which brings on violent sickness and running at the nose. Whatever is once polluted by it, is for ever useless. Azara says the smell can be perceived at a league distant; more than once, when entering the harbour of Monte Video, the wind being off shore, we have perceived the odour on board the Beagle. Certain it is, that every animal most willingly makes room for the Zorrillo.
Skunks are reluctant to use their smelly weapon, as they carry just enough of the chemical for five or six uses—about 15 cc—and require some ten days to produce another supply. Their bold black and white coloring however serves to make the skunk's appearance memorable. Where practical, it is to a skunk's advantage to simply warn a threatening creature off without expending scent: the black and white warning color aside, threatened skunks will go through an elaborate routine of hisses, foot stamping, and tail-high threat postures before resorting to the spray. Interestingly, skunks will not spray other skunks (with the exception of males in the mating season); though they fight over den space in autumn, they do so with tooth and claw.
The singular musk-spraying ability of the skunk has not escaped the attention of biologists: the names of the family and the most common genus (Mephitidae, Mephitis) mean "stench", and Spilogale putorius means "stinking spotted weasel". The word skunk is a corruption of an Abenaki name for them, segongw or segonku, which means "one who squirts" in the Algonquian dialect.
Most predatory animals of the Americas, such as wolves, foxes and badgers, seldom attack skunks—presumably out of fear of being sprayed. The exception is the great horned owl, the animal's only serious predator, which, like most birds, has a poor-to-nonexistent sense of smell.
Skunk spray is composed mainly of low molecular weight thiol compounds, namely (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol, as well as acetate thioesters of each of these. These compounds are detectable at concentrations of about 2 parts per million.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 1,494 cases of rabies in skunks in the United States for the year 2006—about 21.5% of reported cases in all species. Skunks trail raccoons as vectors of rabies, although this varies regionally (raccoons dominate along the Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf of Mexico, skunks throughout the Midwest and down to the western Gulf, and in California). Despite this prevalence, all recorded cases of human rabies from 1990–2002 are attributed by the CDC to dogs or bats.
Domesticated skunks can legally be kept as pets in the UK. However, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has made it illegal to remove their scent glands (it is considered to be a cosmetic operation), thus making them impractical as pets. Owners have been known to dump skunks in the wild when they discover that vets will no longer perform the operation to remove their scent glands.
The keeping of skunks as pets is legal only in certain U.S. states. Mephitis mephitis, the striped skunk species, is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. When the skunk is kept as a pet, the scent gland is removed. Typical life spans for domesticated skunks are considerably longer than for wild skunks, often reaching 10 years, though it is not unusual for a well cared skunk to live well past 20 years.
One problem with U.S. skunks kept as pets is genetic problems due to a lack of genetic diversity. The few breeders of skunks are using the same genetic stock (as none are allowed to be taken from the wild) that was available many decades ago, when skunks were bred for the fur trade instead of the pet trade. Many problems such as undescended testicles, epileptic seizures, etc. are often found with the domestic stock. Some skunks were reported by European settlers in America as being kept as pets by certain Native Americans. The Pilgrims are said to have kept skunks as pets.