What I Learned About Pet Skunks After I Graduated From Vet School

As one of the more exotic small animal pets, skunks don’t yet have as much information available about their care compared to many other pet species.

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What to feed pet skunks is one of the big concerns for owners. Via Pher Reinman/Flickr
Dr. Jerry Murray

When I went to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, skunks were not a popular pet. Skunks were not covered in the exotic/small mammal pet class back then. Skunks were only briefly mentioned in the optional zoo and wildlife medicine class. Back then they were still considered part of the ferret/weasel family, but recent genetic testing has caused the skunk to be classified in its own family called Mephitidae (the skunk family).

The traditional veterinary textbooks did not cover skunks. The Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine textbook at that time only had a very short section on skunks, and it mainly covered how to surgically remove their anal glands in order to “de-scent” them. Unfortunately it did not include information on the diet or diseases of skunks. Skunks have not been included in any of the “pink books,” so there is not a good reference textbook to refer to when treating pet skunks.

Rabies And Skunks

Wild skunks are a major rabies vector. When I was in veterinary school, rabies was still a major problem in South Texas, so skunks and other animals that could have rabies were not considered an appropriate pet back then. Fortunately, most pet skunks are now bred in captivity and are not a rabies risk. There is not an approved rabies vaccine for use in skunks, but some veterinarians will vaccinate pet skunks with a killed rabies vaccine that is approved for use in ferrets (Imrab3). Despite being vaccinated if a pet skunk bites someone, then animal control officers or public health officials may still require the skunk to be euthanized and tested for rabies.

What To Feed Pet Skunks

One of the big areas I had to learn about was the proper diet for a pet skunk. In the wild skunks are omnivores that eat both animal and plant matter. Their diet also changes based on the season and what food sources are available. Wild skunks eat insects, earthworms, grubs, small rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, fish and eggs. They also eat berries, roots, leaves, nuts, fruit and grains. They can be scavengers and eat dead birds and rodents, and garbage. They can even eat honeybees and wasps.

This wild diet is impossible for most owners to feed to their pet skunk, and not many commercial skunk foods are available yet. Most skunk owners feed a moderate amount of a protein source like chicken, turkey, insects and dog food for small breeds, along with mixed vegetables and mixed fruit. Typically some yogurt, cottage cheese or a calcium supplement is added to the food to try to add some calcium to the diet.

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Skunk Health Issues

The two major problems related to these homemade diets are calcium deficiency and obesity. A calcium deficiency can cause thin bones that can fracture easily. This is especially common with diets that contain mostly meat and have very little calcium-containing ingredients. Obesity is common in pet skunks, and this can cause diabetes to develop. Diabetes can be treated with weight loss and insulin injections. Unfortunately little is known about which type of insulin works best in skunks and what dose of insulin seems to work best in skunks.

Heart disease is also common in older skunks. Most of the time the skunk has an enlarged heart from dilated chambers (dilated cardiomyopathy). The exact cause for this condition is unknown; however, it may be related to a nutritional deficiency. In cats, a deficiency in taurine can cause dilated cardiomyopathy. In some breeds of dogs, a deficiency in carnitine can cause dilated cardiomyopathy. It is speculated that a deficiency in taurine and/or carnitine is involved in heart disease in skunks. Treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy is based on the treatment of dogs with this heart disease, along with supplementation of taurine and carnitine.

Viral diseases are also common in skunks. Wild skunks are at risk for canine distemper, and it is not uncommon in pet skunks. Distemper is typically a fatal disease in skunks, so some veterinarians will vaccinate against distemper. Skunks are also susceptible to a parvovirus of mink and ferrets called Aleutian disease. Aleutian disease has been seen in both wild skunks and in pet skunks. It can cause kidney failure and damage to the liver, spleen, heart and brain. It is fatal in the reported cases, and there is no treatment for this virus. Skunks can also catch the human flu from people, so avoid playing with your skunk if you have the flu. Rabies is not common in pet skunks but is still common in wild skunks.

Older skunks are also prone to cancer. Many types of cancer have been reported, including lymphoma, lung cancer and skin cancer. Very little is known about the treatment of cancer in skunks, but surgery, palliative therapy and chemotherapy should be considered based on the type of cancer that the skunk has.

Legal Or Illegal Skunks?

Skunks that are bred in captivity can make good pets for the right person. They are roughly the size of a house cat, and they are usually friendly. Nonetheless they are still illegal to keep as pets in many states. Thus, check the laws in your state and town before acquiring a pet skunk.

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