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Skunks spray because it is their defense mechanism. It isn’t the first choice, usually called upon when all other escape missions have been exhausted. First, you will see the skunk act “big”. This will involve some noise, usually a hissing noise, and a lot of stamping of the feet. They will also flick their tail around, waving it high in the air. These are all designed to make the animal look much more intimidating than it actually is, all in a bid to scare off predators.
Certain times of the year can make a skunk more spray-active, especially when mothers are taking care of her young. If she thinks you’re about to get anywhere close to her babies, or if any other animal threatens to come close, she will first display her “scary” face, baring her teeth, hissing, and flicking that tail around, and if that doesn’t work they’ll turn around. The tail will lift, and that oh-so-offensive spray will come out.
The spray actually comes from anal glands, as if things weren’t bad enough as it was. The liquid itself is quite oily, and it smells very much like rotten egg. This is because the liquid contains compounds of sulphur, and in case you weren’t aware, that stuff really smells bad.
Skunks don’t want to spray you. They would much rather you left them alone, and if you do that - leave them alone - you will find yourself un-skunked. If you do interfere with one, however, trying to evict one from your land or home, for example, or tapping it in a cage, you are probably going to get sprayed. They can’t escape, and they think you are a predator. The skunk spray is designed to ward off bigger animals just like you! (It works quite well too, don’t you think?)
For more information, you may want to click on one of these guides that I wrote:
How much does skunk removal cost? - get the lowdown on prices.
How to get rid of skunks - my main skunk removal info guide.