In communities throughout southeastern Colorado people are picking up a whiff of a sure sign spring is just around the corner -- skunks are coming out of their dens and making their scent known.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife reminds residents that skunks can carry rabies and that precautions should be taken to avoid contact with these animals.
Skunks do not actually hibernate during winter, but they seek refuge in communal dens during the coldest months of the year. Once the days start to warm, skunks begin dispersing. They usually come out in February, and by March are well into their breeding season.
“We’ve been getting calls from people who are afraid that all skunks carry rabies,” said Steve Keefer, a wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Rabies has been spreading through skunks the past few years, and while rabies is a serious public health concern, not every skunk carries the disease,” Keefer said.
Keefer said there are telltale signs a skunk might have rabies. Walking in circles, stumbling, staggering and aggressive behavior can be signs a skunk is sick.
Another question people ask Keefer is if you can get rabies by being sprayed by a skunk. He said the spray is certainly unpleasant, but it does not carry rabies virus.
Rabies is a virus that affects the nervous system of humans and other mammals. The virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals. People and animals can get rabies from the bite of a rabid animal or direct contact with saliva from an infected animal. If not treated, rabies is fatal.
Experts advise people to keep their pets’ and farm animals up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations. Having domestic animals vaccinated is the most effective way to protect them from getting rabies after an encounter with wildlife.
Practically speaking, more skunks live in and around towns than in remote locations. Town-dwelling skunks have discovered that food is easy to find in trashcans and in pet food dishes left out at night. Typically, a stray dog or raccoon will push the trashcan over, and then skunks follow along afterward and reap the benefits.
“This is a good time to remind people to clean-up possible food sources around their property and seal up openings that skunks might get into,” said Keefer.
Skunks come out at night and take shelter during the day beneath woodpiles, in abandoned cars, or under sheds or buildings. Skunks look for any place dark and secluded.
As with most conflicts involving wildlife, prevention is key and begins with removing easy food sources that might attract skunks.
Foods skunks eat include rats, mice, birds, eggs, chickens, small rabbits, insects such as grasshoppers, cutworms, grubs, beetles and the like. However, skunks are opportunistic and will eat just about anything they find.
Keefer reminds citizens that relocating skunks is illegal. Regulations require that captured skunks must be euthanized.
The following precautions can reduce problems with skunks and other wildlife:
— Do not feed wild animals. This just brings them closer to your family and reduces their natural fear of humans.
— If you encounter a skunk, raccoon or other carnivore during daytime hours, leave it alone. If the animal appears sick or aggressive, call your local animal control agency or nearest Colorado Parks and Wildlife office.
— Teach children to stay away from wild or dead animals.
— Do not allow pets to roam freely, as this increases the chance they may have a run-in with wildlife.
— Keep your pet’s rabies vaccination current and maintain vaccination records.
— Discuss rabies vaccination of your livestock with your veterinarian. Vaccination should be considered for horses and other equines, breeding livestock, dairy cattle or other high-value livestock, especially in areas of the state where skunks have been diagnosed with rabies.
— Contact your veterinarian if your dog or cat is bitten by a wild animal, such as a skunk, bat, fox or raccoon.