Health

Updated by Sue Creedy - 22nd March 2015

Signs of a healthy Skunk

Bright eyes
Clear eyes, ears and nose
An interest in what’s going on around it
Free of parasites
Active
Good appetite
Nice thick glossy coat
Solid stools
No yellowing of the white of the coat
Not over or under weight


Signs of an unhealthy Skunk

Diarrhoea
Dull, dry lifeless coat
Sudden change or loss of appetite
Scratching due to external parasites – fleas, lice, mites
Internal parasites – roundworms/tapeworms passed in faeces
Yellowing of the white of the coat at skin level
Being sick
Bad breath
Limping
Coughing
Constant thirst
Lethargy
Seizures/Fitting
Shaking/tremors
Pale gums
Heavy Bleeding
Weight loss


Ears

Occasionally check your skunk ears, you will probably notice a little wax, this is quite normal, if there is a lot of wax, you can use a damp cloth or pet safe ear wipes.

NOTE: Never poke down the ear canal, you could cause damage. If debris is blocking the ear or you suspect a problem, see your vet.


Eyes

Eyes should be bright and clear, wide open, no discharge and no swelling. Some overweight skunks develop fat deposits under the eyelids which can look like they have something in their eye.


Neutering

Pet skunks are best neutered, especially the females because if they are not mated or neutered they can become ill. The best time to neuter your skunk is between 4 -6 months of age. Neutering your skunk especially if it’s male will help lessen aggressive behaviour. Some male skunks particularly can become aggressive and leave urine trails everywhere once they reach puberty. Female skunks can also show large behavioural changes once in season. Neutering makes for a much better house pet.


Teeth

If you can check your skunks gums and teeth, make sure the gums are nice and pink and teeth aren’t damaged. Check for redness of the gums, soreness, tooth loss, tartar build up and bad breath etc. If any problems consult your vet. Tooth problems are generally seen in older skunks and those who have been fed a poor diet.


Vaccination

Vaccinations are another area of debate and some vets suggest not giving vaccinations to skunks. Some vaccinations have been known to make a skunk sick and this could be down to over vaccinating and giving vaccines that are not necessary. It is now suggested that the only vaccination a skunk should have is for Distemper and that combination vaccines contain many unnecessary contents that are not needed. However, it is difficult to get a single distemper vaccination in the UK, and many people use combined vaccinations designed for puppies.

In the UK, it has always been advised to vaccinate against Parvovirus as well, but there is apparently little evidence of canine parvovirus in skunks. Skunks are susceptible to Aleutian Disease Virus, which is a type of parvovirus, but there is no vaccine. ADV is discussed in more detail below.

Deaths linked to vaccinations are very rare and where skunks have died within days of being vaccinated, there have not been investigations to prove cause of death. Please discuss with your vet about vaccinating your skunk, but remember no vaccines are licensed for skunks, so are used at the owner’s own risk. General advice is to administer vaccinations if you intend to take your skunk (or other household animals that share the same areas) out in public regularly.

Skunks need to be vaccinated at approx. 12 weeks of age, this is because babies still have antibodies from the mother that prevent the babies getting the full effect of the vaccines before this period of time has elapsed.


Rectal prolapse

Rectal prolapse used to be a common condition seen in Skunks. It was mostly seen in descented kits, prior to the change in UK law banning removal of the scent glands without medical cause. It is thought that the descenting procedure damaged the muscles around the anus, leading to prolapse if the kit strained when passing faeces.

Now that descenting has stopped there are fewer prolapse cases, but they still occur, being most common in young kits under 4 months old or in older skunks with untreated internal parasites and/or poor diet. Where the skunk is straining due to constipation/blockage or suffering from diarrhoea, the risk of prolapse is increased.

What to do if your skunk has a prolapse

Staying as calm as possible, immediately place the affected skunk on its own in a clean place which has no rough or small objects that could damage or stick to the exposed intestine. Puppy pads or a clean blanket/towel are fine as bedding. Do not put any cat litter or similar in a litter tray, as this can cause further contamination to the area.

If the exposed intestine is longer than your little finger or looks damaged or is bleeding, it is a veterinary emergency. Call your vet and leave straight away. Surgery will likely be needed and a course of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs too. Vets usually use a purse stitch to anchor the intestine to surrounding tissues.

If the prolapse is small (shorter than your little finger) you may be able to persuade it to go back in by itself by trying the following:

  1. Causing the intestine to shrink and pull itself back in by smothering it with haemorrhoid/pile cream or icing sugar
  2. Massaging the intestine back in gently with your fingers, after applying KY jelly/pile cream or vegetable oil for lubrication. Ensure that you trim your fingernails very short and ensure no sharp edges before you start.

It can take up to 30 minutes for massaging a prolapse to work. The skunk needs to relax the muscles around its anus first. If the skunk is stressed and wriggly, then it will be necessary to a vet to treat the skunk under sedation. Prolapses can come back very quickly and repeated prolapse will need surgical intervention.


Seizures

Seizures can have many causes, but the most common cause in skunks seems to be linked to low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) and it is seen mainly in younger skunks. Affected skunks can be lethargic, confused and shaky in addition to having actual seizures. Metabolic Bone Disease is another significant cause of seizures, which is discussed in the next section.

If your skunk has a seizure or is showing any of the above symptoms, then immediate first aid is to feed them a teaspoon of golden syrup, honey or other form of sugar. If the skunk is unable to eat, you can rub the sugar into their gums with your fingers (but be careful of being bitten as your skunk may be unusually aggressive). Keep the skunk quiet and warm and go straight to the vets for an emergency consultation. Fits can cause a skunk to spray, so a health check is vital if your skunk has sprayed with no obvious cause, as it may have suffered a fit.

Feeding several small meals a day can help manage blood sugar levels and it can be helpful to balance meals to avoid sudden increases in blood sugar; for example, avoid feeding processed foods or very ripe fruit.

The susceptibility of skunks to blood sugar problems is a main reason why fruit should be kept to a minimum and processed foods should be avoided, as these foods can raise blood sugar levels very quickly. It is possible that the skunk’s body is not well adapted to cope with this and can release so much insulin to deal with the sugar that too much is taken up, leaving blood glucose too low for normal body function. Seizures are the result. Going too long between meals also cause low blood sugar in young skunks, so it is important to ensure you can provide regular meals when you get a skunk kit.

Many skunks who show blood sugar problems will grow out of it as they mature, but some will have ongoing problems and develop diabetes and require carefully managed diets to keep them well. Other causes of seizures are far more difficult to manage and the prognosis is usually poor for affected skunks.


Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

MBD is an avoidable condition that is not seen in wild animals. It is usually caused by poor diet. It is most commonly seen in young, growing animals or in older animals kept indoors (Wissman, 2006).

Symptoms seen in skunks include lameness, reluctance to move and hind leg paralysis. X-rays show unexplained fractures and poor bone density. Tremors and seizures can also be seen.

Animals which do not have access to direct sunlight (not through glass) every day must get vitamin D from their diet. Even those who do live outside can get MBD if their diet contains insufficient calcium or an incorrect calcium to phosphorus ratio.

Too much phosphorus in the diet binds up calcium and prevents it from being absorbed from the gut. Lack of vitamin D also stops calcium absorption as well as causing problems with the body’s internal processing of calcium. Calcium is involved in muscle contraction, metabolic enzymes, blood clotting and many other roles. When blood calcium is low, hormones cause it to be taken out of the bones so that the body can function. If this process continues for too long and the bones start getting weaker, the body lays down collagen to support them, causing swelling and pain. Eventually, blood calcium falls low enough to affect muscle contraction and tremors will start and the animal will be unable to stand.

Once diagnosed, less severe cases can be reversed enough that the animal can have good quality of life. With serious cases, it is probably kinder to put the skunk to sleep, rather than allow it to suffer pain through many months of recovery. Treatment involves correcting the diet and supplementing with calcium under veterinary supervision, as well as treating fractures.

In preventing MBD, it is important to note that calcium from plant sources (including nuts) is generally poorly absorbed, as they contain other compounds which prevent the absorption of calcium from the gut, even calcium from other foods eaten at the same time (Theobald, 2005). For skunks, sufficient calcium can be provided by feeding raw bone-in poultry and fish, eggs in shell and whole feed rodents. Dairy products such as natural yoghurt and cottage cheese are also good sources of calcium, but may cause diarrhoea in some individuals.


Aleutian Disease Virus (ADV)

ADV is a type of parvovirus which affects mustelids. It was first discovered in mink in the USA in 1956 and has since spread to ferrets and the first cases were reported in the UK in 1990 (Wessex Ferret Club, 2015). Cases have been seen in the USA in captive skunks and now ADV seems to be spreading into the wild population (LaDouceur et al, 2014). It seems inevitable that ADV will eventually be seen in pet skunks in the UK. Symptoms can include any of the following: lethargy and depression, hindquarter weakness, respiratory distress, kidney failure. Blood can be tested to confirm ADV, but little can be done to save the animal. However, ADV is very contagious, so testing for the disease might be wise if there are other skunks or ferrets in the home.


Fatty Liver Disease (FLD)

FLD, also known as hepatic lipidosis, is a disease that skunks are prone to developing. It can be quickly fatal, from onset to death in 72 hours, or it can be a chronic disease which can lead to the added complication of MBD. FLD is caused by obesity and dietary imbalance (too little or too poor quality protein, high fat, sudden change in diet) and can be set off by other illness or stress factors which cause a loss of appetite in an overweight skunk. The disease can be found in humans too, and while there are some hereditary links to some forms of the disease, the strongest evidence for cause is obesity (and other lifestyle factors that our skunks should not be exposed to), regardless of any genetic factors.

FLD develops when an animal is under stress, causing the body to require energy from fat stores. Fat is not normally stored in large amounts in the liver, but it is transported there for conversion into energy as required. In the disease, it seems that so much fat is moved to the liver, that the liver cells fill with fat and so cannot perform their other vital functions. The liver becomes enlarged and inflamed and starts to fail. The liver does have the ability to recover, but only if sufficient healthy cells remain to perform essential functions for the body. Sadly, our skunks tend not to show they are ill until they are very ill, and the prognosis is not good by the time the disease is diagnosed.

Sudden loss of appetite should be considered a risk factor for FLD in fat or obese skunks. Other signs include anorexia, rapid weight loss, depression, lethargy, jaundice/liver failure and enlarged liver. Blood work, ultrasound of the liver and liver biopsy can diagnose the condition. In some cases, supportive treatment can be given, including a supportive diet and treatment of related conditions, such as MBD.

Prevention is better than cure, so attention to a skunk’s weight is essential. Monthly checks are helpful for monitoring weight changes and adjusting diet accordingly.


Weight

To maintain a healthy skunk, feeding the right diet and not over feeding is important (see diet). Encouraging exercise is also important, and making skunks work for their food is a great way of keeping them busy. It can be hard for a skunk to lose weight once it becomes fat and once they are obese then all sorts of problems can occur, from liver, heart and kidney damage to mechanical damage to joints.

A healthy skunk can weigh 2.5kg to 6kg depending on general size and sex of the skunk. Most females will be a healthy weight at about 3.5-4kg and for males at about 4-5kg. There is huge variation in adult skunk size, but even so, a skunk that weighs 6kg and is not fat would be a rare animal. Signs that a skunk is fat include the following:

  • Wrinkles or fat rolls on the forehead
  • Fatty lumps visible in the corner of the skunks eyes
  • A thick base to the tail, which may extend a couple of inches down the tail
  • Heavy around the shoulders, making it hard to feel the shape of the shoulder blades underneath
  • Drooping flesh (“skoobs”) between the front legs as the skunk stands facing you
  • The skunk looks more like a basketball with a head, rather than having a wedge shaped body
  • The skunk has difficulty going up steps because its belly prevents it from lifting its legs up high enough
  • The skunk is unhappy to walk more than a few paces or rarely moves faster than a steady walk unless motivated by food or fear

Regular weighing of your skunk will help you monitor his weight and how much you should feed him. If he is overweight cut back on his food, but do this sensibly (cut back on foods containing fat/oil and carbohydrate initially, rather than protein), you could get a smaller bowl or smaller saucer, then this will ensure that you are not giving him too much. Crash diets can be dangerous, as can changing the diet drastically, so if rehoming a skunk, you should try to change the diet gradually.

It may also be wise to start cutting back your skunk’s diet around August time, as it’s after this period that a skunk can naturally store its fat ready for the winter period. If your skunk has got a little chubby over the winter period and has been fed correctly he should naturally loose his winter fat around spring summer time and also become more active.

Always encourage exercise, take your skunk out for a walk on a lead and harness. A skunk that is active and has free run of the house will contribute to a stable weight. Skunks without free run of the house will require alternative ways to get exercise.


Feet and Mouth

The skunks mouth and feet are sensitive areas, so, it is important that you play and fondle with your skunks feet and mouth from an early age, to get him used to being touched in these areas. This will be beneficial later on when you want to cut your skunks nails and check his teeth.


Bone Density and Arthritis

Poor Bone density and Arthritis are common problems in skunks, a bad diet and excess body weight are the main culprits. Low calcium levels together with vitamin D3 can cause poor bone density resulting in Arthritis and fractures; in severe cases the skunk can lose the use of their back legs. Lack of Calcium/D3 is especially a problem with the young and older Skunk, and it may be prudent to supplement these animals. Either a liquid such as ”Calciboost” B+D. or a powder such as ”Nutrobal” is effective.

To Help prevent this watch your skunks weight, make sure he doesn’t get under or more importantly over weight. Skunks will keep eating until they are so fat that they can hardly move. Also exercise is important factor as well, but be careful handling a skunk with poor bone density as the bones can easily break.

If you suspect that your skunk maybe having problems walking or is showing signs of pain when touched, please contact your vet.


FOR MORE INFORMATION ON VETERINARY CARE ON PET SKUNKS PLEASE VISIT
SkunkVetCare.org


IMPORTANT

Please use the following medicines with caution, though Baytril and Metacam have been used successfully in a lot of skunks in the UK with no problems

  • Baytril
  • NSAIDS
  • Metacam
  • Ciprofloxacin

References

LaDouceur, E. E. B., Anderson, M., Ritchie, B. W., Ciembor, P., Rimoldi, G., Piazza, M., Pesit, D., Clifford, D. L. and Giannitti, F. 2014. Aleutian Disease: An Emerging Disease in Free-Ranging Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis) From California. Veterinary Pathology. Published online 1.12.2014.

Theobald, H.E. 2005. Dietary calcium and health. British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin, 30, 237–277

Wissman, M.A. 2006. Metabolic Bone Disease in Exotic Pets. Available at exoticpetvet.net. Accessed 3.1.2015

Exotic Vets

Recommended UK Exotic Vets

John Chitty (Salisbury)
Aidan Raftery (Manchester)
Vale Vets (Gloucestershire)


Overweight Skunk
Mr Bumble

Mr Bumble is an example of an overweight skunk.


Healthly Skunk
Magick

An example of a healthy skunk


Physique
Striped Skunk Skeleton

Prolapse
Ferret Prolapse

A Skunk prolapse will look the same as the Ferret prolapse image above.