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Skunks and opposums have been digging holes in my lawn. Why do they do this and how can I stop them?

Skunks and opposums can cause lawn damage as they seek food; may burrow under decks and outbuildings; skunks may spray pets and humans, and can carry rabies; usually minor crop damage.

Remedies include:

  • Image of striped skunkExclusion: (Fencing or sealing under decks, keep sheds and outbuildings in good repair; tight fencing may exclude animals from gardens).
  • Trapping and removal: (Possums are easy to trap and need only be moved a few miles. Skunks can also be trapped, but moving and removal from trap is difficult to do without animal spraying).
  • Hunting: (Effective where allowed. Check with MDNR for regulations.)
  • Trapping and humane destruction: (As for raccoons).
  • Repellents: (commercial animal repellents may be effective for crop plants and small building spaces; dog or human urine may also discourage entry.)

More Detailed Information

Let's take a look at the environment that skunks live in.

Image of striped skunkSkunks are common throughout Michigan, but their numbers seem to have increased in some areas in recent years, perhaps because human activities (and rural development) provide them with favorable conditions (food sources and shelter) and discourage potential predators. They do have some natural and unnatural predators—Great Horned Owls will kill and eat skunks, and foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and large dogs will also take skunks on occasion (mostly young ones). Adult skunks probably have few enemies in southern Michigan except for cars and trucks.

Both skunks and raccoons are known to dig holes in lawns—at times even "peeling up the sod"—while foraging for food, and it is helpful to try and determine which species is causing your immediate problems (and sometimes it is both!).

Skunks tend to move from one food source to another, so "lawn attacks" are often sporadic and limited over time. Sometimes just tamping down the sod and being patient is the best approach, as they may well move on after exploiting your yard for a week or two. On the other hand, if a female has a den with young nearby, she may unfortunately become a regular customer. In winter, skunks tend to sleep in their burrows during the coldest or snowiest periods, though they are not true hibernators and may come out to forage if there is a sustained "thaw".

Image of striped skunkSkunks may be attracted to your yard if your lawn is infested with grubs (the larval form of certain beetles). If this is so, then applying an EPA-sanctioned pesticide to kill the grubs may help discourage the digging. However, skunks (and raccoons) eat lots of other things (rodents, frogs, snakes, insects, earthworms, fruit, etc.) and poisoning the grubs may not totally eliminate the problem. Remember that here are always environmental trade-offs when using pesticides; many pesticides used to kill lawn pests are also potentially dangerous to humans and wildlife. Use them only when necessary and follow label directions carefully.

Some of the general animal repellents, such as those sold to repel deer and rabbits from plants and shrubbery, may work to discourage skunks from small areas, but would be impractical for large lawn areas. Napthalene, a common constituent of these repellents, would probably be useful only in confined spaces (like in a burrow under your garage), and is by no means nontoxic; some of the newer repellents based on hot pepper derivitives (such as capsaicin) and those based on castor oil (sold to repel moles) are less toxic and may be more useful as a grass or foliage repellent, but these have apparently not been well-tested on carnivorous mammals like skunks, and tends to wash off quickly in wet weather. If you try any of these, let me know how it works!

Image of striped skunkSkunks are fairly easy to trap (chicken skin or fish parts are good baits), but their famous "chemical weapon" makes them very hard to handle! When caught in old-style leg-hold traps, they almost invariably release their odor. You might have better luck with cage-type live traps; try covering the trap with an old blanket or burlap, as skunks usually do not spray if they can't see a target. If you can leave the trap covered while you move the skunk (at least five miles if releasing the animal), you might get away unsprayed—or maybe not. Dealing with a distressed wild animal is always risky—skunks can bite, and occasionally can carry rabies. (And I can tell you from personal experience that getting sprayed by a skunk is definitely something to avoid at all costs!) In most cases of serious skunk damage, calling in a professional animal control person to handle the problem is a good idea. You will pay for the service, but removing the problem animals can provide at least temporary relief, and you are avoiding the personal consequences of dealing with an angry skunk.


Image of striped skunkPortions of this section were adapted and edited from earlier material written by Glenn R. Dudderar, former MSU Extension Wildlife Specialist.

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978