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Sleeping Skunks


By Kendra Thomas

How do skunks cope with winter?

During the coldest months of winter, skunks retreat to underground dens where they enter a state called torpor.1 This gives the skunks protection from the harsh winter elements. Torpor also slows down their metabolic rates allowing them to depend on stored body fat as a source of energy during a part of the year when food is scarce.1

What's the difference between torpor and hibernation?

Maintaining a high body temperature is essential for physiological functions such as mobility, digestion, and brain function.2 In the winter months, simply maintaining this high body temperature uses a large proportion of mammals’ overall energy expenditure.2 Cold wintertime temperatures combined with food scarcity make it impossible for many mammals to survive the winter while continuing to maintain their usual activity levels and body temperatures.2 Species that are not able to migrate to places that have more food availability and a warmer climate require a way of living that conserves energy.2 Both torpor and hibernation allow mammals to reduce their wintertime energy expenditure by entering into a state of inactivity and decreased body temperatures.2 The difference between torpor and hibernation is that hibernation is a continuous state of inactivity that may last for weeks or months.2 Torpor, conversely, is shorter in duration and typically lasts for less than 24 hours.2

What should I do if I see a skunk outside in winter?

Striped skunk plodding through snow. Image licensed under CC BY 2.0 by Dan & Lin Dzurisin
As skunks experience torpor rather than hibernation, they periodically emerge from their dens in search of food when the temperatures rise and/or their energy reserves get low.3 So, if you see a skunk out and about in the wintertime, there is no need to worry! Simply leave the skunk alone and it will likely retreat to its den once it has found something to eat.

Why are skunks important?

Skunks are omnivores, and they eat almost anything.4 This gives skunks an important role to play in ecosystems as they help regulate populations of insects, snakes, and small rodents, preventing populations from growing out of control.5

There are many things you can do to both help skunks, and promote the benefits that they provide to ecosystems. Here are some ways you can help:

  1. Collect litter and put it in secured garbage bins.4
  2. Learn to live with skunks. Avoid trapping and moving them, as it is ineffective and it poses a danger to the skunks.4
  3. Keep your pets indoors or on a leash so they don’t accidentally injure nearby skunks.4

If you come across an injured or orphaned skunk, contact your local rehabilitation centre.4

Striped skunk patient in care at AIWC (2023)


  1. Mutch, Graham R., and Michael Aleksiuk. “Ecological Aspects of Winter Dormancy in the Striped Skunk (Mephitis Mephitis).” Canadian Journal of Zoology 55, no. 3 (1977): 607–15.
  2. Ruf, Thomas, and Fritz Geiser. “Daily Torpor and Hibernation in Birds and Mammals.” Biological Reviews 90, no. 3 (2014): 891–926.
  3. Tschanz, Steve. “Barrie Wildlife Control: Skunks in the Winter.” Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control, March 6, 2023.
  4. Terril, Katerina. “Online Learning.” Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation, August 10, 2022.
  5. Mueller, Marcus. “Are There Benefits to Skunks Being Around?” Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control, July 5, 2021.

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