SKUNK! A Tail of Terror -- by Liz McKinney

      I was compelled to write this "tail" not for a creative contribution but rather for at least two significant reasons. First and foremost you, the reader and fellow terrier person, MUST be aware of the dangers and ramifications of the North American skunk. Further, you MUST, for your terrier's sake, be prepared to intelligently deal with the situation if your terrier is unfortunate enough to be in the ground with a skunk that sprays. There are several things I learned from this experience, perhaps at the expense of my beloved Molly, that may save your terrier's life. The second reason for the recounting of this story is purely a selfish one--perhaps to attempt to purge my own guilt in wondering how much of her battle for life was my fault, and partially as an emotional catharsis. Well, on with the "tail."

      It was the week before Thanksgiving, and since the university in which I am a professor closes for the entire week, I decided to use the time wisely, i.e., to hunt my terriers. Since Ken Chambers, like myself, had a very flexible schedule, I gave my friend a call to see if he could put up with me and a couple of Jack Russells for a few days. He responded "Come on up gal," and so I did.

      It had turned bitterly cold the few days prior to my departure, but when I arose early Sunday morning, it was evident that Mother Nature intended to smile on me with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 50s. The weather could not have been any more perfect for the drive up to the picturesque Kentucky horse country and for the following day's hunt.

      We arose Monday morning to blissfully perfect weather, and after a breakfast of bacon, eggs, homemade biscuits, and coffee (yes, Ken did all of the cooking), Yvonne Moore and her young Jack Russell Terrier, Boon, joined us for the hunt. We were so excited to see each other and in a hurry to get out into the field, so we set up our locator collars, checked them, taped the battery caps, and loaded the terriers into Yvonne's fancy red Explorer and away we went. Yvonne and I were chatting away (you know the way we women are) when, at the end of the half-mile drive, Ken said "Girls, I think we'd better go back to the house and get the tools." Oh well, nobody's perfect. Yvonne backed that Explorer all the way down that long drive, a feat I certainly could not have performed (I am dangerous in reverse), and we sheepishly loaded the shovel and bar (Yvonne already had the diggers). Little did I suspect that perhaps this start signaled a bad omen for the day.

      The day was magnificent and shortly after arriving at the first farm, we spotted raccoon tracks everywhere around the stream bed. My two terriers, Molly and David, a mother and son team we often hunt together, immediately began tracking and checking out every hole in the ground and in the trunks of trees. Within ten minutes, the two of them dove into an open tree trunk and the growling and snarling began. Out came my terriers latched onto a raccoon. A quick check, however, told us that the raccoon was not up to the challenge as he was already dying, so it was back to the field. This was a really big farm comprised of hundreds of acres and a large pond. Molly, David, and Boon worked well, checking all of the holes thoroughly, but nothing was home. By early afternoon we, the people, were getting rather discouraged but the terriers were having the time of their life.

      Molly is a scruffy, rough coated little bitch with the brightest eyes I have ever seen and a zest for living unparalleled by any human or animal I have ever known. To know her is to truly understand what living life to the fullest is all about. Whatever she does, she does it all the way, devoting 100% of her energy to the pursuit of the moment; but her number one priority is hunting. Molly lives to hunt. She would rather hunt than eat, snuggle in the bed on a cold evening, or any other terrier pleasure. Her second favorite activity is swimming. So when we walked within site of the pond she, in typical Molly fashion, jumped in for a few laps around the water.

      The problem with Molly and water is that you just can't get her out once she goes in, so around and around the pond she paddled while we called to her and laughed at her antics. The day had turned warm enough to shed our jackets, there was no quarry to be found, and she politely ignored my calls to pursue her second favorite sport. Finally, enough was enough (at least for the people), and the only way I could get her out of the water was to bend down beside a hole and yell "Come check it, Molly. Check it out." That did it! She make a bee line for the shore and dove into the empty hole. When she backed out and turned back to her pond, we snagged her and deposited her little dripping body into a crate but not without loud protest. Did I mention that Molly has a big mouth and an opinion about everything?

      By then it was 2:00 in the afternoon, so we drove back to town for a quick lunch and then off again. Yvonne had to leave by 4:00, because she had a hundred miles to drive back to Louisville, but we were determined to find some action before her departure. After a hasty bowl of soup we checked out several old barns in the area for groundhogs. The first two were not productive but the last one looked promising--riddled with groundhog holes. A quick check at our watches told us Yvonne was running out of time, but we were already there, the territory looked extremely promising, and the terriers were working with renewed vigor. In fact the three of them were more excited than they had been since early morning.

      Time 3:50 P.M. It was time to pack up and call it a day when Molly dove into a hole in an old deserted horse stall and began whining and growling. By golly Miss Molly, you are on to something! One thing Molly doesn't do is lie. If she says there is quarry in the ground you can bet your mortgage and IRA on it. David immediately found the back door in the diagonal corner of the stall, slipped in, and between the two terriers all you could hear was growling and baying. Yvonne quickly swept Boon up as he was dead on David's heels. Suddenly, the unmistakable stench of skunk rose from the ground.

      Time 4:00 P.M. David backed out of that hole so fast I wondered if he had packed a rocket in his locator collar. I quickly scooped him up and called for Molly but she either could not or would not come out. We did, however, hear her growling and whining. Ken called for the tools, so Yvonne and I ran David and Boon to the truck, about 50 feet away, and raced back with the bar, shovel, and diggers.

      I quickly took out my box to locate my little bitch in the earth, and when I turned it on--NOTHING. Damn, my box was dead! Yvonne made the fastest trip on record back to the truck for her box. We turned it on, turned it all the way up and still, NOTHING. "Oh God," I screamed, "her collar is dead. I know I checked it this morning. What if I forgot to check it? I couldn't have forgotten to check it, could I?" Yvonne quickly assured me that she had seen me check both of the collars and reminded me of a story I had recounted about my early, naïve days in the hunt field.

      Time 4:05 P.M. We called and called to Molly and all we heard was our own labored breathing. She was in trouble with a dead locator, somewhere in the ground under that stall with a skunk. Mentally, I tried to reread all of the True Grit articles about skunk, and my heart sank when I remembered the Ortolano's heartbreaking experience with their Stalker's Firefly.

      Ken checked both entrances. She had entered the shallow one, but Ken was more interested in the deeper one at the other end of the stall about 18-20 feet away. The tunnel dropped at a steep angle and split into two forks, both curving away from the entrance in opposite directions. With Molly unable to bark or whine, we had no clue as to where she was.

      Time 4:10 P.M. I had never seen Ken so quiet or so worried. One look at the expression on his face told me that he was as concerned as I was. Ken made a decision as to where to begin. "I think she is here," Ken said pointing to the ground. Yvonne and I looked at each other with a puzzled expression, neither of us daring to ask why this particular spot, well away from where Molly had entered. But when my Molly's life hung in precarious balance, all I could do was look to the master with complete trust. I knew that if anyone could get her out alive, Ken could.

      Time 4:15 P.M. Ken used the bar in an attempt to locate the tunnel. The soil was rock hard with years of packing by draft horses. Minutes seemed like a lifetime, and still not a sound from Molly. Finally, a miracle. The bar broke through the tunnel and a cheer went up. The three of us looked at each other and it was evident that we were all silently praying that she was still alive.

      Time 4:20 P.M. Molly had been in the ground for 20 minutes and we hadn't heard a sound for at least 15 of those minutes, but at least there was an air hole now, if in fact she was in that particular fork. We couldn't afford to be wrong, but the immediate stench that rose from the small hole made by the bar told us we couldn't be far from wrong. In a situation like this, however, even a foot or two the wrong way would loose precious time Molly did not have. Ken began to dig in earnest, but the going was slow because of the hard packed, cement-like soil. "She's got to be HERE, she just HAS to be," Ken said as he worked those diggers like the pro he is.

      Time 4:25 P.M. Ken broke through into the tunnel, but no Molly. "I know she's here, I just know it. Why the hell can't I see her?" Ken said lying on the ground reaching into the tunnel. He partially pulled out an old plastic feed sack, wedged tightly into the tunnel. It took the three of us to pull it free. Then another feed sack and then the nest. Between the three of us, Yvonne was the only one who had packed her flashlight, and when she shinned it into the entrance of the sette, a dim light could be seen exiting from the hole Ken had just broken through. Ken continued to check the tunnel and with the help of the flashlight finally saw her. She was about a foot away, covered with dirt. It took about a minute or so to clear enough dirt away to get to her, and Yvonne and I gently pulled my little bitch out of the ground. Even though we had removed all of the debris from on top of her, she was wedged tightly into the earth.

      Time 4:30 P.M. She had been in the ground for 30 minutes, her eyes were staring blankly into space, she wasn't moving, but she was still breathing. Thank God and thank you Ken!! She was alive, but just barely. Hugging her fiercely, I rushed her outside into the fresh air and sunshine and she began to come back to life. When I put her on the ground she tried to stand, staggered and fell and then stood up. I don't know if it was ignorance or just wishful thinking, but for a minute or two I thought she was out of danger. I had my Molly back. But my relief was short lived, because as Yvonne came out of the barn a couple of minutes later, Molly began to stagger and fall again. Yvonne had paid close attention to those True Grit articles, particularly the one written by Susan Parsons in the February 1993 edition. She took one look at Molly and at her dusky blue-purple gums and said, "She's in shock. You've got to get her to a vet IMMEDIATELY!"

      Yvonne ran back into the barn to get Ken, and we headed back to Ken's house (which was on the way to the vet's office anyway) to alert his vet we were on the way with a terrier in shock. While driving through the pastures to get back to the main road, Yvonne handed me Susan Parson's February 1993 article about skunked Jack Russell Terriers, which she had photocopied, reduced, laminated and stored in her hunting pack. "Take it, you might need it. Give it to the vet if he doesn't take this seriously. It also has John Lowery's telephone number in it."

      Now this is what I called prepared. I reread the article on the fast drive back, paying particular attention to the physiological manifestations and symptoms of shock. My heart almost stopped when I read, "As a result individuals who initially survive a period of profound shock may later show signs of brain and kidney damage, and eventually die." Molly had all of the symptoms of profound shock. Her gums and tongue were a deep blue-purple, she was unable to stand, and had begun to vomit. She also began to emit an erie sounding bark-whine, the type of noise you hear when your terrier is asleep and dreaming. We could hear her raspy, gurgling breathing as her lungs filled with fluid. I was frightened. She was dying.

      Back at Ken's, we loaded her into my vehicle and literally raced down those Kentucky back roads to the vet. I made the 30 minute drive in 20 minutes and arrived at the veterinary hospital at 5:12 P.M. They were waiting on us and prepared to start IV fluids immediately. It took almost 5 minutes after applying the tourniquet to find a vein that wasn't collapsed and my Molly's condition was deteriorating fast. Finally, the vet was able to draw blood for testing and insert the shunt to begin the fluids. The vet assured me that we had a chance of saving her. Her heartbeat was strong and still regular, a good sign. He also said that because she was fit and had plenty of flesh on her she was in better condition to fight the toxins than a thin dog (you know the type that is kept bone thin for racing or conformation showing).

      The vet described the treatment he was administering. Steroids with the fluids and a diuretic to keep the kidneys from shutting down. Fluids in and fluids out in an attempt to remove the toxins. He also administered antibiotics and antihistamines to combat pneumonia and draw the fluid from her lungs. The most promising sign was when I called her name and Molly turned her head ever so slightly in recognition. Ken explained that Dr. John Lowery in Alabama was also a veterinarian and probably had more experience with skunked Jack Russells than anyone. He asked his vet if we contacted Dr. Lowery if he would he be insulted. The vet responded not only would he not be insulted, but he welcomed any input from a veterinarian more experienced with this particular trauma. I said a prayer for Molly as well as one of thanks for this vet who was prepared to deal with this emergency and so open-minded about consulting with another professional. I hugged and kissed my smelly little terrier, and with tears in my eyes left Molly in competent hands to battle for her life.

      The first thing we did was to untape the locator collar to find out just what went wrong. We checked David's collar and it bleeped loud and clear, but still nothing from Molly's. Neither Ken nor I could get the battery cap off to check inside. I knew I had not tightened the cap down with enough force to jam it, but neither of us could get it to move. It took a pair of pliers and extraordinary effort on Ken's part to get that cap off, and the reason for its failure became immediately obvious when water came pouring out.

      Molly had been in and out of the pond for at least 20 minutes and the locator cap had filled with pond water through the electrical tape and threads. The batteries had corroded and had almost welded the cap on. Nausea hit me full force when I realized that by not checking that collar after her laps around the pond, I was responsible for my terrier entering the ground with a dead collar. How could I have been so casual and stupid? We could have saved at least 10 to 15 minutes had Molly's collar been dry and working properly. That 10 to 15 minutes might well make the difference between life and death, and Molly's life right now hung in precarious balance.

      Back at Ken's, we called John Lowery who expressed his sympathy and told me the exact name of the drugs and dosages he recommended for skunked dogs. He even spelled the names of the drugs as I am unfamiliar with pharmaceuticals. What a wonderful man. We then called Molly's vet and recounted Dr. Lowery's recommendations which included a slightly different, faster acting steroid (Sola Delta Cortif) and a bronchodialator (aminophyllin) to give her increased lung capacity to fight off pneumonia and absorb more oxygen. The vet in Paris, Kentucky immediately switched Molly to the recommended medications and thanked us for the information. At 10:30 P.M. he called us back with encouraging news. Molly was responding well and was much brighter. He felt that I might be able to take her home the next afternoon.

      We picked her up at 4:00 P.M. the next afternoon and although she certainly wasn't the old Molly, it was apparent she had come a long way from the previous evening's flirtation with death. Her gum color was certainly not a normal bright pinkish-red, but the improvement in color was astounding. The vet sent us home with steroids, the bronchodialator, and a liquid antihistamine to be administered orally twice a day. He also warned me to keep her warm, well fed, and as calm as possible. If you know Molly, it is easier to part the Red Sea than to keep her calm. Relieved and eternally grateful to get my little bitch back alive, I thanked him profusely.

      By 5:00 P.M. that Tuesday evening, a very subdued Molly, David and I headed back to Virginia. I hugged Ken tightly and thanked him over and over for getting Molly out of the ground alive. Without a working locator to tell us where she was, it was a sixth sense, an instinct, that told Ken where to dig, and he had been right on target.

      Back in Virginia, I telephoned John Lowery to thank him again and to let him know that Molly was doing much better. She was certainly not her old self but it appeared that she was out of the woods. Throughout the week, Wednesday through Saturday, Molly laid around the house sleeping a lot and visiting my regular vet every other day to check her lungs, gum color and general condition. Her gum color was improving SLOWLY and her lungs sounded clearer each day. By Saturday evening, Molly was beginning to return to her old self, picked a quarrel with another terrier over a chewy, and barked and bounced back and forth over the sofa when the doorbell rang. So when I went to bed Saturday evening, I knew I could finally sleep.

      Molly woke me early Sunday morning, needing to go out to empty. She bounced down the stairs barking greetings to a new morning and acted and appeared like her old self. After a couple of minutes, she asked to come back in for breakfast. I opened the sliding door on my patio, and she bounced into the living room, fell on her side, eyes glazed, and her body began to convulse. I was hysterical. The seizure lasted about a minute, and when she was able to stand, she bean to stagger like a drunk. I placed an emergency call directly to my veterinarian's home and he met me at the clinic within 10 minutes. Her gums had turned pale pink-white and he started IV fluids immediately. Again, I had to walk out and leave her to fight for her life six days after the original trauma. I simply could not believe it. Blood work showed that she was severely anemic. I had been giving her vitamins twice daily and my vet had been checking her on a regular basis.

      I telephoned to check on Molly's progress several times Monday and was given the good news of no more seizures. However, on Tuesday morning she again convulsed. No seizures on Wednesday so I brought her home that evening, as I had made arrangements to be home all day Thursday and Friday. Thursday morning, at 5:00 A.M., I carried her down the stairs and gently deposited her in the grass to empty, holding my breath the entire time. I carried her back up the stairs, with breakfast, and placed her on the floor. She fell over and her little body began to convulse, this time a stronger seizure of a longer duration.

      It took Molly several minutes to collect her wits and stand up, but after a few minutes, she appeared okay. This time I knew what to expect, so I waited until the clinic opened to telephone my vet as I truly believed she was in no immediate danger. After checking her that morning, he concurred with me that very little else could be done and that Molly was better off at home with me. At 3:00 P.M. that same afternoon she has another seizure. My veterinarian told me to double the tranquilizer Molly was on twice a day.

      Our veterinarian referred Molly to the veterinary school just ten miles away. At first, the internist, Dr. Leibe, thought we were nuts. He had never heard of a dog reacting to skunk spray and thought we were overreacting. We explained in detail how a terrier, under the ground and without air, could easily go into shock and die. Dr. Leibe told us what Molly probably had was epilepsy and that it was purely coincidental that the onset had occurred shortly after the skunk episode. We adamantly disagreed. Dr Leibe still looked doubtful but to humor us, he pulled blood and urine on Molly.

      When he got the blood work back, he returned to the waiting room rather pale and full of apologies. It seems that Molly had one terrific case of anemia and that 30% of her red blood cells had hemolized and ruptured, leaving her with not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to her brain and other tissues. He agreed that only some type of poisoning could have done that—poisoning like a snake or spider bite OR…..spraying by skunk.

      At that point Dr. Leibe became very interested, in fact intrigued, at what we knew about terriers being sprayed by skunk underground. We told him all we knew and referred him to other sources. The veterinarian told us he was going to include this trauma in his teaching in the vet school so that other veterinarians would be aware of some of the problems earthworking terriers encountered.

      We were told to watch Molly very carefully and keep her on the valium for another few weeks. Molly was to come back to the vet school every other day for a blood profile. If the anemia persisted, Molly would be transfused. Thank goodness it did not persist and within a week the seizures stopped, never to be seen again.

      For months afterward we were never sure if and what type of permanent damage had been done-- extended oxygen deprivation, neurological damage, etc. And that haunting sentence in Susan Parson's article kept coming back to me: "As a result individuals who initially survive a period of profound shock may later show signs of brain and kidney damage, and eventually die."

      I have never reacted the same upon smelling skunk spray. My heart speeds up and I become sick. I ache for those who have lost terriers in the ground to skunk and pray, when I smell that sickening smell, the next casualty won't be one of mine.

      I have several recommendations for those of you hunting your terriers.

  • First, tape your locator collar TIGHTLY, making certain the tape fits snugly into the grove between the battery cap and collar.

  • Second, check your collar if your terrier goes in water. Check it immediately after the dog comes out i.e., untape the collar and make certain the batteries are dry. Don't forget to retape the battery cap.

  • Third, photocopy Susan Parson's article on Skunks and JRs, and carry it with your hunting equipment, along with a bottle of Skunk-Off. READ AND REREAD her article until you have committed it to memory. You MUST be familiar with the signs of shock.

  • Fourth, take YOUR OWN hunting tools. Yvonne's post hole diggers were strange to both Ken and I (the handles are different with more flex in the wood) and we believe it slowed the digging process. Even a few minutes may make the difference between life and death.

  • Fifth, if your Jack Russell Terrier is in the ground when a skunk sprays, rush him or her IMMEDIATELY to the closest vet and INSIST on treatment. Take the article with you to PROVE your concern is more than warranted.

  • Sixth, DO NOT assume because your terrier survives the initial 24-48 period, the terrier is "home free." It simply is not the case. Seven, feed your terriers plenty of high quality dog food. Do not hunt them thin because they need all the reserves they can get. And finally,

  • DO NOT stop hunting your terriers because of a heartbreaking experience. These dogs are bred to hunt, and if they are worth their salt, would rather hunt than do anything else. Please remember that the Jack Russell Terrier is first and foremost a working breed.
An addendum: very small terriers like Molly are sort of like 4 wheel drives. The smaller the terrier, the deeper in the ground they can go and the more trouble they can get into. That goes double for a hard as opposed to a soft baying terrier, again like Molly.

      Since that time, we have discussed this trauma with several veterinarians around the county and with several physicians. What these professionals who also own working Jack Russell Terriers have found is that after the skunking incident that often the red blood cells begin to hemolyze and burst, leaving the terrier critically anemic. One veterinarian was able to stop the red blood cells from hemolyzing by using a drug called acetycistine (the generic name), also known as mucomyst.

    We have been advised anytime a terrier is sprayed under the ground to have a red blood cell count pulled immediately to determine whether or not the Jack Russell is anemic. We also pull blood to check the red cell count every other day over a week to ten days after a skunk spraying incident. We believe the more knowledge you are armed with, the better the chance your terrier has of surviving a skunking spraying.

Happy hunting!