As my husband and I came home from dinner, there it was: a skunk, just a few feet from the front door of our house. Without thinking, I kept on walking. My husband grabbed my arm and whispered, “It’s not a cat.”

I was amazed by his beauty. The skunk had two white stripes that started from the back of his head. In the center was a shiny black patch of fur.

We stopped in our tracks and let him pass by. According to David Mizejekwski, naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, that was the right thing to do. “Skunks want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them,” he says. “And they will give you a warning before they are about to spray. It’s as if they are telling you to back off.”

Skunks will stomp their feet, hiss, snarl, tweet like a bird and stand up on their hind legs before spraying. “That gives you ample time to retreat,” says Mizejewski. “They only spray if they feel threatened.”

When they do spray, the smell is unforgettable. The main chemical in the musk is trans-2-butene-1-thiol, which not only reeks but can cause temporary stinging if it gets in your eyes.

“It’s rare that people get sprayed,” says Mizejewski. “Dogs, however, are the most common recipients of skunk spray. They see something moving and want to chase after it. If they do get sprayed in their eyes, in addition to a burning sensation, it can cause temporary blindness.” But, he adds, “The smell is the worst part of it.”

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If you or your dog gets sprayed

Soaking in a tub full of tomato juice doesn’t work, according to Mizejewski. Instead, mix 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda and 2 tablespoons of dish soap. Spray this mixture on your dog (or yourself if you’ve been sprayed), making sure to avoid the eyes. Lather up, leave the mixture on for 5 minutes, rinse and repeat.

Skunk bites are rare, but if your dog gets aggressive, they can happen. Make sure your dog is up to date on his rabies vaccination. If he’s not, take him to the vet. (The likelihood of you catching the skunk and getting him tested for rabies is slim — and trying to catch a skunk is a stinky idea.)

How to keep skunks away from your house

Skunks like to burrow. Piles of old tree branches and leaves can be attractive to them because they’re good hiding places. Skunks also can live in hollowed-out logs and hide in tall grassy areas.

“If you want to dissuade skunks from coming too close to your house, don’t build a brush pile right up against your house. Make sure there are no entry points into any crawl spaces, including basements and decks. Keep your lawn mowed,” Mizejewski suggests.

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If you suspect a skunk family has taken up residence on your property, call animal control. Or, simply wait them out. The Humane Society of the United States says on its website, “The nocturnal habits of skunks, their unaggressive nature and the generally beneficial role they play in nature by consuming insects and rodents are all good reasons to leave them alone until they have moved on their own accord (which they readily do).”

Trapping and relocating skunks or any other animal to a new habitat is illegal. The new location can lack the skunk’s food, water and shelter needs. And someone else may already be living there who won’t want to share food and shelter. The story can end badly for the newcomer.

The bottom line: Leave skunks alone. The animals are active at dawn and dusk, so “your chances of seeing them are not all that great,” says Mizejewski. “If you are fortunate enough to see a skunk, keep your distance and enjoy that amazing experience.”

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Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife. She is an award-winning journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, and other leading publications. She blogs at Pet News and Views.