Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Well, not really. Presumably most people don’t have direct contact with skunks; however, that doesn’t mean skunks can’t pick up viruses from us.
A study published in Zoonoses and Public Health (Britton et al. 2018) investigated human H1N1 influenza in wild skunks in the greater Vancouver, BC (Canada) area, following up on an earlier study that found influenza virus in 2 out of 50 skunks (both skunks had human contact). They looked at the nose, lungs and feces of 80 free-ranging skunks around Vancouver and found influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 in one skunk, which had been hit by a car. The skunk was euthanized because of the severity of its injuries and didn’t have any obvious signs of respiratory disease, but when tissues were examined histologically (under a microscope), there were signs of inflammation in the nasal passages. A flu virus was isolated and testing identified it as the human pandemic H1N1 strain.
Given the strain, it’s assumed that the skunk was infected by a person. It probably wasn’t from direct contact, but there are various ways that indirect contact could occur. One would be through garbage. It’s fairly easy to envision a skunk rooting through a garbage bag that might have contained used tissues from a person with flu. Whether a skunk can pass the virus on to other skunks (or to other species) is a question that remains unanswered.
Movement of this flu strain into different animal species isn’t too surprising. It’s been found in a few species already, including household pets (dogs, cats, and ferrets). Skunks probably play little to no role in human flu transmission, and infected skunks may be “dead-end hosts” (infected individuals that don’t pass the virus on any further) or at least rarely affected enough that they don’t pose much risk for propagating infection. Regardless, this shows how infectious diseases can do strange and unexpected things, and that we’re not a population of people living amongst populations of dogs, cats, cattle, birds… and skunks… but rather we’re all one big population of animals that can periodically share diseases.
So, washing your hands may not save a skunk, but it’s still good for you (and those around you, both human and animal). Flu also isn’t the reason I’d stay away from skunks – rabies and getting sprayed are far bigger issues. But the concepts of “let wildlife stay in the wild” and “leave them alone” should never be forgotten (though they sometime are).