What's the Difference Between a Skunk and a Polecat?

April Killian

I always thought that referring to a skunk as a "polecat" was a southern thing - or just another one of those quirky terms that you only hear from "country folks." My dad was born and raised in rural Lincoln County, Tennessee - can't get more country than that - and he never called a skunk a skunk. He always called it a polecat. I found out recently that the term "polecat" is actually not just southern or country - but goes way back to the very early European settlers of North America. It's a case of mistaken identity and two completely different animals that look and stink alike. Here's the story...

Will the Real Polecat Please Step Forward?
The animal that we know of today as a skunk in the United States - the small mammal with the big smell - doesn't exist in Europe. They do, however, have a similar animal across the big pond that is able to produce a big stink and that's where the mistaken identity first came into play. When early European settlers came to North America, their encounters with the skunk of reminded them of a familiar animal back home: the European polecat. The polecat and skunk are close to the same size, each nocturnal, both can have distinctive bands of different colored fur, and both can emit a horrible odor. So, naturally, the first European settlers associated the American skunk with the more familiar European polecat and began calling the skunk by that name.

European Polecat
The European polecat is in the mustelid family and is the sole ancestor of the domesticated ferret. They are usually dark brown with a lighter underbelly and have a light colored mask across the face. Some have stripes that extend down their backs or sides similar to skunks, too. They emit a bad smelling liquid in order to mark their territory. They are native to Europe all the way to Asia and parts of north Africa. It's easy to see...or should I say, "smell"...how the North
American skunk was easily misidentified by early European settlers. Thus the name "polecat" stunk...I mean, stuck.

North American Skunk
The North American skunk is from the Mephitidae family. They are most closely related to the Stink Badger of Indonesia and Malaysia. Their relation to the European polecat is very distant - although they are both in the weasel family. Besides the most familiar color of solid black with a distinctive white stripe, skunks can also come in variations of brown, cream or a ginger color. Their stink comes from a liquid produced by their anal glands and they can spray that liquid toward a predator or threat up to 15 feet. Trust me, this is some foul smelling liquid and VERY hard to wash off. One of my dogs took a direct spray to his chest one evening and it took me days of bathing him in every anti-skunk concoction that I could find to make him bearable to be around. The actual term, "skunk," dates back to the early 1600s and is believed to come from the Native American Algonquin language. Nobody told this to the first Europeans, however - they still called it a polecat.

A Skunk by Any Other Name....
So, there's the story of how the skunk came to be known as a polecat. Different names, same animal - at least in North America. What do you call them: skunks or polecats? Have you even ever heard the term "polecat?" Leave a note in the comment section!

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April Killian is a native of Florence, Alabama and writes about her home state of Alabama and the Shoals area. She is the mom of many pets and 3 adult children. Along with writing, she sells vintage items online and conducts estate sales in her area. She is a lifelong supporter of charity work, loves life, and tries to be a positive force in this world in everything she does! Her writing passions include: family and social issues, nature, humor, the paranormal and anything interesting or weird! Click on "follow" to see more of her articles in the future! https://www.buymeacoffee.com/Aprilkillian

Florence, AL
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