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Cat 101: How to Tell a Cat From a Polecat (Also Known as a Skunk)

A black-and-white rescue cat has a telltale back-stripe; shelter staff call him Pepe LeMew.

Phillip Mlynar  |  Jan 28th 2015


Differentiating a cat from nature’s many other marvelous creatures is usually an elementary task. Bears are big and growly, whereas cats are petite and purry. Vultures have a voracious appetite and a pair of wings, while cats love the fine dining scene but are easily recognizable by their four paws.

Staff at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California recently came across a conundrum, though, when a two-month-old Domestic Shorthair seemed to blur the boundaries of cat and skunk identification, because of a distinctive white stripe that runs down his back. Naturally, staff at the animal rescue center named him Pepe LeMew, a play on the Warner Bros. cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. The real-life cat is looking for a forever home.

"I thought that a baby skunk had accidentally climbed into the carrier with the other kittens," stated Amy Barnes of the Woodward center.

In case you find yourself in a similar situation, I’ve put together an expert’s guide on how to tell if you have a cat or a skunk on your hands.

First, check to see if the cat has an uninterrupted white stripe running down the middle of the back of its black fur. If the stripe is present, then you may well be holding a skunk and not a kitten.

Second, turn the animal around and check to see whether his face features a similarly striking white stripe leading to its nose. If so, you might still be grasping a potentially pungent creature.

Next, let the critter wander around and check his gait. Does he scurry around with a jittery menace like he’s preparing to strike? Or does he strut with the cute confidence of a cat?


Now it’s time to really test the skunk/cat boundaries. Attempt to pet the animal — slowly and with one hand at first. If you still have fingers at this point, you’re probably petting a kitten and not an odorous little tyke.

Finally, attempt an ambitious double-handed head and chin scratch maneuver. Does the creature respond with a warm purring sound? Congratulations, you have successfully identified a cat.

Back at the Helen Woodward Animal Center, we’ve been told that Pepe LeMew will be available for adoption starting Jan. 23. In the meantime, enjoy this classic cartoon skunk footage of Pepe Le Pew — whose whole schtick was that he mistook a cat for a skunk.

See more picture posts about cats by Phillip Mlynar:

About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.