What is a Polecat?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A polecat is a member of the weasel family which is distinguished by the remarkably unpleasant-smelling secretion it is capable of producing for the purpose of marking territory. Polecats emit this secretion from their anal glands, rubbing their behinds against trees and rocks to mark territory, and sometimes actively spraying the secretion, which has a rather sharp, fetid odor. In addition to the true polecats, such as the European Polecat and the Steppe Polecat, skunks and civets are also sometimes called polecats, because they also produce strong bodily secretions.

The secretions of polecats are used in perfumes to make the smells last longer.
The secretions of polecats are used in perfumes to make the smells last longer.

Like other members of the weasel family, a polecat has a long, lean body. Polecats have medium to long fur which tends to be brown on the back and cream on the belly, although some species are marked with black or yellow streaks and blotches. Polecats have short muzzles, rounded ears, and sensitive whiskers. They also have a very keen sense of smell, and weak eyesight, using their sense of smell as a primary navigational tool.

Most polecats are nocturnal, although some are crepuscular. These animals are carnivores, feeding on birds, small mammals, fish, eggs, reptiles, and anything else they can catch, and they live in burrows. Some species take advantage of burrows dug by other mammals, while others prefer to build their own homes, using their muscular clawed forelegs to do the job.

Mating seasons and gestation periods for polecats vary, depending on the species. Some females are capable of delayed implantation, which means that they can determine when an egg implants in the uterine wall after they have been fertilized. This allows the female polecat to mate at any time, but to become pregnant at leisure; this can be useful in harsh environments or when the weather conditions are poor, as the female can wait for the best time to get pregnant and give birth.

Polecats can be found in Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. Many are solitary, and their territories are easy to distinguish, thanks to the smell. When polecats do encounter each other, they communicate with grunts and squeaks, along with a shrill scream which indicates submission in a fight.

Humans have historically hunted polecats for their fur, although extensive treatment is required to make the fur usable. The secretions of polecats have also been used as a perfume fixative, since several chemicals in the secretion are designed to make the smell long-lasting, and these chemicals can be used to make enduring good smells in addition to lingering bad ones.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


There are two theories about the Etymology of "Polecat." The first is that it was named as a "cat" which feeds on "poultry." Hence, "poultry-cat," or polecat. The second, more likely theory, is that the "pole" part of the name derives from an Old French word for "stinking." So Polecat probably means "stinking cat."


It is so crazy that a female polecat can delay becoming pregnant until she wants to! In my opinion, that is absolutely amazing!

Can you imagine if people could do that? It would certainly solve a lot of problems.


Isn't it ironic that the secretion of a polecat, something that smells so awful, can be used to make perfume? That sounds pretty crazy to me!

It reminds me of the French name for a type of perfume, that translates to "toilet water." It doesn't sound very appealing, though, in actuality, it smells very good.

Spraying something on myself that contains stinky polecat secretions doesn't sound desirable either, but I sure do love perfume!


The Polecat species listed here (European and Steppe) are not amongst those Mustelids that exhibit delayed implantation. The Marbled Polecat however, does.

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