Skunks are sometimes referred to as polecats due to their similarities. Early English settlers had not seen skunks before and mistook them for polecats, which are native to Europe and Asia. Polecats and skunks are distantly related and share some physical and behavioral qualities with each other but are also quite different.
Skunks and polecats share some physical attributes. Striped polecats especially look similar to skunks, sharing similar colors and stripes. Like a skunk, polecats also have a musky odor that they can omit when they feel threatened, although not quite as strong as skunks.
Most polecats resemble ferrets or weasels more than skunks. Polecats are said to be less aggressive than skunks. Skunks will eat insects, fruits, and vegetables while polecats eat small prey like mice, shrews, and grubs.
While skunks still get called polecats in certain rural areas, they are not the same. They may share some attributes, but they have far more differences that clearly set them apart from one another.