Public Health Concerns
Although opossums might carry several diseases of significance to humans, their role in the transmission of any of these diseases is uncertain. Anyone handling a dead or live opossum should wear rubber gloves, and wash his or her hands well when finished.
There is convincing evidence that the parasite that causes Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a disease in horses, is carried by the opossum. EPM is an infection of the central nervous system; the neurologic signs that are most apparent in horses include dizziness, weakness, and spasticity.
While there are no guaranteed methods of preventing exposure to this parasitic organism, horse owners can minimize risks by making facilities less attractive to opossums. Remove or seal up food that opossums might find attractive, such as cat food left out, grain sitting in buckets, feed in uncovered bins, and garbage in open cans. If feed has been left exposed, check it for droppings before serving it to your horses.
Droppings need not be fresh to be dangerous; the parasite can live outside a host and remain potentially infectious for as long as one year.
For the most part, opossums do not have rabies. In fact it is extremely rare if even possible for opossums to get rabies because their body temperature is too low for rabies to survive and replicate well. The usual reason people think they have rabies is the drooling that opossums do when approached and scared. For the most part though, opossums are all bark and no bite. When a ‘possum is approached, it will open its mouth widely, show you all of their teeth, and begin to drool excessively. Usually this pose is enough to intimidate anyone, and you will leave it alone. Even in baby opossums we do this defense mechanism. If pushed, cornered, poked, prodded, the opossum will bite, but it will never run after you, chase you, come towards you in an attacking way. No matter what you hear, opossums are not out there killing people’s dogs, or attacking children. They do not care about your dog, and they don’t want anything to do with your children. Opossums hope that they can bluff their way out of any human encounter, but it doesn’t always work.
If a person is bitten or scratched, immediately clean the wound by thoroughly scrubbing it with soap and water. Flush the wound liberally. A physician should examine all wounds caused by an opossum.
Reproduction And Family Structure
Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. The female carries and nurses her young (up to 13 at a time) in her pouch until they are about 2-3 months old.
Then they are carried another 1-3 months on her back when they are outside their den. They are omnivores that have been around since the days of the dinosaurs. They have 50 teeth, more than any other mammal, and their hind feet have thumbs, just like human hands.
Learning and discrimination tests rank them above dogs, and more on the level of pigs. They have a prehensile tail they use for balance when climbing or to carry leaves back to their den for bedding.
They do not, however, hang by their tail. They are solitary and nocturnal, preferring to avoid all confrontations. When cornered, they may hiss and growl or fall into an involuntary shock-like state (“playing possum”).
Mortality and Longevity
Unfortunately, few live beyond 1 year of age in the wild as they are killed by many predators: humans (and cars), dogs, cats, owls, and larger wildlife.
How To Help A Baby Opossum
If you find a small opossum that has been separated from its mother and its body is more than 8 inches long (not including the tail) it is old enough to be on its own! If it smaller than this or injured, it will need assistance.
If you have found a baby opossum, a young opossum with no mother, or you know the mother to be dead, here are a few guidelines:
KEEP YOUNG OPOSSUMS WARM. Place the opossums in a box lined with soft rags and close the lid. They are very good climbers, so make certain that the lid is secure. If you have a heating pad, turn it on low and place half the box on top of the pad.
Place the box in a warm, dark, quiet area away from people and pets.
Should you have to keep the baby opossums overnight until you can get them to a licensed rehabilitator, you may attempt to re-hydrate them, ONCE they have warmed up, you may make a 50/50 solution of either Pedialyte OR Gatorade and water. After the little opossums have warmed up, you can try to carefully give them drops of this warmed liquid with a syringe. Do not force them, if they won’t swallow. To do so can cause aspiration, which can be fatal.
Do not attempt to give them ANY type of formula or milk. If the baby opossums still have their eyes closed, they will need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate. After hydrating, gently wipe their genital area with a cotton ball, slightly moistened with warm water.
If the baby you have found is 4″ long or longer, has its eyes opened and isn’t lethargic, you may give it a little applesauce in a shallow lid. These emergency feeding instructions are only good for the 24-hour period it might take you to get the orphan to a licensed rehabilitator.
Food And Feeding Habitats
Opossums lived during the time of the dinosaurs and one reason for their continued survival is their ability to eat nearly anything.
Foods include fruits, nuts, grains, insects, slugs, snakes, frogs, birds, bird eggs, shellfish, mice, and carrion (dead animals).
Around human habitation, opossums also eat garbage, pet food, birdseed, poultry, and handouts.
A study of Portland Oregon’s opossum population found that small mammals (dead and alive) were the most important food in winter and spring, slugs in summer, and fruits in fall.
Because opossums eat many road-killed animals, including other opossums, they often become road kill themselves.
Because opossums accumulate little body fat for winter and don’t store food, they must forage year-round.
How To Remove A Opossum Found Indoors
Opossums tend to be fairly nomadic creatures. They don’t really “live” anywhere in particular for long, unless a food source is nearby that they wish to stay close to, or they find a particularly safe and warm home that has very little people/pet traffic. There are no public services that will come out to remove a perfectly healthy opossum from you yard or property. If you have an opossum living in your garage, barn, or anywhere else where he is unwanted, there is a very simple solution to this issue. Leave the opossum alone and set your alarm to wake you in the middle of the night – anytime after midnight and before dawn. When you get up, go look for the opossum and you will probably not find him. He will be out getting groceries, which makes for the perfect opportunity for you to evict him. While he is gone at night, make sure that you secure whatever entry the animal was using to get into your home, barn or garage. It doesn’t take much to deter an opossum. They do not attempt to chew through wire fencing that you might use to evict them. They do not attempt to dig under railroad ties, cement blocks, or anything else you might use to prevent their entry. Chances are, your opossum will come back to your home in the morning at dawn, see that he has been evicted, and just keep walking to a new place to sleep. These are not menacing, troublesome creatures. They are actually very amiable, and very easy to influence when you need them to move on. You will be surprised by how simple they are in comparison to any other species you may have conflict with. The problem is, people tend to be doubly scared of an opossum than they are of a raccoon, deer, or anything else. That fear keeps us from thinking logically and handling the situation humanely.