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I Found An Opossum?

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!   While opossums may not be the cutest wildlife, they are certainly one of the most interesting!  They are the only marsupial in all of North America, meaning the female will carry and nurse her young in her pouch where they will remain until about two to three months of age.  The mother opossum has 13 teats to which each baby will attach itself for the duration.  She may give birth to upwards of 20 babies but only the first 13 to reach a nipple will have any chance of survival.   Once the babies reach 2 to­ 3 months of age they begin to wander outside the pouch returning to nurse.  The mother will travel with all babies clinging to her back as she forages for food.  At this time they will begin to eat solids and by 4 months of age they are typically on their own.

Opossums eat a wide variety of foods and are classified as omnivores.  Their diet consists of insects, earthworms, snails, grubs, small rodents, birds, snakes and frogs as well as many types of vegetables and fruits.

There’s little concern for rabies in opossums.  While any mammal can get rabies it is EXTREMELY RARE for an opossum to contract the virus and it is speculated that it might be due to the opossum’s low body temp (94 -­ 97°) making it difficult for the virus to survive.

Opossums have 50 teeth, the most of any North American land mammal but they rarely use them in defense as they are not truly aggressive animals.   One of their main defenses however is to sit up to make themselves look bigger and open their mouth wide showing off all those of teeth!  When cornered or picked up they will try to bite & often urinate or defecate & release a pea­green secretion from the paracloacal glands located at the base of the tail.  In the case of an extreme threat such as a predator attack the opossum may fake it’s death or “play possum” (which is how this behavior coined the phrase).  They will curl up with eyes and mouth open, teeth exposed & drooling.  Poking & shaking will not revive the animals from this catatonic state in which may last for minutes up to several hours.  If you find what appears to be a dead opossum do not dispose of or bury the body for a day,  giving it a chance to escape if truly alive.

Another interesting fact about opossums is their prehensile tail which aids in balance and grasping things as in nest building. They do not hang from their tail however.  Similar to a primate, opossums have an opposable digit on their hind feet. Because of their imperative need for calcium, they will eat the carcass bones of roadkill.  

Opossums are extremely shy and non aggressive and while their brains are very small,  they actually ranked higher than rats, rabbits, dogs & cats when it comes to finding food and remembering where it was found.   They even scored higher than rats and cats in their ability to solve maze problems.    Visual discrimination tests have even proved the ability to differentiate between different colors, geometric forms & patterns.  They can even learn to tell tell the difference in black vs. white.  

Opossums are primarily nocturnal, searching for food from dusk to dawn.   However they may be active during the day  in colder weather when food is more scarce and a greater caloric intake is needed for survival.   This may be a time when a cornered, scared and hungry opossum would defend itself to a dog or cat trying to feed from the same dish.  

Opossums do not dig their own dens but will occupy abandoned dens, rock crevices, crawl spaces under houses, attics, hollow trees and other dark hidden spaces.  Their dens are usually temporary unless a food source remains in this location.

If you feed other animals outdoors pick up the food in the evening and the opossum will move on.  This is also true to discourage other nocturnal wildlife from rummaging thru your trash cans and outdoor feed containers.   

When human intervention is necessary:

Always wear gloves when handling any wild animal to minimize risk of disease/parasitic transmission.

If you find an opossum that is 8” or longer (excluding the tail), it is old enough to be on its own.  

There are usually 3 cases in which opossum babies need human help:

  1)  The mother is found dead ­ babies may be in her pouch, clinging to her or wandering around confused usually within 50’ of the mother.

  2)  Baby (or babies) fall off of the mother

  3)  Mother is injured preventing mobility.

Babies that are separated from their mother will usually makes sounds like wheezing or sneezing to catch the attention of the mother.  These very young babies that are not able to regulate their body temperature need to be rescued or they will most likely die from hypothermia & then starvation, dehydration, be hit by a car or eaten by predators.

IT IS CRITICAL THAT THEY BE WARMED GENTLY. The most immediate way to do this is to wrap them in a cloth and hold them against your body until you can create an artificial source of warmth i.e.:

   1) Fill a plastic bottle with warm water, seal the end and wrap a towel around it & lay the baby (s) against it.

   2) Put a small piece of fleece in a small box & place the box on top of a heating pad SET ON LOW HEAT.  

   3) Contact a licensed wildlife rehabber immediately and take further instructions at that time.

Each hour you wait to contact help diminishes the chances of survival for the baby DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FEED unless otherwise indicated by a licensed rehabber.


(Please see additional directions on warming the animal here.)

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