In the years since launching this website I have been the recipient of a great number of e-mails asking various questions about opossums. Many of them are the same, and to save myself time in writing numerous replies I have listed some of the most common questions below. Please consult this page before e-mailing your question. Should you have a question not listed here, feel free to write and ask. I am not a zoologist or an animal expert, but I’ll do my best to address any serious inquiry. Please be patient, though, as the ’Possum Pages is only one of my many projects. Thanks!
Is a possum and an opossum the same thing?
Yes and no. Throughout America the opossum is often referred to colloquially as a possum (similarly to the way some people refer to a potato as a tater or to a mosquito as a skeeter), but its actual name is opossum. When we refer to it by its colloquial name on this website, we usually add an apostrophe at the beginning to indicate the omission of the initial o: ’possum. But there really is an animal called a possum (without an initial o) that differs significantly from the North American opossum. The true possum is indigenous to Australia and looks quite unlike the American variety. You can see pictures of the Australian possum here, and there are also links to other possum websites on our links page.
What do opossums eat?
Opossums are not picky eaters and will consume almost anything, including table scraps and carrion. They do seem to have a particular fondness for cat food, however, especially the tinned varieties. Their normal diet consists of carrion, rodents, insects, frogs, and plants including fruits and grains.
How big can an opossum get?
Most are about the size of a large house cat, from 15 to 20 inches long. They generally weigh 10 to 13 pounds. This can vary, however, just as height and weight vary among humans. Some well-fed opossums can seem gargantuan, especially when they startle you on an evening walk.
Are opossums dangerous to pets?
Opossums will sometimes try to eat small critters such as mice, reptiles, amphibians, and even young kittens if other food is scarce. They will leave most larger animals alone and, in fact, are more likely to be harmed by a dog or full-grown cat than they are to inflict injury on them. They will rarely fight, despite putting up a fearsome display if threatened, and most likely will simply attempt to flee or play dead. The only animals that should avoid exposure to opossums are birds, horses, and sea otters. Strange as that may sound, if these animals ingest opossum feces they are at high risk of contracting a deadly disease known as sarcocystosis. (If you suspect an opossum may have entered a stable of horses, look for signs of their feces. You can find a photograph of opossum droppings by clicking here.)
Fish have been disappearing from my pond. Is an opossum responsible?
Not likely. Opossums are rather lazy and will always seek out readily available food whenever possible. It is not generally industrious enough to catch fish or try to attack an animal that might fight back. The disappearance of fish or chickens is more likely due to a racoon, fox, or badger. If you see an opossum eating your fish, most likely it came across the remains that another creature left behind on the bank.
Lately I have seen several holes in my yard. Is this the work of opossums?
No, opossums do not dig. They will often inhabit holes that were created by other animals, but they are themselves not miners. If you have holes in your yard, keep a lookout for armadillos, moles, groundhogs, or other digger critters.
I live in a large city. Was that really an opossum I saw in my dumpster?
It could well have been an opossum. Opossums have not restricted their range to rural areas and more and more can be found in densely populated urban environments. (I have even received reports of sightings from Brooklyn and Toronto.)
Last night I saw an opossum on top of a high fence. Can they jump or climb?
They cannot jump, but they are superb climbers. One should never hope to keep an opossum out of a yard with a mere fence. With their opposable thumbs and prehensile tail, they can scale practically any obstacle.
Opossums are nocturnal, but I saw one out during daylight. Is this normal?
Opossums are generally nocturnal, foraging throughout the night. But it is not at all unusual to see an opossum out during the daytime, especially during cold weather. They also can be seen in the day when food is scarce or when they have been disturbed from their sleeping quarters. The winter months will see many opossums change their foraging habits from night to day in order to try to take advantage of the warmer weather during sunlight hours.
Do opossums carry rabies?
Unlike most wild animals, opossums are highly resistant to rabies. It is extremely rare to encounter a rabid opossum, though if bitten or scratched by one, it is nevertheless advisable to see a physician immediately. Any opossum that would behave in such an uncharacteristic fashion must be assumed to be rabid.
Are opossums immune to the bite of rattlesnakes and copperheads?
Yes, they are highly resistant to snakebite, probably due to their low body temperature and metabolic rate.
What are male and female opossums called?
Male opossums are called jacks, and females are called jills. (Sound familiar?) The young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian cousins. A group of opossums is called a passel.
What kinds of noises does an opossum make?
Opossums are very quiet creatures. You are far more likely to see one long before hearing any noises from it. When threatened they often will hiss, much like a cat, and can make a low growling sound. Some have reported hearing opossums softly purring to their young, though I have never been so privileged. One person wrote me to say they’d once heard a young opossum mewing like a kitten, but it is the only such report I’ve received.
How many babies does an opossum have in each litter?
As with most mammals the number will vary, but generally opossums will give birth to between 6-25 young one to three times a year, usually between January and July. Most litters consist of 6 to 9 young. Of these no more than 13 will survive because the mother only has 13 teats with which to feed them. Each joey will latch onto a teat, and those who do not secure a place in their mother’s pouch will starve and die.
Photo courtesy of Berta & Alex Gilholm, St. Petersburg, FL. Used by permission.
Do opossums really mate through the nose?
This is a myth that has been around for ages and has become so prevalent that I actually have seen a few websites about opossums which state it as fact. The truth is, there is no truth to it. The whole crazy idea seems to have come about because the male opossum has a bifid (forked) penis, and the only corresponding parts on the female appreared to be the nostrils. The myth states that after mating through the nose, the female later sneezes the tiny fetuses into her pouch. Rather than indicating what a unique animal the opossum is, this story actually just reveals how bizarre some people are in what they can imagine! In reality the male has a bifid penis because the female has two uteri (wombs), and sperm are deposited into each womb during copulation. But mating occurs through the vaginae, not through the nose.
I have heard that opossums are deaf and/or blind. Is this true?
No. Neither their eyesight nor their hearing is particularly acute, but they can both see and hear.
What should I do with an injured opossum?
The best thing to do is to call a local veterinarian or animal control officer. Although opossums are rarely aggressive, any injured animal that is in pain may react unpredictably and should not be handled except by an expert.
What should I do with an orphaned baby opossum?
Again, it is best to consult with a local veterinarian or animal control officer for assistance. Also try to locate a rehabber in your area with experience in caring for orphaned animals. If you need to do the rehabbing yourself and aren’t sure what to do, find a rehabber in your area by going to the following directories:If you are unable to locate a rehabber from the above directories, try contacting one of the following experienced rehabbers who belong to the Imperial Order of the Opossum:Wildlife Rehabbers by State (Letters A-M)
Wildlife Rehabbers by State (Letters N-W)Also check with your local library to see if they have the book I Found a Baby Opossum, What Do I Do? by Dale Bick Carlson. If they don’t have it, they can probably get it for you through an interlibrary loan. You also can find copies by going to BookFinder.com. Though out of print, it is an excellent resource for those who wish to rehab an orphaned opossum.
How do I get rid of a bothersome opossum?
First of all, it is never necessary to kill the animal. The kindest way to remove an opossum is to set a Have-A-Heart trap baited with tinned cat food. These are harmless traps that can be obtained at many hardware or farm supply stores or from some rent-all establishments. Once the opossum has been captured, it can be taken to a remote area and released. Even this is generally not necessary, however, because opossums are transient animals, usually staying in a particular area only a few days at a time and then moving on. The best way to avoid being “bothered” by an opossum is simply to make sure no food is available to them. Don’t leave out pet food or table scraps and make sure your trash cans are fully closed. With no food available in your yard, they will simply go search elsewhere.
An opossum got in my house through the back door. How do I remove it?
If there is no time to call animal control, you may be able to coax it out with a broom. Try to avoid hurting the animal, but simply attempt just to urge him along. Sometimes they can become quite stubborn and hide under a table or couch, looking very fearsome by baring their 50 teeth. I once removed an opossum from a neighbor’s house by cautiously picking it up by the tail, but I did have on heavy gloves. Opossums usually will not bite, but they certainly can if given the opportunity. It is difficult for them when held by the tail to curl back enough to reach the holder’s hand, but this is not a method I would recommend for a novice. If possible, leave the door open awhile, perhaps with some cat food just outside the threshold, and wait to see if he leaves on his own. If it is cold out, you may have a long wait. An animal control officer is your best bet if you are anxious for him to depart.
Do opossums make good pets?
Generally speaking, no. But there are exceptions. Animals are like people in that no two are alike. Some people have kept opossums as pets and enjoyed their company very much. Usually the best pets are those rescued when very young. A full-grown opossum will rarely adapt well to captivity. As a rule, however, keeping opossums as pets is not recommended. You also should check your local and state or provincial laws to be sure whether it is legal to do so in your area before attempting this.
Where can I buy an opossum?
The only place I know of that sells pet opossums is Brighten Farms of Marshall, Indiana.* But bear in mind that in some states it is illegal to buy, sell, or keep opossums. You should always check your local laws before pursuing the purchase of an opossum. I know of no one who sells opossum meat, but believe it or not, I once had a meat wholesaler from the Orient write to ask me where he could buy quantities of opossum to import to his country! I could not find a legal source for opossum meat in the U.S.
How far north do opossums range?
The range of the opossum seems to be ever expanding. They can be found in almost every state in the U.S. (excepting some of the arid regions), portions of Mexico, and in several Canadian provinces (including as far north as Toronto). They also inhabit urban as well as rural areas. It would appear that their capacity for expansion is almost limitless.
What are the natural predators of opossums?
Many animals happily ignore the gentle opossum, and there have been many reports of pet cats making friends with neighborhood opossums. Their natural enemies, though, are foxes, coyotes, dogs, bobcats, and owls. But even more than these natural predators, their greatest enemy in the modern world is the automobile.
Do opossums hibernate during winter?
Opossums do not hibernate. Their greatest challenge during winter, especially in colder climates, is simply to survive. Very often opossums will alter their foraging habits during winter, coming out during the day when it is warmer rather than at night. It is not uncommon for opossums in northern regions to suffer frostbite during extremely cold periods. Their tails are particularly susceptible to frostbite as they have no fur covering to protect them. Sometimes opossums can be found relocating to basements or garages in order to escape the cold. The only way to prevent this is to make sure all openings are fully covered.
Did opossums really write the poetry on your poetry page?
Of course not. These poems are presented merely as a form of lighthearted entertainment, though perhaps if they really could write they would compose poetry similar to that found there.
Do you have any recipes for cooking opossum?
If I did, I wouldn’t give them to you. Although some people do eat opossum (it is said to taste a lot like pork), I simply don’t subscribe to the idea. One word of caution, however, to those who insist on trying to make a meal of the critter: Opossums should not simply be killed and eaten because they do sometimes consume carrion. Instead, they should be captured and fed table scraps and other clean food until the carrion is out of their system. Also bear in mind that a small cadre of renegade opossums has been known to have sought out people who have eaten their compatriots and lay seige to their dwelling. Armed with crude but efficient crossbows, they may shoot arrows into the car tires or capture and hold hostage the pets of the offending citizens.
* Note that there have been several complaints filed with the Indiana State Attorney General’s Office about Brighten Farms. I do not know the outcome of these complaints or whether they are legitimate. I simply stress Caveat Emptor.
For questions not addressed here, or for comments and corrections of the above, contact Possum Pop.
Copyright © 1998-2007 by John Craton.