Common Name: Opossum
Latin Name: Didelphis virginiana
Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. Some families will group together in ready-made burrows or even under houses. Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own. As nocturnal animals, they favor dark, secure areas. These areas may be below ground or above.
When threatened or harmed, they will “play possum”, mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to “play dead” when threatened. When “playing possum”, the animal’s lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes, close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. Their stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of between 40 minutes and 4 hours, a process which begins with slight twitching of the ears.
Adult opossums do not hang from trees by their tails, as sometimes depicted, though babies may dangle temporarily. Their semi-prehensile tails are not strong enough to support a mature adult’s weight. Instead, the opossum uses its tail as a brace and a fifth limb when climbing. The tail is occasionally used as a grip to carry bunches of leaves or bedding materials to the nest. A mother will sometimes carry her young upon her back, where they will cling tightly even when she is climbing or running.
Threatened opossums (especially males) will growl deeply, raising their pitch as the threat becomes more urgent. Males make a clicking “smack” noise out of the side of their mouths as they wander in search of a mate, and females will sometimes repeat the sound in return. When separated or distressed, baby opossums will make a sneezing noise to signal their mother. If threatened, the baby will open its mouth and quietly hiss until the threat is gone.
Hissing or squawking is a defensive process that helps the opossum deter other animals from approaching it.
Opossums are usually classified as a pest species due to their habits of scavenging and living in attics and under houses. The most common complaints include the following:
Opossums living in the attic
Opossums living under deck or house
Dead opossum on property or roadside
Stealing pet food or bird seed
Sick, potentially dangerous opossum
Presence is alarming dogs/pets
For these reasons, many people wish to have this nuisance animal trapped and removed.
HOW DO I GET RID OF OPOSSUMS? The best way is physical trapping and removal. The good news is that opossums are relatively easy to catch. They’re not very bright (I once read that they’ve got the lowest brain mass to body mass ratio of any mammal) and they scavenge for food, so they’re easily caught. However, as usual, trapping carries many intangibles. If you’ve got an opossum under your shed, will you catch the target animal, or a stray cat? Will you be able to legally relocate the animal? Will you take the proper safety precautions? Is it legal for you to do so in your state? Etc. For safety and legal reasons, and because wildlife control is a specialty, and complex field, recommend that you hire a professional wildlife control operator to help you with your opossum issue. You want a specialist who works with wild animal removal.
Biology: (Didelphis virginiana)Possums look somewhat like giant rats, with their pointed snouts and skinny, naked tails. They are in fact North America’s only marsupial (like kangaroos, they raise their young in a pouch). Adults average 10-14 lbs. They don’t live very long, rarely more than two years, three max. They mate in January, and then the tiny young climb into the pouch and grow, then cling to the mother’s back, then drop off and lead a life on their own. Opossums are omnivores, which means that they eat anything. They are nocturnal. They have the most teeth of any mammal (50), a prehensile tail, opposable thumbs, the male has a bifurcated penis, and they have incredible immune systems.
BEHAVIOR: Possums are nomadic and opportunistic animals. They sometimes establish a home base, especially a female with young, and often live in human structures. They rummage around at night for food, and will eat pretty much anything, but prefer meat, and even rotting carcasses. They are not very fast, and will stand their ground when threatened, bearing their 50 sharp teeth. In dire circumstances, they will sometimes feign death, or “play possum” – they fall over, tongue hanging out, etc. It may be more an act of passing out from sheet terror as opposed to a grand act. Opossums can, if they wish, hang from their tails, but they very rarely do this.
NUISANCE CONCERNS: Because they are opportunistic scavengers, they can come into conflict with people and cause various problems. They’ll steal garbage, pet food, etc. They can distress pets, and if a dog corners one, it can get a nasty bite. They can spread fleas and other parasites. Most of all, they often like to live in human structures, such as under sheds or decks, and they very commonly live inside of attics. When an opossum lives in an attic, it makes the attic its personal toilet, and leave a lot of droppings. They can also cause destruction in houses and attics. In addition, possums very frequently die inside buildings, inside the attic or walls, and the smell of a rotting opossum body is horrible.
DISEASES: Opossums actually don’t often carry rabies. They have a lower than average body temperature, and the virus doesn’t survive well. They do carry a large amount of parasites, however, and thus are vectors for the diseases that fleas, ticks, etc can transmit. They also leave a lot of droppings, which pose the usual excrement health risks, such as leptospirosis or Salmonella.
HABITATS: Possums are very common in urban areas, more common, in fact, than in wild areas. They are often nomadic, so sometimes they’ll just wander about from place to place. But they do oftentimes choose to live in one place for a long time, and they especially seem to like man-made structures. I often find posum in the house, and as stated, I very commonly find them in attics. They seem to really like living in the walls of homes, and they often live under houses, where they can climb up the walls or the hole under the bathtub outlet. I’ve also seen possum in the basement. They love sheds, decks, or any small area they can climb under. They frequently get under mobile homes or trailer homes.
CAN’T I JUST USE A REPELLENT? There is no registered or effective opossum repellent available. You can find some products on the market, such as mothball-based or urine-based repellents, but they are bogus. Go ahead and try them. And those high-pitch noisemakers? The FTC has issued a warning against them – ultrasonic sound emitters do not work. There is no quick and easy fix when it comes to opossum control. It’s best to have a professional trap and remove the animals properly. Here is my full analysis of possum repellant.