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September 06, 2019

All About Opossum

By Lauren Hogarth

Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. They live everywhere except for the Rocky Mountains, plains of the west, and areas in the northernmost region. Opossums live in solidarity and are mostly nocturnal. They are distant relatives of the kangaroo; however, opossums are much slower and produce a nauseating smell when threatened. The opossum can survive in a wide range of conditions and locations due to their flexible diets and reproductive tendencies. If you are potentially dealing with an infestation, removal should be handled by a professional.

Opossums can reach up to 40 inches in length, which is about the size of the average housecat. Their bodies are covered in grayish-white hair. Opossums have a narrow, pointed face with hairless ears and a bald, rat-like tail. Additionally, the female opossum has a pouched stomach for holding their young.

Although the general public may use the terms “opossum” and “possum” interchangeably, they are different. A possum is a term used to describe a marsupial found in New Zealand, Australia, and China though they happen to be similar in appearance.

Habits

As mentioned before, opossums are nocturnal marsupials, which means that they are mainly active after dark. They are typically known to live in solidarity when they are not actively breeding. Though they prefer to travel by land, opossums are also skilled swimmers and can use their opposable rear thumbs and long tails to climb trees and other structures effectively.

Opossums enjoy a diet of grains, fruits, and insects, but will also eat out of garbage cans, compost piles, and pet food dishes if easily accessible. They will even eat fish, birds, and other mammals if need be.

Opossums usually bear two to three litters each year, with an average of seven young per litter. Like many marsupials, the newborn young spend their first several weeks of life in their mother’s pouch. After this period, young opossums will leave their mothers in search of their own home.

Opossums do not hibernate through the winter. Their greatest challenge, especially in colder climates, is simply to survive. In many cases, opossums will alter their foraging and sleeping habits during the winter months, coming out during the day instead. It is not uncommon for opossums in northern states to suffer from frostbite during these frigid periods. Their tails are particularly susceptible to frostbite as they have no fur to protect them.

Habitat

Opossums will seek out pre-existing structures such as hollow logs, tree cavities, brush piles, garages, or animal burrows when looking for a place to live. They are partial to environments near swamps or streams but also can survive in diverse areas, ranging from moist to arid, open fields to forests. Opossums will always prefer to make a home with proximity to water and food.

Threats

Though not dangerous to humans, opossums do cause somewhat of a structural risk. Opossums can den in garages and attics where they will construct a messy nest. They can also tear insulation and ductwork if they gain access to the interior of a home. When searching for food, they can also damage lawns. Opossums may destroy the nests of game birds and poultry. When startled, they tend to bare their sharp teeth and hiss.

Although the lifestyle habits and overall appearance of opossums make them seem like prime hosts for rabies, they are not. Their body temperature is too low to house the disease, and it is only in rare cases that they can contract it. However, opossums can carry an array of other conditions; this includes, but is not limited to, leptospirosis, tularemia, and tuberculosis. They may also become infested with mites and fleas, especially in urban regions.

Opossums have been known to “play possum” when startled or harmed; this can give a witness the impression that the opossum is diseased. They play possum by drawing back their lips, baring their teeth, producing saliva and foaming around their mouth, as well as secreting a foul-smelling substance from the glands of their anus. Rather than a sign of disease, this act is a natural defense mechanism. In other moments of extreme distress, opossums are known to play dead.

Opossum Removal

To prevent an opossum from shacking up in a home or other structure, homeowners should always store trash and compost in sealed bins with animal-proof lids, preferably in a locked shed or outbuilding. It is good practice to bring pet food dishes inside at night to avoid attracting not only opossums but other nuisance wildlife as well. Homeowners should also remove other apparent sources of food from the property, such as fallen berries and fruits. It is imperative to inspect the outside of the home or structure(s) for holes and access points, such as broken vent covers. To further limit opossum accessibility to a home, tree branches hanging near roofing should be trimmed, as opossums are skilled climbers and leapers.

If you suspect an opossum infestation in your home, contact a licensed pest control professional to conduct an inspection and work with you to develop an opossum treatment plan. Opossum removal techniques, such as traps and fencing, may be used. A professional can also provide more helpful opossum facts that can help prevent future infestations.

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