What Are Opossums Really Like?

Opossums are one of the most misunderstood animals in the world….did I just say “in the world???” Yes, opossums are one of the most misunderstood animal in the world. I realize that is a very big claim for such a common animal that lives throughout most of North America, but these little guys are fascinating little creatures that you may not know as well as you think you did!

Opossum vs. Possum

Though they may be common, opossums are pretty unique but lets clear up something before we dig in. Many people are not sure which is correct, is it “opossum” or “possum”? Unless you are dealing with the grammar police, either one is acceptable. However, to be correct, “opossum” is used when referring to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), the native of North America. When referring to those marsupials that live in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and other parts of the Pacific region, “possum” is correct. While both animals share many traits such as being marsupials, both are nocturnal and both will play dead, they are in fact, different species.

The difference between Opossums & Possums
The difference between Opossums & Possums

Just What Makes Opossums So Misunderstood?

I look at opossums as Nature’s little underdog. These dudes have such a bad reputation as “vicious” and “ferocious” but this could not be farther from the truth. Perhaps the main reason people think opossums are out to kill is because their nature of, when they get scared they will open their mouth wide, lean back and growl like the spawn of satan…or at least most of them will. 

Opossums are like people, they are not all the same. There are some that are crazy and there are some are so gentle it is hard to believe they can survive. But even the craziest opossums still get so incredibly scared so easily, that I have made it my life’s mission to look after these guys best I can. 

I find it funny that people insist on telling me how vicious opossums are. If you look at my Youtube channel you will see many, many videos of me holding opossums like cats. Yet, still after people see me kissing opossums and LITERALLY holding them, they will say things like “Yeah, well just don’t corner them there suckers!” To which I say “I am LITERALLY holding it in my arms and it is not biting me! What will putting it down in a corner do to make it vicious?”

The conversation will often end with something like “Yeah, well I know…I grew up on a farm.”  This proclamation of “I grew up on a farm” seems to be the statement from many people that although they grew up on a farm, their notion of many animals is wildly incorrect. 

Yes, I admit that opossums do put on quite a show when they get scared.  But given that they are horrible at fighting and protecting themselves, putting on a great big giant puff show is the difference between life and death. 

I want to emphasize, while I am telling you that opossums are gentle animals and you see pictures and videos of me holding them and even kissing them, if you try this, you will MOST LIKELY GET BIT! I have worked with opossums since 1993 and have handled many an opossum. I have learned how to handle them, what to do and what not to do. And again, just like people, some are easy and some are tough. 

But the general demeanor of opossums are a very gentle nature. They really just go about their night, avoiding any conflict. Though when it arises, their defense is to rear up, slobber, growl and show some teeth…and if this does not work, they will pass out. 

I’ve known some pretty tough people in my life. I have even knows some tough animals in my life but I am yet to find either that has “passing out” in their list of defenses. 

So I urge you, do not fall for the bluff. If you find yourself face to face with an opossum, there is no need for you to kill the opossum and there is rarely a need to trap and remove the opossum. My daughters like to make the joke, what do you do when you are being chased by zombies? You walk away…this is in reference to zombie shows where people cannot seem to get away from slowly walking zombies. It would seem if you just walked away, you would be fine. Although here in Florida we have a saying; when being chased by an alligator you do not need to be fast, you only need to be faster than the person you are with. No need to be fearful of being chased by a gator…they don’t really chase people. They just decide or pounce, or not to pounce…there is no chase.

But back to opossums, please understand that opossums will not chase you. They just won’t. If you think you were being chased by an opossum, you are most likely mistaken. There are many times (especially with snakes) when animals feel like they are cornered and have no other option of escape than to dash in the direction of “the attacker”. Incorrectly so, the animals is blamed for “attacking when cornered” when really, the animal felt threatened, wanted to escape and you were in it’s way. I know…I get it…it makes a better story to tell someone that you were nearly attacked by an opossum. But if you tell me you were attacked by an opossum, I may laugh a little bit…I know there is more to the story. 

Opossums have it covered on all fronts…they show their teeth, they growl, they slobber, they even emite a horribly foul smelling green liquid out of their anus…and if push comes to shove, they just pass out. Perhaps all of these things should tip us off that this animal is not one of ferocity. If an animal is such a good fighter, does God really equip it with so many tools of self defense? I struggle to find another animal with such defense mechanisms but yet can fight like the devil. I’m not sure such an animal exists. When animals have such good defenses, it is typically because they are not aggressive. 

The opossum has done a pretty good job at fooling the world…almost too good. But that is the risk you take when you are a bluffer. If you act like you are tough, even though you are not, on occasion, someone will challenge you. But this also goes to the bully theory where in order to escape the wrath of the bully one must stand up to the bully. This is what opossums do…which scares the heck out of them. So much that if the bluff doesn’t work they will literally pass out cold. 

Imagine that; you have two defenses in a world that is either trying to eat you or kill you because they think you are going to eat them. You have no fighting skills but you look tough. But behind the bluff is an animal trembling in fear. The opossum is in so much fear if is on the brink of unconsciousness.  

It is disturbing how many people over the years have told me with pride how they kill every opossum they see. They kick them. They hit them with shovels. They swerve their car to hit them. And even when these people are told that the opossums are harmless, people can be so stupid as to tell me I am wrong or that they “grew up on a farm and know better”. It’s not just an ignorance, it is an insidious cruelty of which they are so proud. 

Where most people will see the opossum growling out of ferocity, I see it more like Curly on the 3 Stooges. Whenever Curly was scared or startled he would let out a sort of a “Ah Ah Ah” kind of noise. It was because he was scared, not because he was about to attack. It is the same way with opossums.

Do Opossums Make Good Pets?

The short answer is no, Opossums do not make good pets. One of the biggest reasons is that it is illegal to own an opossum in most states. But the reality is that there are not police, fish and game or department of natural resource officers running around looking to bust people with illegal opossum. But while it is not likely you will get caught, it is possible and would most likely end with your loved pet opossum being euthanized.

To me personally, the biggest reason you should not own an opossum is because they do not always make good pets. There are exceptions. You see on Facebook lots of videos with cute and cuddly opossums…but you rarely see what is more common; not all opossums become house cat-like.

Having a pet opossum that can be handled requires a dedication to constantly handling the animal. These needs to happen from a very, very young age.

Even when handled from a very young age, there is no guarantee that the opossum will be easy to handle. You may be raising an animal that will not want to be handled. This is cute when they are young but it is a different story when you now have a full grown opossum that does not want to be handled.

Another problem happens when you begin with great intentions. You hold your opossum everyday but it is still not calling down. And during all of this, you are getting scratched like crazy, not because they want to scratch but opossums always need to feel secure. Anytime you try to move an opossum it will try to hold on to whatever it can, so be prepared to have your forearms constantly scratched up. And depending on the opossum, be prepared for an occasional bite.

The truth is, as much as I love opossums…opossums smell. Most opossums can be litter trained which makes things easier, but there is still a smell that is very “opossumy”. You will need to be prepared to have an enclosure that you will need to clean often.

The saddest truth about opossums as pets is that many times someone will get an opossum with the best intentions of raising it as a loving pet. But when the reality of having a pet opossum sets in and they decide they cannot keep it, they find there are very few options for where the opossum can go. This normally results in the opossum being released into the wild. But what really just happened is that you just let an animal go into the wild that has been cared for its entire life; now, out in the wild the opossum has not idea how to take care of itself. Add to that that opossums are horrible at defending themselves even when they are wildlife, being raised by humans makes an opossums new in the wild a sitting duck.

9 Opossums Facts

  1. Opossums are the only North American marsupial

When most people think about marsupials, they think about kangaroos. Well, the kangaroo is a close relative of the opossum. While they may look different and live on different sides of the planet, both kangaroos and opossums keep their babies in pouches.

The Virginia opossum is the only opossum in North America. However, when you begin to travel south through Mexico you run into about 103 or more different opossum species.

Remember, “opossums” are in the Western Hemisphere (North, Central and South America”. “Possums” are in Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia.

2. Opossums are the only North American animal with a prehensile tail

The opossum has a “naked tail” which makes it look like a rat’s tail. However, a rat’s tail is not prehensile like the opossum’s is. But because of this prehensile tail, there is an old wive’s tale that opossums hang or even sleep by their tail. While the opossum can hang by their tail, they don’t. If you see one hanging by its tail, it is because someone put the opossum there and then took a picture. 

Opossum playing dead
Opossum playing dead

Opossums are known to carry nesting materials around with their tails. I recall seeing one carrying dried leaves around with her tail. Otherwise it is used for balance or as a 5 appendage for hanging on.

Opossums use their tail as a fifth hand
Opossums use their tail as a fifth hand

3. Opossums are the only animal with opposable thumbs

Opposable thumbs are great because it allows one to grasp things better since the opposable thumb can touch the pointer finger. Though it is on the rear feet, it still allows opossums to better grab things.

The only other animals with opposable thumbs are primates, the waxy monkey tree frog, panda bear, koala bear and sugar glider…and you too…probably.

Opossums opposable thumb
Opossums opposable thumb

4. Opossums do not carry rabies

While there are a small handfull of accounts of opossums with rabies, rabies is very, very rare. The opossum’s body temperature is too low to harbor the rabies virus.

5. Opossums love to eat ticks

Opossums are omnivores and will eat just about anything, however they are famous for eating ticks. Eating up to 5000 or so a season, these guys are pretty impressive when it comes to combating Lyme disease. God bless the person that followed an opossum around for a year counting how many ticks the mite muncher ate. 

Opossums love to eat ticks
Opossums love to eat ticks

6. Opossums only live 1-2 years

It is tough to believe but opossums just do not live very long. Given their lack of a real ability to protect themselves and their inhability to cross streets safely, it’s no wonder opossums do not live very long. But even in captivity, opossums older than 2 years are very uncommon. 

7. Opossums faint when they get scared-beyond their control

Many kids have been accused of “playing opossum” by their parents as they pretend to sleep, hoping to get out of some chore or having to do something…I know I am guilty of it. 

Opossum playing dead
Opossum playing dead

Opossums are famous for well, playing opossum. However, they are not playing. Opossums will sometimes play dead when confronted by a potential predator. But this is not voluntary. Opossums have no control on when and where they will play opossum. And when they do pass out, they are out cold. When an opossum is playing dead, they are unconscious to the world around them. Not only are they passed out, they will almost stick their tongue out and open their mouth to make them look more grotesque. But the icing on the cake is the foul smelling, icky green fluid they leak out of their anus. Ew.

Opossums are immune to most snake bites. Though they seem to do pretty well with the pit vipers, which in North America are rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. They do not fare was well with the shy and elusive coral snake. It would be this author’s opinion that this was to do with the pit vipers have a hemotoxic venom, which attacks the blood and tissue, and the coral snake having neurotoxic venom, which attack the nervous system.

Given that coral snake sighting are very rare and even when held, most coral snakes will not try to bite and rattlesnakes and cottonmouths are more common and will strike like the dickens’ this venom immunity thing seems to go to the favor of the opossum.

8. They are clean animals

Don’t be fooled by the foul green anal leakage. Don’t be fooled but eh dirt you may see around the edges of the beast itself. Opossums are actually quite clean animals and bath themselves often. It can be tough to keep one’s self clean when you live in the wild but opossums really do their best.

I’ve raised opossums over the years and it was as common to see them bathing themselves as it was to see my dogs bathing themselves, if not more.

9. Unique Reproductive System

Since opossums are mammals, they give birth to live young. Those young, about the size of a bean travel from the vagina after birth and into the pouch. Once in the pouch, they must find a nipple in which to attach themselves. Mother opossums rarely have more than 13 nipples so if she births more than 13 babies, it is unlikely that any more than 13 will survive. 

Most animals as large as opossums have smaller litter sizes.  This could be related to the high mortality rate and short lifespan of opossums. 

As the babies grow, they begin to pop out of the pouch. Eventually, they become old enough to venture outside of the pouch where they then begin to travel with mom by hanging on with four handfuls of fur.

The babies soon begin to leave the safety of mom as they head off on their own. 

As with most marsupials, the Virgina opossum female has two vaginal tracts and even have two uteri. Not to be outdone, the males have a forked penis, though the technical word is “bifurcated”.

One more interesting fact about opossum genitalia that you can share at your next party is that unlike most animals, opossums have their scrotum above their penis rather than below it. This is also a trait found in Lagomorphs, you know, bunnies.

Are Marsupials Mammals?

And finally, I keep getting corrected on this…marsupials are also mammals. On many of my opossum Youtube videos I refer to opossums as “North America’s only marsupial” as well as being “the only mammal in North America with a prehensile tail”. Yet, I cannot tell you how often people attempt to correct me, telling me that they [opossums] “are MARSUPIALS, not mammals. 

Slow down lil’ tiger…marsupials ARE mammals. Now get back into biology class, looks like we still have some learnin’ to do.

This concludes today’s lesson on the most awesome opossum. I hope that after learning something here, next time you see an opossum, you wish it well and be safe, I recommend blowing a kiss rather than an actual kiss. 

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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