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May 6, 2013

What to Do About Opossums

A gentle wild neighbor, the opossum is our only marsupial and is rarely guilty of more than "playing 'possum."

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

  • Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. iStockphoto.com

Opossums get a bum rap. They often get blamed for things that they don't do—like tipping over garbage cans. (It's most likely the neighborhood dogs or maybe an energetic raccoon who provides a nice smorgasbord which the opossums enjoy, too.)

But like the kid who doesn't run as fast as some of the others, they are the ones always getting caught.


Common problems and solutions

Rabies
Resources

Common problems and solutions

Opossums usually don't get into garbage cans or gardens, but they might stop to clean up the mess left by other wayward critters, and get the blame. The have been accused of killing chickens, but that happens very rarely. Most people complain about opossums just being there, rather than for any problems they cause.

Tolerance

If there is an opossum in the yard, don't worry. He is not a threat, and more than likely he will be moving on in a short while. The best way to keep them from visiting is to have tight-fitting lids on garbage cans, and not to leave any pet food outside overnight. Remember to pick up any fruit that has fallen from trees.

But far from being a nuisance, opossums can be beneficial for your garden, eating snails, slugs, insects, and sometimes even small rodents. They’ll even clean up spilled garbage as well as that fallen fruit off trees.

Opossum are not aggressive, although their open-mouth, defensive hissing may make them appear that way. But they are only bluffing and trying to look vicious as a defense. And if that doesn’t work they play dead when really scared!

How to keep opossums out

The best way to keep opossums from living (denning) under a deck or patio is to make sure they cannot get there in the first place. To find out if an opossum has moved in, loosely fill the hole with soil, leaves, straw, or crumpled newspaper. If she is in there, the opossum will push her way out and reopen the hole. If nothing happens for two or three nights, it is safe to assume that no one is inside, and hole can be filled.

To keep an opossum out that has moved in, wait until she leaves her den (two hours after dark is generally a safe time). Then loosely close the opening with netting, straw, or other fibrous material that an animal trapped inside can push away, but one outside will not bother to disturb to get back in. Opossum moms take their kids wherever they go, so there is not much chance that any babies will be left behind. But always check for youngsters before closing the opening. For permanent exclusion we recommend putting in an "L" footer.

Every now and then, an opossum will get into a house through a pet door. Provide them a way out by closing the doors to all rooms and open the doors to the outside. Opossum are usually not aggressive, so you may be able to help them on their way by gently nudging them with a broom.

Rabies

People often mistake the open-mouth hissing and drooling behavior of opossums as a sign of rabies. However, this is just a bluffing behavior that opossums use as a defense mechanism and does not indicate a sick animal. In fact, rabies is extremely rare in opossums, perhaps because they have a  lower body temperature than other warm-blooded animals.

Resources

» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors, the go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with urban wildlife.
» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife-conflict resolution service. Learn More
» The Opossum Society of the United States

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