Opossums, sometimes inaccurately called possums, are North America’s only native marsupial. Possums are actually a species of marsupial native to Australia, New Zealand, and China.
Though they’ve gotten a bad reputation among people, they are actually one of nature’s best vacuum cleaners — killing up to 5,000 ticks per season, including those that spread Lyme disease.
Opossums are beneficial and will also eat garden snails and slugs as well as cockroaches, rodents, snakes, and dead animals. You might actually want them hanging around, but if you’re curious, you can identify opossums by their nests, footprints, and droppings.
Most opossums build their nests using sticks and whatever else is available — their nests appear untidy rather than woven or stacked. Their footprints resemble a child’s hand prints and their droppings, while of average shape and size, can sometimes be found near garden beds.
What do Opossums Look Like?
The Virginia opossum, also called the North American or common opossum, grows to be about the size of a large cat. They have pointed snouts and nearly hairless, prehensile tails that they use for climbing. They also have prehensile thumbs called hallux on their hands and feet which also aid in climbing.
Their fur is gray or white in color and they have white faces with round, black eyes. They have 50, small, sharp teeth in their mouths — more than any other land mammal in North America.
How to Identify Opossum Nests
Opossums will den in tree hollows or abandoned dens as well as under decks and porches. They build their nests using sticks, and whatever else they can find, which they loosely pile together in an untidy fashion.
If you find one living under your house, consider leaving it alone. It’s likely keeping tick and other pest populations under control in your area. If you’re worried about fleas, which can be a problem with opossums, consider starting flea prevention.
The North American opossum ranges from Canada all the way South as far as Nicaragua and Honduras. They are flexible about their habitats and can adapt to urban environments as easily as forests and swamps.
How to Identify Opossum Footprints
Opossum footprints closely resemble that of a human child, with odd separation between the thumb and forefinger. They spread their toes out when they walk, making tracks that look like little hand prints.
If you think you have opossums living under your house or deck, you can sprinkle a layer of flour near the area just before dark. Leave it alone for a little bit and examine shortly after dark. Since opossums are nocturnal, you want to give them time to emerge around dusk and check for tracks afterwards.
How to Identify Opossum Droppings
Opossum droppings are not as easily identified as their footprints. They have an average size and shape because of the omnivorous nature of opossums. Though scat can sometimes be found near garden beds, opossums prefer to leave droppings in more protected areas, like under brush.
If you do find opossum droppings, take care when handling. Opossum feces can transmit leptospirosis, which is a bacterial disease with early symptoms that often mimic the flu. If left untreated it can cause kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and respiratory complications. Leptospirosis can infect pets too.
Wear gloves and dispose of bagged droppings in the trash outside. Practice proper hand washing directly after handling opossum droppings.
What do Opossums Eat?
Opossums are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation. In fact, they will eat almost anything, including ticks, cockroaches, small mammals like rodents, garden plants, dead animals and garbage. Opossums eat many Lyme disease carrying ticks — up to 5,000 in a season.
And while they are beneficial and keep pest populations under control, if they can get into your trash, they will. Make sure to keep outdoor trash cans secure with tight-fitting lids.
Are Opossums Dangerous?
While opossums are not aggressive toward humans, they have been known to pick fights with pets. And like most wild animals, will defend themselves when cornered or threatened, and those shark-like teeth are sharp.
“Playing possum.” Opossums have two lines of defense — attacking and playing dead. The term “playing possum” comes from the catatonic defensive mechanism opossums enter into when threatened by predators. This state actually mimics not just the appearance of death, but also the smell of a death.
It is entirely involuntary, like fainting, and foam actually forms in the mouth and a foul smelling liquid is secreted from the anal glands. Opossums eventually regain consciousness in minutes or hours.
But if this little physiological “trick” doesn’t work, they can fall back on violence.
Bites. If threatened, opossums can bite. Luckily, they are not primary carriers of rabies — like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes — so transmission through a bite from one of these guys is unlikely. But those sharp teeth can still hurt and draw blood. And open wounds are vulnerable to other infections.
If you come across an opossum, leave it alone — even if you think it’s dead. It could just be playing possum and will be on its way shortly. But if you do get bitten, call your doctor. They’ll let you know whether you should be seen.
Pets. Opossums have been known to get into the occasional scrap with curious pets who come too close. Again, rabies isn’t really a concern, but bites can still be dangerous and should be tended to by a vet.
Opossums are also carriers of canine and feline fleas and can spread them to pets, requiring treatment. Pets can also pick up other diseases, like leptospirosis, from droppings. If you know you have an opossum nearby, keep an eye out for these things.
Flea and tick prevention is the best way to keep pets flea and tick free. You can also be proactive about safely cleaning up any droppings you find in your yard.
Damage to gardens and livestock. Opossums are opportunistic and won’t hesitate to eat your garden fruits and veggies. They are also known to go after backyard chickens and can contaminate pet and livestock food left out over night.
You can keep your gardens safe by using wire mesh fencing. Provide a secure chicken coop for your chickens, and make to lock them inside every night before the sun sets. Pet and livestock food should also be brought in and properly stored every day before the dusk.
How do you Get Rid of Opossums?
If opossums are causing you problems, there are several things you can do to exclude them. Depending on where you live, it may be illegal to trap or kill opossums, so make sure you read up on local laws. But in general you can do these things:
Deny access to denning areas. Close off access to the area under your deck or porch and make sure there isn’t access beneath your home. Remove brush and other yard waste regularly to prevent it piling up and being used as a burrow.
If you know you have an opossum under your deck or porch, wait for them to leave at dusk before sealing up the entrance. You don’t want to trap an opossum inside where they will die of starvation and dehydration.
Non-lethal repellents. Use a scent repellent in your garden and on your trash cans to keep opossums away. If you don’t want to buy repellents, you can mix together a solution of ammonia and water.
If you’re unsure of how to best exclude opossums, call pest control. Not only will they know the best methods, they’ll likely also be up to date on current laws surrounding opossum control.