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Henry County Animal Care & Control

Wild Animals: Opossum

Opossum

The Virginia opossum is the only member of the marsupial family found in Georgia. In fact, it is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. A “marsupial” is an animal with a pouch, the most well known being kangaroos and koalas. The opossum has been around for at least 70 million years and it is one of the earth's oldest surviving mammal species. Opossums are found in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, south through Central America.

The opossum is about the size of a house cat with adults weighing between 4 and 5 pounds. They have long, dense and very soft fur that is are varying shades of gray and white. They have a sharp-pointed and slender muzzle, prominent thin ears, and short legs. A long scaly, prehensile tail helps stabilize the opossum when climbing. The tail also is helps the opossum balance as it can wrapping around things, but opossums cannot hang from their tails for long periods of time. They have five toes on each foot—the first toe on the hind feet is opposable, clawless, and thumb-like. These "thumbs" help the opossum grasp branches when it climbs. Both sexes are similar in appearance, although males are commonly larger in size.

When frightened, opossums bare their 50 sharp teeth and hiss or growl. However, they are non-aggressive and their hissing and growling is their only defense! They would rather avoid confrontation and be left alone. Being non-aggressive, opossums readily retreat to trees, brush piles, or other available cover when pursued by humans or predators. A common defense mechanism is falling over and pretending to be dead. This is the reason for the old southern saying "playing possum!"

The opossum is both a scavenger and an omnivore which feeds primarily at night. It uses its keen sense of smell to find food. The diet consists mainly of insects, worms, carrion (dead animals), reptiles, amphibians, birds and their eggs, crustaceans, berries, fruits, and small mammals.

Opossums are very adaptable and will live wherever food, water, and shelter exist. They inhabit woodland areas along streams, ponds, lakes, swamps, and marshes. Farmland is preferred over forested areas. Opossums also are commonly found living in residential areas, making their homes in backyards and under sheds and other outbuildings.

Opossums are solitary animals. Occasionally females will live in small groups but males will fight when ever they are together. Females produce one to two litters each year. The average litter size is 9, and the young are very tiny (about the size of a navy bean) and blind when first born. They crawl a few inches to the female's pouch, attach themselves to a teat, and remain "locked" on to it for approximately 60 days. After 80 days, young opossums are weaned, leave the pouch, and often be seen riding around on the female's back. By 100 days of age, they are usually independent. The next litter is born about two weeks after the first litter is weaned.

On average, opossums can be expected to live about two years at best, with a large percentage dying before their first full year. Slow moving, opossums are easy targets for predators such as coyotes, dogs, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, and raptors. Human mortality causes include hunting, trapping, and being hit by vehicles.

Having an opossum in your yard shouldn't be a problem. They are non-aggressive and nondestructive animal - they won’t , dig up your yard or attack or threaten you or your pets. They may get into garbage or pet food that is left outside and will sometimes raid gardens to feed on vegetables, apples, and strawberries. However, they are more beneficial to humans than harmful because they feed on many types of insects, like crickets and beetles, as well as on mice and voles and, on occasion, even poisonous snakes. (Opossums are remarkably immune to snake venom!)

The best advice is to let opossums have their space and learn to live with them. However, if you really want to discourage them, there are a few measures you can take.

  1. Eliminate or secure food attractants. Bring pet food in at night. Keep tight fitting lids on garbage cans. Pick up fallen fruit from under fruit trees.
  2. Keep your yard well lit at night. Opossums prefer darkness and usually avoid well lit areas.
  3. Eliminate hiding places. Put fencing around hiding places under decks, sheds, and other structures. Hardware cloth can be attached to the bottom of decks. The fencing should be bent outward, extending approximately two feet, then buried a few inches below the ground.

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Last updated: Wednesday November 21 2012

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Henry County, Georgia - Board of Commissioners - County Government