It can be somewhat shocking to look outside and notice a possum out during the day. The first question that probably pops into your mind is: “Is it rabid?” After all, many of us have heard that raccoons that are active during daylight hours are more likely to have rabies, so it would make sense for the same logic to apply to a possum, another nocturnal animal. Right?
The truth is, while rabies might cause normally nocturnal animals like raccoons and skunks to behave in strange ways, including venturing out during daylight hours, possums aren’t actually likely to contract rabies. Furthermore, possums (as well as raccoons and skunks) can be active during the day even when they are perfectly healthy. For example, it’s possible that a smaller possum out during the day is immature and has been separated from its mother or even orphaned. Or, a larger adult possum venturing out in the daytime may mean it is searching for a missing baby, or for food or water if it’s been particularly hot or dry.
Even if the possum in your yard isn’t suffering from rabies, the creature may still appear to be struggling, which can be alarming for a homeowner to observe. Daylight activity isn’t natural for possums, in part because they have such poor eyesight that it’s difficult for these animals to see well in broad daylight. For this reason, a possum that’s out during the day may be more likely to “play dead” if it is startled or feels threatened. Also, even if possums don’t typically contract rabies, they can still become ill from some other virus, and a sick possum might go against its instincts by venturing out during the day.
Before you can assess whether a possum out during the day is behaving strangely or posing any threat to you, your children or your pets, it’s important to be able to identify the animal—starting with its proper name.
“Possum” is the colloquial, or commonly used, name for the opossum, a North American marsupial that looks something like an oversized, furry, whitish-gray rat with a pink, pointed nose, sharp teeth and a long, scaly tail. Incidentally, there is another animal that is called a possum; it’s a marsupial native to Australia that resembles the opossum but has golden, brown, silvery-gray or black fur.
In America, many people use the words “possum” and “opossum” interchangeably, so if someone reports seeing a possum out during the day, it’s highly likely they actually mean an opossum—and again, it’s highly unlikely that this animal has rabies, although it can be a carrier.
The good news is that, generally speaking, opossums are peaceful, non-aggressive animals, and they are unlikely to attack people. These creatures are also unlikely to attack dogs, cats or other pets unless they are attacked. If they feel threatened, possums may get into a biting and clawing match with one of your house pets. Usually, though, if a possum feels scared or threatened, it is far more likely either to run away or to play dead than it is to fight back.
That said, how can you determine whether the possum in your yard is playing dead or is actually dead?
Possum Playing Dead: Is It Really Dead?
The fact that possums aren’t naturally aggressive explains their “playing dead” behavior. If you see a possum that is not moving, it’s important to know the animal isn’t actually playing. In fact, rather than feeling playful or having fun, the animal is literally paralyzed with fear. When a possum feels threatened, its body’s involuntary response is to go limp and still. Its lips pull back from its teeth, it might drool and its anal glands might even express themselves—a natural (and extremely smelly) way of repelling potential predators.
If you find a possum that seems to be dead, it’s important to remember that it might actually be alive, and thus you shouldn’t do anything that might harm it. Poking at it with a stick won’t help, because a possum that’s playing dead won’t respond to prodding. Similarly, if you see a seemingly dead possum on the road, try not to hit it, because it may still be alive and well, though it may not recover from its lifeless state for several hours at a stretch.
Sometimes people make the mistake of believing a possum is truly dead, and in an effort to be humane, they bury the body or place it in a garbage bin. And then, when the animal “wakes”, it is unable to get out. Thus, the best approach to a seemingly dead possum is not to approach it at all. Let it be, so it can recover on its own, if possible, especially if you see an opossum that is clearly a baby. If you see a seemingly dead possum on your property, the best course of action will be to call an animal control specialist who can safely dispose of or remove the animal.
If you notice possums on your property, you may wonder what brought them there. Is there some sort of food source they’re finding in your yard or home?
What Do Possums Eat?
Opossums have a long ancestry extending back 65 million years—at least in part because these animals have such a broad and flexible diet. For that reason, the answer to the question, “What do possums eat?” is relatively simple: They can eat almost anything. The typical possum diet includes fruits, nuts, insects, slugs, frogs, toads, snakes and small rodents. These creatures can even dine on garbage or pet food when they’re hungry.
Home gardeners with fruit trees or bushes might appreciate the fact that possums tend to prefer rotting fruits instead of fresh, growing ones, as this means these animals can be helpful both in cleaning up fallen fruit as well as in cutting down on garden pests. Still, possums can be a nuisance. This is especially true for backyard chicken owners, since hungry possums have been known to raid chicken coops for their eggs, and sometimes even for the chickens themselves.
Although possums can be helpful by eating other unwanted creatures around your property, such as snakes and small rodents, you may be concerned about the diseases they can transmit to you, your family members and your pets.
What Diseases Do Possums Carry?
If you’ve seen a possum out in the middle of the day, you may have been concerned about whether or not possums carry rabies, especially if the possum you spotted was playing dead or visibly drooling. While even possums that are foaming at the mouth are not likely to be rabid, these animals actually can carry and transmit the rabies virus, along with other transmittable illnesses.
Possums can carry a number of diseases, including:
- Relapsing fever
- Spotted fever
In addition, possums often have fleas, and those fleas can transfer onto dogs and cats, which can then bring the disease-carrying parasites into their human companions’ homes. Typhus is a disease that is transmitted by fleas and can be very serious, so if possums are active in your area and you have pets that spend time outdoors, it’s especially important to have a flea control strategy in place.
Given their ability to spread disease, and their tendency to become a nuisance, you likely want advice on how you can keep possums away from your property.
How To Keep Possums Away From Your Home And Yard
Even though these animals are unlikely to come out during the daytime or to attack you if you cross their path, possums can still be a nuisance if they take up residence under a porch, in a crawl space or elsewhere around your property. Possums are as highly adaptable when it comes to shelter as they are with food, and can just as happily hunker down in an out-of-the-way hole they come across as up in a tree.
To keep possums away, make sure your garbage and compost bins have tightly fitting lids, and store pet food indoors in well-secured containers. If you have fruit trees that possums climb to gain access to the fruit, you can trim low-hanging branches and also keep higher ones trimmed away from the roof, and put slick plastic sheeting around the trees’ trunks to prevent animals from climbing, which can also help if you are wondering how to keep raccoons off your roof. It’s a good idea to keep all your trees and shrubs pruned, in addition, so possums have fewer attractive spaces to hide.
To keep possums out of your garage and away from your home, be sure to keep all doors closed, especially at night, when these animals are active. It’s not unheard of for a possum to wander into a home with a back door open when these creatures are searching for food. Close off any gaps under decking or in other areas with wire mesh. You can even stuff wadded-up newspaper into openings to prevent possums from getting in. If you keep firewood stacked near your home or garage, make sure it’s stacked tightly, leaving no gaps for possums or other animals to crawl into to nest or rest.
ABC Can Help With Unwelcome Wildlife Visitors
Another problem with trying to remove opossums on your property is that they are considered fur-bearing animals in many states across the United States. This means that without the proper licensing, you can get in trouble for trapping these creatures yourself. ABC Home & Commercial Services has a team of certified professionals who can remove opossums from your property, seal up holes these creatures could use to come onto your property and into your home and give you advice on how to make your environment less attractive to these creatures.