If you’ve done any research about opossums, you may have run across multiple references to the fact that these animals never get rabies. While that’s a slightly exaggerated claim, it’s nearly true. Opossums look like rodents but are actually marsupials, which means they raise their young in pouches. They also have a slightly lower body heat temperature than many other species that scavenge in North America. While they come in contact with other animals infected with the rabies virus, the opossums rarely catch it. Yet that doesn’t mean that an opossum could never have rabies. Some people have been bitten and had to undergo prophylactic shots to prevent infection because they came too close to a clearly sick opossum. There are also other disease risks to be concerned about, both for you and the wildlife. Learn the risks and how to protect yourself when encountering wildlife like opossums around your home.
Why Opossums Rarely Get Sick (But Still Can)
There is a myth that opossums are carriers of rabies and may spread the disease even if they appear healthy. That’s definitely untrue. Opossums’ low body temperature makes it harder for rabies to infect them if they are exposed. These animals also tend to be less exposed than common carriers like foxes and mongooses because they have thick skin that resists bites. Their stomachs can even deactivate viruses like rabies if they eat an infected animal. However, opossums can suffer from other diseases, including a few that might hop over to humans with direct contact.
Opossums Can Carry Other Diseases
Thankfully, opossums aren’t known to harbor many diseases that spread easily with indirect contact, such as hantavirus with mice and rats. That means if you stay away from opossums and don’t touch them, you’re not at much risk. The opossums in your area might carry diseases like leptospirosis. They can transmit it if they scratch you because urine and feces on their paws spread the virus. Salmonella is also a common complication in scratch and bite wounds caused by these animals. If you see the opossums in your yard but don’t come in contact, you should have little to worry about, even if the animals aren’t well.
The Benefits of Having Healthy Opossums
Healthy opossums shouldn’t be removed when possible because they offer several ecological benefits. They eat massive volumes of ticks that pose a much higher disease risk to you and your family. Protecting you from Lyme disease, Alpha-Gal syndrome, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is a fair trade for putting up with a few animals around the yard. They also have a secondary function of controlling disease in general by removing debris through their scavenging diet.
Protecting Yourself from Rabies and Other Diseases
The greatest protection you’ll get from rabies is avoiding wildlife that appears ill or surprisingly friendly. That includes opossums you might see stumbling or standing out in the middle of the day. Most people who have to get rabies shots every year approach the wildlife on their own. If you think an opossum, fox, raccoon, or other wild animal is sick, call the local animal control or a wildlife rehabilitator. These professionals are trained to catch and help the animal if needed or remove it if there’s a serious disease threat. Don’t try to take things into your own hands. Following basic practices for not attracting wildlife, like limiting food sources and securing trash, will reduce your chances of a surprise encounter. Keep pets restrained to fenced-in areas and have animals that wander in removed from that area since there are several diseases that can spread from the feces and urine of opossums to other animals.
Signs of a Sick Opossum
The healthy opossum may act out in ways that convince you that it’s sick. It takes a little time to get to know the actions of an opossum that wants to be left alone versus one that’s potentially rabid. The healthy opossum will hiss at you, may bite or snap, fall over suddenly, seem dead, or even drip spit and a little foam from its mouth. All of those behaviors are normal.
In contrast, the sick or rabid opossum is more likely to act a little too friendly or uncaring of your presence. It’s not actually friendly; it’s just losing its natural reactions to threats. Then, they may act far more aggressively than normal when they do react, possibly chasing you if you retreat. Drunken weaving and stumbling behavior is often a sign of illness as well. Healthy opossums should only drool or foam when hissing and playing dead. If you see one foaming heavily without reacting to anything in particular, it’s more likely to be ill.
Don’t let a single opossum playing dead or hissing at you make you fear that rabies is spreading through the neighborhood. In almost all cases, you’re dealing with a healthy animal that is just reacting to a perceived threat. Practice getting along with this particular kind of wildlife, and you’ll find yourself dealing with far fewer ticks over the summer.