Help! There’s a Opossum on my Porch
If you’ve ever stepped out on to your front porch in the evening and glimpsed a small gray shape eating from your dog’s dish, it may not have been the neighbor’s cat. It’s possible it was an opossum. If you’re lucky, the creature scuttled away as soon as you flipped on the light, but if you happened to be unlucky enough to cut off its escape route, you might have seen a tiny mouth full of 50 bared razor-sharp teeth gleaming back at you.
Yes, 50 teeth! The opossum, more commonly known as the possum, has more teeth than any other mammal in North America. A possum hissing at you from a dim corner can be a formidable sight, but should you be afraid? Will a possum, harm you, your pets, your home or garden? What should you do if you find a possum on your property?
Though many people believe the possum is a relative of the rat because of its pale pointed face, hairless ears, and naked prehensile tail, the possum is more closely related to the koala bear and the kangaroo. The only marsupial in North America, the possum has a pouch in which its young are nurtured until old enough to survive in the outside environment. An adult possum is about the size of a healthy housecat and lives from one to three years. In the wild it makes its home in tree crevices, brush piles, and other animals’ abandoned dens. In inhabited areas, the possum is more creative, finding shelter in sheds, woodpiles, basements, attics, and alleys. Possums have been living with humans in increasing numbers due to habitat encroachment and have lost much of their natural fear of people. If possible, a possum may very well enter your home, perhaps through a doggy door, and take up residence in your pet’s bed.
Possums prefer to spend their time in trees. They have five widely spread toes on their front paws and four toes and an opposable “thumb” on each of their back paws to help them climb. Although the possum uses its prehensile tail for gripping branches and balancing while climbing trees, it does not use it to hang upside-down as is commonly thought. Even in urban areas, possums can be seen in trees or running across the tops of fences.
Possums are nocturnal, hunting and scavenging by night, and are disoriented and sleepy if disturbed in the daytime. They are not fast runners at only seven miles per hour, and prefer to hide, “play possum”, or run away if unearthed by your dog or cat. However, if cornered, a possum is a fierce fighter and can inflict serious damage with its sharp teeth and claws. Possums can also emit a foul odor to discourage predators or other threats.
Bane or Boon?
The possum is nicknamed “Nature’s Little Sanitation Engineer”, according to the Opossum Society of the United States. Its diet includes not only harmful home, garden and crop pests like beetles, crickets, cockroaches, mice, rats, voles, snakes, and snails (a possum delicacy), but also rotting fruit and small animal carcasses.
Although the possum is greatly beneficial to its surroundings, it is also as potentially harmful as some of the vermin it eradicates. Possums can carry several diseases dangerous to both humans and pets, such as tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis (especially harmful to pregnant women), tularemia (often fatal in cats), spotted fever, and leptospirosis (transmitted through infected feces). In addition to disease, possums can foster flea and tick populations that can readily infest your pets, as well as your home. In addition, possums are often road hazards as drivers attempt to steer around them as they forage for roadkill.
Prevention and Removal
According to the Integrated Pest Management program at the University of California, Davis, the best way to prevent a possum from becoming a pest in your neighborhood is to remove its food and water supply and make any potential habitat less appealing.
You can keep possums at bay if you:
• Bring in pet food and water dishes before night.
• Clear away brush and trim tree limbs to at least five feet above your roof.
• Keep outside trash cans closed and securely fastened.
• Stack wood so no spaces for possum dens exist and store it at least 18 inches off the ground.
• Remove fallen fruit or rotting vegetation as soon as possible.
• If you put food scraps in your compost bin, use a tight-fitting lid.
• Build a four-foot chicken wire fence around your garden with the uppermost foot of wire bent out away from the top.
• Close up any openings in your house, shed, porch, deck, or playhouse with 1/4 inch mesh (this will keep out mice and rats too).
Poisons should never be used to eradicate possums. It is more likely that your or someone else’s pet will find the poison first. There are no effective chemical repellants for possums, though some people report mothballs are a successful deterrent. Though trapping possums alive is easy, disposal may be difficult. Not only do you run the risk of being bitten by a trapped possum, but the transport and relocation of possums may be illegal where you live. If you live in a rural area, shooting an entrenched possum may be permissible.
Though possums pose potential health dangers to humans and pets, they are an ecological benefit, ridding the environment of dangerous pests and decaying vegetative and animal matter. If you encounter a possum on your porch, call your local animal control officer or an experienced pest removal company that specializes in humane wildlife relocation.