Last fall an opossum started hanging out inside my dog pen when the dogs weren’t outside. Unfortunately, the wild animal didn’t make it out one night when I took the dogs outside and one of them attacked the critter before I knew what was happening. The possum immediately went into survival mode and played dead, which confused my dog. He dropped the animal and pawed at the still body, perplexed by the tactic. It allowed me time to get the dogs back inside and keep them and the possum out of harm’s way. So, what should you do if your dog attacks an opossum?
Opossums are docile scavengers and not likely to attack humans, dogs, or cats. However, if cornered, provoked, sick, or protecting their young, they will defend themselves and their babies. Nature gave these critters an effective defensive tool of playing dead when attacked. When there’s no avenue of escape, the slow moving possum will simply play dead. No prodding, pushing, or trying to scare the animal into running away will move him. The only and best thing you can do is walk away and leave him alone. He won’t move until he’s sure it’s safe, which can take anywhere from a couple of minutes up to an hour or more. As long as he hears movement around him, he will stay put. Once he feels the danger has passed, he wiggles his ears to listen for sounds, then raises his head to check out his surroundings. Then and only then will the possum get up and go about his business. If he doesn’t play dead, he has the means to fight back and will hiss, growl, screech, and expose 50 sharp teeth to deter predators, but he’s not an accomplished fighter and will likely lose battles with dogs.
If your dog attacks an opossum that isn’t fighting back, remove the dog and leave the possum alone. When he feels safe, he’ll get up and move on. If your dog gets into a fight with an opossum, don’t try to break them up to avoid getting bitten by the animal or your dog. If your pet is bitten, clean up the wound and call your vet for advice.
Opossums are actually beneficial to environments. They eat anything, including roadkill, fresh or rotten fruits, berries, nuts, grains, birdseed, smaller mammals, bird eggs, small snakes, mice, insects, dog or cat food, garbage or anything else they can find. Contrary to popular belief, they do not carry the rabies virus because they have a solid immune system and a lower body temperature than other mammals and the virus doesn’t have a good environment to grow in. Possums are such meticulous groomers, they help control the spread of Lyme Disease by eating infected ticks they remove from their bodies. Their immune system protects them from the disease.
This nocturnal and solitary mammal spends his days usually in an underground den or safely tucked away in the hollow of a tree, but they can emerge during the day. When not hunting, possums are very picky about keeping themselves clean and groom like house cats. North America opossums are commonly called the Virgina Possum, and is the only marsupial that lives in the United States. They are related to kangaroos, Tasmanian Devil, and other marsupial mammals that carry their young in a pouch. Possums belong to the Marsupialia family and are not related in any way to rats. Their range covers most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and parts of Canada, but over the years they have moved into other regions, as well. During the depression years, possums were introduced on the West Coast most likely to be used as a food source. The Virgina possum is about the size of a large house cat. A smaller animal, the Southern Possum, about the size of an average cat lives in Mexico and down to Costa Rica. Both have opposable thumbs on their hind feet, and a prehensile tail they use to wrap around tree limbs to help stabilize themselves, but they don’t use the tail to hang upside down to sleep. The average lifespan of possums in the wild is only about two years, and four years in captivity.
All marsupials originated in North America some 65 million years ago after the dinosaurs became extinct. Ancestors of the kangaroo, koalas, wombats, and other pouched mammals migrated to South America and eventually ended up in Australia when there were only two continents at the end of the Cretaceous Period. It was at this time when the continents began separating into the land masses we know today. Migrations of animals were halted and the opossum was the only marsupial left in the Americas with the rest ending up in Australia.
The word “opossum” is translated from the Algonquin language word “apasum” which means “white animal.” The possum’s defensive pose of playing dead is an involuntary action during times of extreme danger. During this time the animal is in a coma like state. He lies on his side drooling with his tongue sticking out of his mouth, and eyes open. A nasty odor can also be secreted by the critter to convince predators he is dead. These are not dumb animals, in fact scientist put them on the same level of intelligence as pigs.
If you have regular visits from an opossum it means they’ve taken up residence close by because their hunting range is within a two mile radius of their den. These critters are opportunistic and move into abandoned dens in hollow stumps, holes in trees, rock piles, woodpiles, outside buildings, crawlspaces, and sometimes attics. As long as it’s dry and out of the wind, it’ll do. They move from den to den on a regular basis to avoid predators, and during severe cold females with young usually hole up until the weather warms up, but they do not hibernate. Dogs will attack an opossum if they run across one, but these critters are good for the environment in more ways than one. They aren’t looking for trouble and just want to be left alone.
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