But of these, the opossum is one that suffers from an identity crisis which can often lead to the wrong information in the event you do run into one and need to get rid of it.
Here’s everything you need to know about opossums, the pros and cons of having one on your property, and how to get rid of them.
Possum vs Opossum
Before we even get started, we must clarify a very common misconception. In the US, we often refer to opossums as possums, but these are actually two completely different animals. So let’s begin by clearing up this misunderstanding and move on from there.
Both possums and opossums come from the order Didelphimorphia, which is the largest order of marsupials in the Western hemisphere. There are 19 genera with over 120 different species, originating in South America.
When people in the US mention possums or opossums, they’re referring to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), the only species found in the US.
The opossum was named after the Powatan word aposoum, meaning “white animal” . However, as time went on (and the sheer diversity of American English accents grew), people began dropping the initial O sound. Some attempted to fix this in writing by replacing the O with an apostrophe, but the word “possum” became so commonplace that few use the proper pronunciation anymore.
Meanwhile, actual possums are part of the suborder Phalangeriformes and are native to Australia. There are multiple species across more than one genus, but these critters are actually related to cuscus, gliders, and (more distantly) kangaroos.
The irony of this is that the Australian possums were given their name because they resemble the opossum, but never had the initial O sound associated with their name.
Thus, you should be careful when looking up information on possums and should always remember to spell it opossum if doing research on the US species so you don’t get the wrong critter.
But for the purpose of this guide, we will be using the two terms interchangeably with the understanding you’ve read this section and now understand we’re referring specifically to the Virginia opossum.
Getting Rid of Opossums
Despite being very common, many areas have laws restricting or banning the capture or killing of opossums. Unless you’re simply convincing them to go elsewhere, be sure to check any local ordinances, and don’t be afraid to contact a professional if necessary.
That said, here are a few of the most effective ways to get rid of possums and ensure they don’t come back.
This is by far the best and safest way to deal with an unwanted opossum. You’ll need a medium-sized cage and can add a wide range of baits. A bit of sweet-smelling fruit or a hard-boiled egg will work, as will peanut butter.
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Opossums aren’t as wary of traps as many other critters, so they’re easy to catch. Always wear heavy gloves and protective clothing when you collect the trap, and take the possum several miles from your home before releasing it.
Repellents and Deterrents
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of products out there to choose from, so we’ll keep this short. Deterrents are physical objects used to scare away pests. These include motion-activated lights or sprinklers, sonic devices, or decoys.
For an opossum, coyote urine granules can be an effective deterrent, and many pet owners will even gather shed fur to sprinkle around the yard as an extra deterrent.
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Meanwhile, repellents can be chemical or homemade. Any strong scent will work, such as ammonia, vinegar, or essential oils. Opossums may have poor vision, but their sense of smell is excellent. Just remember that repellents are temporary and need to be reapplied occasionally.
Smoking Them Out
If you have a smoker, you can chase opossums out of a hiding spot by simply smoking them out. This won’t harm them and is better than trying to grab one. Just don’t start any actual fires.
Can Mothballs Get Rid of Possums?
While it’s true that mothballs can repel a wide range of pests, it’s a terrible solution with lasting health risks to you and your family. For more information on mothballs, what they do, and why they’re dangerous, please check out our guide.
The Nesting Box Alternative
If you aren’t worried about having an opossum on your property but don’t want it trying to seek shelter in your home, consider purchasing a nesting box. This can be an actual nesting box or a makeshift one using an old pet carrier or other similar objects.
Just remember to place this shelter away from any structures. Also, keep in mind other critters may try to take up residence as well.
Sometimes the best repellents are the ones you enjoy. Strong-smelling plants such as lemongrass, mint, onions, garlic, or sage can be too strong for an opossum, and they’ll avoid those plants. This is a great way to protect your garden while also creating kitchen supplies.
Even better, these and many flowering plants, such as marigolds also attract beneficial insects while repelling unwanted ones, so it’s an all-around win.
A fence measuring three to four feet high and angled 45 degrees outwards at the top can help keep an opossum out of your yard. Just make sure to also extend the fence at least a foot below ground to deter burrowing.
Keeping Opossums Away
Prevention is 9/10 of pest control. Thus, it’s important to know why opossums may come onto your property. This allows you to remove those attractions to keep the critters away. Here are some of the most common reasons one might wander across your borders and some solutions.
What Attracts Possums to Your Yard?
The opossum is a scavenger that will wander into your yard looking for food. As with skunks and Toucan Sam, these critters will “follow their nose, which always knows” where the goods are.
In fact, they can track smells from quite a distance and will do so like an albino bloodhound. Some common draws include:
If you have pets that spend most of their time outdoors, you likely don’t bring them inside for meals. Unfortunately, while cat or dog food may be unattractive to humans, wild animals love it.
Thankfully, most of those critters (including opossums) are nocturnal, so just make sure you don’t leave any leftovers out after dark.
Rotting Fruit or Vegetation
If you have a garden or fruit trees, keep an eye out for anything that hits the ground. Fallen fruit will rot fairly fast, and the smell carries far easier than that of fresh fruit. Be sure to also remove anything that’s overripe.
Likewise, having a compost heap that has food scraps can attract opossums and other scavengers. Keep it in an enclosed area with high walls. Alternatively, use a composting box. This will reduce how much of the smell gets picked up on the breeze. Sweet-smelling, overripe fruits tend to be the biggest draw.
Nobody likes to keep filled trash bags in the house. As a result, many of us throw fresh trash straight into an outdoor bin.
Unfortunately, this is a beggar’s delight and they’ll gladly knock the bin over to get at these potential food sources. Always use tight-fitting lids and weight the cans down. Alternatively, put the bin somewhere animals can’t get to it.
If you have an infestation, be it insects or rodents, the opossum is here to help! They’ll actively hunt unwanted critters down and can be an amazing ally – except they’ll likely tear your lawn or garden to shreds in the process.
The answer to this is simple, of course: Deal with any infestations quickly. And if you see an opossum digging up your garden but the other potential causes don’t exist, the possum’s presence might just be your first visible warning of an infestation.
If you have a woodpile or any other protected area, the opossum will try to use it for shelter. Thus, it’s important to keep any woodpiles in an enclosed space and seal all possible entry points to external structures, under decks or porches, etc.
Be warned, opossums are known to attack chickens and eat their eggs. Unprotected chicken coops thus provide both shelter and free food.
What Attracts Possums Into Your Home?
Possums want a safe place to hide during the day, and your attic is often one of the safest places around. They’ll locate access points in the roof to reach this safe haven.
Likewise, they’re known to burrow under the house. The entrances to these burrows will usually be hidden under a deck, porch, or among vegetation along the foundation.
They also enjoy crawl spaces or hiding under a mobile home, as these spots are safe and often full of tasty bugs. If you have entry points on a shed or garage, they can slip into these external structures in search of food or shelter. In other words, if there’s a manmade structure they can use for shelter, they’ll find a way inside or under it.
Of course, this is simple fix (although not always easy) and part of overall pest prevention. Examine all structures on your property for entry points and seal them.
Fill any holes and wall in potential crawlspaces. Prune back any shrubs so there’s space between the plants and foundation. You will also want to ensure no tree branches are close to the house where an opossum (or other critter) can get access.
Getting to Know (O)Possums
What Do Possums Look Like?
“An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.” – John Smith, 1608
Really, it doesn’t get much more accurate than that famous quote. These critters vary greatly in size, ranging from 21 to 56 inches long, with the possum’s size generally getting larger the further north you go. Females weigh up to about 8.2 pounds, while males can weigh up to 11 pounds.
Females have an odd number of nipples, with a circle of 12 nipples surrounding a central nipple. And no, this wasn’t an inspiration for the original US flag. Opossums also have a staggering 50 teeth in their mouths, and females will carry their young on their backs once they leave the pouch.
Opossums are also excellent climbers, with a prehensile rat-like, hairless tail they can even hang from. They also have five fingers on both the front and hind feet. Interestingly, the inside finger of the hind foot is a clawless opposable thumb, which not only helps them in climbing, but leaves some very distinctive tracks.
While albinos are common, most opossums have a white face and a grayish-brown body. Opossum poop is also somewhat distinctive, measuring one to two inches long with smooth sides and usually coated in a yellow to white mold if not fresh.
Where Do Opossums Live?
The range of this critter has grown considerably since John Smith first wrote about them. Today, the only places in North America they aren’t found are the Rocky Mountain region and the Mojave and Great Basin deserts in America, and parts of northern and eastern Canada. Some of this is due to human introduction.
What Do Opossums Eat?
Opossums are primarily insectivores, but they also love cereal grains and fruit, making them technically omnivorous. This can result in them being as bad (if not worse than) gophers, moles, and armadillos when it comes to tearing up a garden.
They’re also known to eat rodents the size of rabbits (which aren’t actually rodents) as well as fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Why Do Possums Play Dead?
This is actually a very common defense in nature. When threatened or injured, the opossum’s brain will cause it to automatically “play dead”, but the performance is well beyond most other critters.
The opossum’s lips will tighten into a death grin, their glands will expel a foul odor, and the opossum will pass out and remain so for anywhere from a few minutes to as long as four hours.
Potential predators will generally avoid the “corpse”, as the combination of smell and appearance makes the opossum look like a disease carrier or suggest the killer may still be nearby.
Opossums are very slow and don’t exactly have a keen sense of vision. As a result, this mechanism is their best defense.
Where Do Possums Sleep?
Opossums are nocturnal and try to avoid the light, as it makes them more vulnerable to predators. Thus, they will spend the day in tree hollows, abandoned dens, or manmade structures where they’re safe from potential threats. In some cases, they’ll also take refuge in brush piles.
Do Possums Bite?
While it’s not common, getting too close to a scared opossum may result in a scratch or bite. This includes ones playing dead, so please always use protective clothing when approaching any possum.
Are Opossums Good to Have Around?
Opossums are actually incredibly useful critters to have around. They can devour as many as 5,000 ticks in a single day. They’re also an incredible ally against a wide range of other infestations.
The Wildlife Rescue League holds opossums in high regards as carrion eaters who help keep neighborhoods clean and relatively free of pests. Be warned, they’ll treat your trash cans like a buffet for this same reason. But in theory, their benefits far outweigh the trouble they might cause.
Opossum Disease Risks
Be warned, there are some pretty serious problems related to opossums. The most obvious one is damage to your yard and garden. They can also be rather smelly. However, the worst part is their role as possible disease vectors.
Opossums are known to transmit a range of nasty ailments through their feces as well as any scratches or bites. Some of the more notable diseases include:
Please note how many of these diseases directly affect pets. Cats and dogs love to hunt, so you should never let a cat, dog, or other pet out where an opossum is present. Doing so could lead to injury or even make the pet sick.