It's extremely rare for possums to have rabies. Their low body temperature and exceptional immune system make it difficult for the virus to thrive in their body and spread to other mammals.
Compared to a skunk or a fox, a possum’s chances of contracting the disease are slim. However, individual accounts of rabies traced in possums exist, such as one occurrence in California. Opossums may also carry other risks and diseases that can harm humans or other animals.
If you’ve ever wondered what sorts of diseases Opossums—commonly called possums—harbor or whether they bite humans or not, keep reading to learn more about North America’s only marsupials.
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What Diseases Do Opossums Carry?
One common misconception people have about possums is that they’re filthy creatures. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Opossums regularly clean up after themselves—often feasting off the ticks in their fur—something that rodents and skunks don’t do.
That said, they’re not devoid of infectious diseases. These critters can carry a variety of contagious diseases and parasites that can be fatal.
Some of the more common diseases associated with possums include the following:
This bacterial infection spreads through contact with the urine of infected animals, which can enter humans through mucous membranes or broken skin. This condition could lead to liver damage and internal hemorrhaging.
This disease, marked by periodic fevers, is often contagious and contracted through the bites of ticks or lice.
Caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis, this disease spreads through insect bites, airborne transmission, or exposure to dead or infected animals.
Common in cats and possums, this disease is known to cause fever, headache, and muscle pain.
This disease may cause bloody diarrhea and unwillingness to eat.
Caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi found in kissing bugs, protozoans like possums and armadillos are one of the most likely carriers of this disease in the wild.
What Percentage of Opossums Carry Rabies?
It’s exceedingly rare for possums to carry rabies, much less to infect humans with this fatal disease. That said, there’s still a near-zero chance of an opossum having rabies.
One 2013 study documented 71 cases of rabies in wildlife in the United States. Among the creatures listed, possums only had two incidences of rabies. In contrast, mongooses and bobcats had a 53.5% and 22.8% chance respectively to test positive for rabies.
The most common rabies carrers in the wild are bats (33%), then raccoons (30.3%), skunks (20.3%), and foxes (7.3%). Possums are in no comparison with these percentage for testing positive for the rabies virus.
Why Do Opossums Not Get Rabies?
Opossums are one of the few wild animals that don’t contract rabies very easily.
This is because Opossum’s body temperature is too low—around 94 degrees Fahrenheit or 34 Celcius—for the virus to survive and replicate. Additionally, their excellent immune system allows them to stave off infection from numerous diseases and viruses, including rabies and botulism.
Do Opossums Bite Humans?
Opossums don’t often bite humans, but there are some occasions where the situation calls for it. For instance, when an opossum feels in a life-or-death situation, this marsupial might resort to biting to protect itself.
That said, it’s more often the case that a possum would pretend to be lifeless—known as playing possum—to deter predators or would-be attackers in the face of danger. As long as humans aren’t causing great distress to the animal, an opossum is more likely to play dead as a defense mechanism than biting.
Is a Possum and an Opossum the Same Thing?
Yes, possum and opossum refer to the same species—the Virginia opossum in North America. The “o” in opossum can be pronounced or silent, but they both refer to the same animal. The term “opossum” is also generally preferred in a scientific context.
What if My Dog Kills a Possum?
Possums have an extremely low likelihood of carrying rabies, so having your furry companion munching on one isn’t an immediate death sentence.
However, its recommended to still take precautions. Consider if you have you used poison to deal with opossums or any other pests on your property. If so, your dog could need urgent care if it has eaten the poisoned carcass.
Additionally, while opossums don’t usually carry ticks or fleas, these parasites can jump into your dog’s fur coat. So give your pup a thorough wash after it has had an encounter with a possum.
Lastly, watch for any signs of infection. Even a short scuffle could result in an infection. Contact a veterinary clinic if you see any worrying symptoms your dog may carry following possum exposure.