Thursday, November 08, 2007

Opossums and Rabies

Any mammal can get rabies, but of course a possum is not a mammal is not an ordinary mammal; it's a marsupial. So can a possum get rabies? The answer is, "yes," but rabies in an opossum is EXTREMELY RARE.

This may have something to do with the opossum’s low body temperature (94-97ยบ F) making it difficult for the virus to survive in an opossum’s body.



prairie mary said...

In my animal control days (watch for the book: "Dog Catching in America" wherein our heroine tries to reconcile democracy with dogs) people used to worry a lot about possoms and whether all those teeth might not imply rabies. After I'd read up on the UNlikelihood, I used to tell them that rabies is a brain disease and a possom doesn't have enough brains to catch rabies. They were always convinced.

They're really quite interesting with anomalies like a forked penis and matching forked vagina into two uteri. The "pouch" is really a double flap, rather like a jacket front, and when the babies crawl up to the nipples inside the flaps (at that time they are little more than a rudimentary head and two front paws) they each bond to a nipple so tightly that they could be said to have "grown on." The nipple gets very long, like a noodle.

So many got squashed on the streets of Portland that I had many chances to look at them closely. I was forever having to drag them out of back porch freezer motors and other hidey holes and grew quite confident that I could just carry them out to the truck by their tails like handbags. The only time we took a bite report was when an Avon lady picked up a baby one and tried to pet it. She said she thought it was a kitten.

Prairie Mary

PBurns said...

Excellent! I learned more than a little from that one Mary.

Another animal that has a forked penis are most lizards.

The noodle nipple is quite an image too!

Though possums can't get rabies, the do get a brain worm disease they can pass on to horses. See my notes on that here >>

The possum is an animal cursed with a small brain, no defense and it's very slow-moving. As you note, the teeth are not much (though they have more teeth than any other fur bearer in this hemisphere). So what does the possum use to make up for its deficencies? Fecundity. As I note in an earlier post at, a typical female possum will have two litters a year, each with as many as 18 young. The gestation period for a possum is just 13 days (meaning from fertilized ovum to crawling-zygote-in-the-pouch looking for a noodle nipple). The young possum are so small that 7 or 8 of them will easilt fit in a tea spoon (see picture at

Obviously, with a production of as many 36 young a year, possums *must* have a very high mortality.

Another interesting bit is that possums are not really "playing" possum; they go into involuntary catatonic shock when the world becomes too exciting. See >> A red fox wil sometimes do the same thing when it is bolted to a net; the shock of hitting the net at full stride shut down the fox's nervous system and it seems to have to "reboot". It does not take long though; a fox will often snap out of it just as you are working to release it.


prairie mary said...

Maybe those worms is what would cut down the possom population every now and then, often followed by a resurgence of raccoons which were vulnerable to dog distemper (and rabies, where it's around). They seemed to alternate bulges in their numbers.

A grad student got interested in possoms, caught one in the West Hills of Portland and put a radio collar on it -- a pink one that just matched its nose! It blundered off into the woods and was never seen or heard from again. The student used to come out to the shelter at the end of the day to look at our collection from the streets. He was studying the kind of fleas they had, which he got by cutting open the stomachs and dumping the contents into water. The possoms swallowed them when they groomed themselves and they floated in the water. In the process we learned a lot about what the possoms ate: seemed to be mostly slugs and candy wrappers.

It's strange that such dissimilar animals would share a disease. Horses and cats are both vulnerable to West Nile virus.

Prairie Mary

PBurns said...

That fellow lost that locator collar for a simple reason: possums don't seem to have real home ranges. They wander from place to place and his possum likely went straight-line into the next woods. Though we had one possum living semi-permanently under a shed next door to us once, in real farm country were food is not put out in a dog bowl and they have seek out food over a wider range, possums seem to wander from hedge to hole and from tree cavity to brush pile. I suppose with their fecundity, establishing a marked "territory" would be impossible and not very meaningful considering the 90% or so annual mortality.


PBurns said...

Bill Shadle send me a note to say (correctly) that a possum IS a mammal, it's just a *marsupial* mammal. As odd as it sounds, I always thought marsupials and mammals were different (not sure why), which shows you how weak my grade school was and how little I have learned even though I am now old enough to have lost most of my hair (except the stuff in my ears, of course, which just seems to get thicker).

Point made, lesson learned, and text corrected above. THANKS Bill. I still say anyone who would eat one is a hell of a lot hungrier than I have ever been, LOL.


prairie mary said...

We had a recipe for possom. Peel it, put it on a clean cedar shingle, roast in oven for some amount of time. Then throw away the possom and eat the shingle.

They're quite greasy, but the claim was that they were brought to the PNW by workers from the South who were accustomed to eating them. They aren't native, I guess.

Prairie Mary

gabboon said...

Mack in the Depression era my grandfather was the sole breadwinner of the family, selling news papers, although he was very young. They would eat just about anything, including possum, to survive. One very cold winter, when the ground was frozen solid, he had an opportunity to make some money burying a dead draft horse. It took several days to dig that hole. Finally done, they began to push the horse to the edge when it began moving. A possum emerged from the anus, apparently disturbed from its warm larder/bedroom. They finished that burial as quick as possible, never figuring out how the possum got in. he never ate possum again and always had a strong dislike for them to his very end.

Reminds me of a joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? To prove to the possum that it could be done.

Anonymous said...


I'd like to say, "Tastes like chicken", but it always reminded me of pork. Not surprising when you consider a possum and a feral pig have very similar diets.

From Wiki:

The opossum was a favorite game animal in the United States, and in particular the southern regions which have a large body of recipes and folklore relating to the opossum. Opossum was once widely consumed in the United States where available as evidenced by recipes in older editions of The Joy of Cooking. In Dominica and Trinidad opossum or "manicou" is popular and can only be hunted during certain times of the year due to over-hunting; the meat is traditionally prepared by smoking then stewing. The meat is light and fine grained, but the musk glands must be removed as part of preparation. The meat can be used in place of rabbit and chicken in recipes. The cousin of the opossum, the possum, found in Australia (and introduced to New Zealand) is consumed in a similar manner. (Davidson, 1999)

Historically, hunters in the Caribbean would place a barrel with fresh or rotten fruit to attract opossums who would feed on the fruit or insects. Cubans growing up in the mid-twentieth century tell of brushing the maggots out of the mouths of "manicou" caught in this manner to prepare them for consumption. It is said also that the gaminess of the meat causes gas.

In Mexico, opossums are known as "tlacuache" or "tlaquatzin". Their tails are eaten as a folk remedy to improve fertility.

Opossum oil (Possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub and a carrier for arthritis remedies given as topical salves.