Do Opossums (Possums) Make Good Pets?

By Antonia Čirjak on January 13 2020 in Did You Know

Possum family.
Possum family.

Opossums (or Possums) are well adapted to live around humans. If you coexist with them peacefully, they might sometimes show themselves in the open or appear quite docile. From time to time, people find orphaned pups and consider whether they can keep them as pets. 

In this story, we collected some facts and experiences that might help you make your own decisions. Can opossums be domesticated? Or rather, would you actually want an opossum as a pet? And would you be able to commit the time and finances required to create suitable conditions for it?

It Is Illegal To Keep An Opossum Without A Rehabilitation Permit

In most states, wildlife permits are required to keep any wild animal in your home. Getting a permit is not just a formality: depending on your state, you might be required to volunteer with a professional wildlife rehabilitator, take a class or pass an exam. These permits may only be issued for rehabilitation purposes: you will only be allowed to keep it until it is old or healthy enough to survive on its own. It is not a license to keep a wild animal as a pet. 

The only situation you might qualify to adopt one (if you got a permit and met the criteria) if the animal can never be released into the wild, like an injured, chronically sick, or rescued from illegal traders.

Opossums Are Wild Animals And Normally Do Not Do Well In Captivity

Orphaned baby opossums are indeed vulnerable and are not likely to survive on their own. If you found one and want to save it, the best option is to call the nearest wildlife rehabilitation professional. But let's imagine they are not available, or you need to rear a baby opossum until a wildlife rehabilitator can be found. Raising one is considered challenging even by experts mostly because it is difficult to meet the needs of this animal in captivity.

Possum in captivity.
Possum in captivity.

First, their diet: in nature, the opossums' menu includes a great variety of products. They eat roadkill, snails, ticks and bugs, rats, mice, snakes, fruits, plants, etc. It is extremely difficult to provide a similar variety and meet the nutritional balance of fats, proteins, minerals, and micronutrients that this animal requires to remain healthy. As a result, captive opossums often develop a metabolic bone disease, which is potentially fatal.

Also, opossums are used to walking up to half a mile in search of food, getting plenty of exercise every night: they get obese quickly if kept in the house and do extremely badly if caged.

Health is a big concern. Opossums that survive longer than a year often suffer cataracts, become obese, lose coordination, although scientists are not yet sure why they age this quickly. Captive possums often have weak immune systems and are prone to bacterial illnesses, and females often get genital and urinary tract infections. Providing medical assistance to wildlife also requires a license, and it can be tricky to find a vet with one to help you out.

Even healthy, opossums have a very short lifespan. In the wild, they live in between one and four years. In captivity, if the situation is perfect, they can live up to five years. But they also easily fall ill from the stress of captivity, lack of exercise, and a limited diet. It is tough to invest your emotions, time, and money in an animal who will not survive long.

What Else Is Challenging About Keeping An Opossum As A Pet?

Opossums are nocturnal: they sleep during the day and remain active in the night. They sleep in the dark, quiet, free from drafts places where they would not be disturbed. You would have to figure it out; otherwise, the animal can suffer from chronic stress. They will also want to exercise a lot at night, so you will have to get used to your critter moving around the house at night.

You will have to maintain your home's humidity at fifty percent to safeguard the opossum's skin from drying out. They also need fresh water available at all times.

If you know for sure that the opossum would never be released, it will have to be litter trained. Luckily, opossums are smart and very food motivated, so they can be taught to come when they are called and do some tricks. It will require patience and a very calm, steady demeanor. Tame or raised in captivity animals are still not the same as domesticated ones: they do not have a history of partnership and trust with humans, so if you appear threatening, it will delay your progress. And, to add some authenticity, a scared critter might defecate and urinate on the spot.

Possums sharing a meal.
Possums sharing a meal.

You will need to possum-prove your home. These creatures are curious and agile and have great dexterity, making them able to open windows, drawers, cabinets, and get into the places they should not get into, like drains. They will want to run out of the house to explore the surroundings or interact with their wild relatives. 

Besides, opossums may not get along with your cats and dogs: if you have existing pets, an opossum may not be a great addition.

The Process Of Domestication Of Species Takes Many Generations

In Russia, there is a long term experiment of breeding foxes with the characteristics of a domesticated animal. It has taken generations of careful selection to produce animals that are less wary of humans and less stressed in their presence, but even those animals are challenging as pets.

In the US, there used to be a project where a few generations of Short-Tailed Opossums (Monodelphis Domestica) were bred in captivity: not long enough to change their wild nature. However, there is another marsupial that has a longer history of captive breeding: Sugar Gliders (Petaurus Breviceps). They are small, cute possums from Australia who can "fly" about the room. They are not yet genetically distinct from their wild relatives, but they come in a few different colors and have a better record as pets. Read about them on our website!

The little gray short tailed opossum
The little gray short-tailed opossum.

What might, on the surface, look like an act of kindness, can turn out to be an irresponsible move doing more harm than good to either humans or opossums. They are wild animals who easily suffer in captivity: trying to transform an opossum into a pet can be expensive, illegal, and heartbreaking. If you genuinely want to interact with wildlife more, you can volunteer with wildlife protection or rehabilitation center. 

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