Opossum are not mammals but are “Marsupials” and like their first cousins, the kangaroo, they carry their young around in a pouch. Once they can no longer all fit, she then carries them on around on her back. Although they look fierce, opossum are really quite timid and almost only will “play dead” when challenged.
Opossum are not the brightest stars of the animal kingdom but regularly manage to break into attics, sometimes, for no apparent reason but quickly setup long-term housekeeping and usually start to have babies right away. A family of opossum living in your attic can quickly do tens of thousands of dollars of damage in a very short period of time. Opossum sometimes can live for years in the attic, without the homeowner even knowing that they’re there.
The main types of damage they do is:
a) Tear up the insulation (they like to make comfy beds for themselves with it
b) Urinate and defecate throughout the attic system (major method of disease transmission to people and pets.
c) Leave partially eaten carcasses of rats & birds (two favorite foods) to decay.
d) Destroy A/C duct work and wiring (probably playing with it).
e) Many times dying in attic from eating tainted food, sickness or just old age.
f) Getting trapped inside of walls and dying (horrible odor problem)
Opossum Diseases: Opssum have a spectacular immune system, and a lower than average body temperature. This means that they don’t carry a whole lot of the standard zoonotic diseases that other animals might carry. Although an opossum might get rabies, it’s very unlikely. However, opossums do often carry fleas and other parasites, and the potential diseases that go along with those. They also defecate, a lot, and when they get in your attic the droppings can contaminate the area and pose the usual excrement health risks, such as leptospirosis or Salmonella.
Leptospirosis is caused by the bacterium Leptospira interrogans. It affects a wide variety of wildlife species, including skunks and raccoons. Human cases of leptospirosis usually are transmitted from commensal rodent populations. In some cases, this disease can be very serious and life threatening. Symptoms include fever, headaches, weakness and vomiting.
Salmonella Bacteria that exist in pretty much all wildlife droppings and several serotypes are pathogenic to humans and other animals. Salmonellosis can lead to severe cases of gastroenteritis, enteric fever septicemia (blood poisoning), and death. Food poisoning, the most common malady, is characterized by a sudden onset of abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. One common means of transmission is through food contaminated by rat or mouse feces that contain Salmonella organisms.
Rabies is a viral disease (caused by rhabdovirus) that can infect any warm-blooded mammal, but is usually confined to a few key wildlife species such as raccoons, skunks, canines, and bats. Infection is relatively rare in the United States, due to high levels of awareness of the disease and strong preventative measures taken here. Worldwide, dogs are the primary cause of infection, but in the US, our animals are well-vaccinated. Of wild animals most people seem to associate raccoons with rabies, but it is actually bats that account for most cases of infection in the US. The virus attacks the nervous system, traveling from bite site to the brain, where the virus replicates. Once symptoms appear, the disease is 100% fatal. A rabid animal may be very aggressive or lethargic and behave in an unusual manner – random walking, attacking inanimate objects, no fear of people, no alertness, frothing at the mouth, etc. Many people call me to report a rabid raccoon because it is out during daylight hours. Although a normally nocturnal animal with rabies may be active during the day, many healthy raccoons are as well. However, definitely do not approach any raccoon exhibiting abnormal behavior, such as erratic walking, walking in circles, paralyzed hind legs, and other abnormal behavior. Another common misconception I hear from people is that animals always carry rabies and can transmit it at any time. This is not true. A rabid animal transmits the virus via its saliva, usually by biting, and this contagious stage is brief, during the animal’s last few days before death, and is accompanied by the strange behaviors mentioned. A healthy animal, behaving normally, would not have the virus in its saliva. If you’ve been bitten by a wild animal, seek medical attention immediately. You may want post-exposure rabies treatment, which includes a shot of immunoglobulin and some shots of vaccine. The virus usually has an “incubation” period of 2-4 weeks before the fatal symptoms occur. If you have access to the animal that bit you, such as a pet, you can always send it to a lab for testing.