What's the Deal with Possums?

adorable baby possums with their mom

A possum is not opossum—say that out loud five times fast. You may think it’s a similar word referring to the same animal, but you'd be wrong my friend. The opossum refers to the family of animals that live in the Americas, while the very similar possum is native to Australia. Physically, they are very similar, but the Australian variety has a less sinister pointed face and larger eyes.

These night wanderers bear a striking resemblance to very large rats, which perhaps leads to the disgust or aversion their presence evokes in some people. Rest assured, they're not rodents, but rather, marsupials. You know, like the much adored kangaroos and koalas.

Whether possum or opossum, these guys often get a bad rap, so we’re here to set the record straight. Here are a few things to make you reconsider your previous misconceptions. Prepare to have your mind blown!

They Showed Us How to “Play Possum”

Despite their fierce looking grin and what might sound like an aggressive hiss, possums aren’t interested in tangling with trouble. They’re more likely to drop to the ground and play dead in an attempt to avoid confrontation. The “play” is so real they even poop themselves and spray their anal glands to make them as unappealing as possible to a predator.

young possum playing dead

Tongue lolling out of an open mouth, a possum can maintain this near comatose state for hours. This response to trauma has enabled the possum to survive when confronted by a predator, since some predators need the chase or a fight to stimulate their appetites—otherwise they lose interest.

Playing Possum Isn't Voluntary

If you've been the cause of the possum's fainting spell, not only did you almost 'scare it to death,' the possum had no way to avoid it. These critters don't choose when to play dead. They have absolutely no control over this involuntary reaction in the face of danger, and also can't decide when it's time to get up again.

So be kind if one of them passes out in your backyard. They'll get up and leave your property eventually.

young possum hanging from a branch with a tail

They Eat Stuff You Don't Want

The omnivorous possum's diet includes dead animals, fruits, grains, insects, snakes, and rodents. Part of their bad rap may result from their likeliness to scavenge on the leftovers in the trash and the food in our pet's bowls.

First of all, if that's happening in your neighborhood, we hope it's not because you're wasting perfectly good food (if you need help reducing food waste, we've got your back).

Secondly, don’t assume possums actually tipped over the garbage can. Raccoons are known to be much more destructive and could just as easily have been the culprit, leaving the mess behind for the opportunistic possums to clean up.

Keep raccoons out of your trash so you don't have to clean up behind them if possums don't follow those sneaky bandits to help you out.

They are Remarkably Clean and Almost Tick Free

Yes, you read that right. It may come as a surprise, especially if you've only encountered them after they've sprayed themselves with their stinkiest glands. But much like cats, possums like to stay properly groomed.

Because of this habit, they're very good at finding the ticks that have latched onto them—so good at sniffing out the blood-sucking hitchhikers, in fact, they can significantly reduce the number of nearby ticks, which can reduce your chance of catching a nasty disease from a walk in the woods.

Estimates indicate that each individual possum can eat thousands of ticks each season.

cute possum on a log

They May Be the Key to Curing Snake Bites

With snakes as part of their diet, including poisonous ones, possums have developed a high resistance to snake venom. Many people in different parts of the world die from snake bites each year, so scientists are investigating how possums protect themselves, in order to someday confer these benefits to humans. A development of this magnitude could be a literal lifesaver.

They are the Only Marsupial North of Mexico

We're speaking of the opossum specifically here. They aren't rare by any means, but considering that they are the only animal of their kind in all of North America, that's pretty special isn't it?

If you're still not convinced of the utter coolness of this often maligned marsupial, how about this—instead of being afraid of them and chasing them off with a broom, or setting your dog on them, take a moment to appreciate yet another living being that has managed to survive and proliferate despite our appetite for destruction of this beautiful planet. And thank them for eating all those ticks!