If you’ve ever gotten a good look at those needle-sharp teeth, I don’t blame you for thinking possums are dangerous.
I think everybody, especially people living in the South, have been surprised by them in the night: hanging out near the deck or popping out of the trash can.
Those beady black eyes, the loud hiss, the flashing white fangs. Sheesh, it is enough to give anyone the willies!
But plenty of experts tell us that possums are truly not aggressive and really not dangerous. What’s the truth? Are possums actually dangerous?
No, possums are not dangerous to people. Even though possums have sharp teeth and may sometimes bite if cornered or handled, they’re far more likely to run for it or feign death.
And there you have it. Possums really are the definition of all bark and no bite, and it’s not to say that they can’t bite but these animals are genuinely non-aggressive and will typically try other survival strategies when confronted or threatened rather than attacking.
Nonetheless, possums are common, and it’s all but certain you’ll run into one at one point in your life, and maybe even at close range.
Keep reading, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about human interactions with possums…
Opposum Overview, Temperament and Habitat
Possums are marsupials, and the largest marsupials in North America. In fact, the common Virginia Possum is the only true opossum found in the United States.
Unlike other mammals, possums are almost entirely unique, and they’re regularly referred to as living fossils. It isn’t entirely true, but there aren’t any other animals quite like them.
Predominantly nocturnal, possums are nomadic and they move from place to place foraging for easy access to food and water.
They will hang around as long as it’s safe and as long as they have plenty to eat and drink for them and they’re young.
Speaking of eating, possums are acute omnivores, and they can eat just about anything they find.
They’re notorious for breaking into trash cans, like raccoons, for food scraps, and also climbing up to bird feeders to empty them of seeds.
All sorts of other creatures, including insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, worms, mollusks and more. And they eat roadkill!
Also like raccoons, possums have highly dexterous paws which make them excellent climbers, an ability which is further assisted by their prehensile tails.
Possums are predominantly solitary, but it’s not out of the question to see multiple family groups consisting of mothers and young congregating in a safe space with lots of food to go around.
When confronted or cornered, possums exhibit frightening threat displays consisting of hissing, clicking, and baring of the teeth.
A bite from a possum, even if approached, is quite rare: what isn’t rare is their most famous behavior, playing dead, commonly referred to as playing possum!
A possum that is playing dead is actually engaging in an involuntary behavior where the animal sort of blacks out, curls its lips, starts to foam at the mouth and expels a nasty stench from its anal glands.
It is possible that they stay this way for many minutes up to several hours before recovering, no worse for the wear.
Hopefully, whatever was bothering the poor thing thinks it is too nasty and pitiful to deal with during that time!
But while you should never assume that any given possum is going to play dead instead of bite you, bites from possums are in fact quite rare.
Do Opposums Protect Their Territory?
No, not from people or larger animals. Possums know they are very low on the food chain and act accordingly, but sometimes they get territorial and grouchy if another possum invades their personal space or tries to take over a limited food source.
Do Opposums Act Aggressively Toward Each Other?
Rarely. Aside from the aforementioned territorial problems or food possessiveness, possums generally ignore each other or cohabitate peacefully.
Do Opposums Threaten People?
No. Aside from a threat display, it is extremely rare for possums to display genuine aggression towards people.
Any possum that is hissing or showing its teeth is actually desperately hoping that you’ll get frightened and leave it alone. Given half a chance, a possum will retreat from you or, if it thinks you are going to attack it, play dead.
Were There Any Recorded Opposum Attacks on People?
Yes, but actual negative interactions with humans are extremely rare. Bites from possums usually only occur when some foolish person is trying to handle the animal, or in cases where something goes wrong after they have been trapped.
What Will Cause an Opposum Attack on Someone?
Possums look downright frightening when they are giving you that awful threat display, but triggering an attack from one is rare and difficult.
The only thing that will reliably get a possum to attack you is prolonged handling assuming they are conscious and not playing dead.
Any possum that is stressed from capture or after being cornered might bite in an effort to escape, and it’s hardly out of the question that a mother possum will bite to protect her babies.
But even in all these cases, possums are just not very aggressive even in extremis, and will always prefer to run away and hide or feign death rather than go on the offensive.
Just How Strong is an Opposum?
For their size, and considering the category of creature that they are, possums are surprisingly strong.
They are very able climbers, and mother possums can be seen scaling trees and fences all the time with eight or nine babies clinging for dear life to their backs. Doesn’t seem to slow them down in the least!
That being said, compared to any human being possums are not strong: we have immense size and strength advantages over them that will certainly prove telling in a scuffle.
Can Opposums Bite?
Yes, they can! A possum’s teeth are not just for show! Possums can and will bite, and they’re more than capable of inflicting a nasty bite if it comes down to it.
They have multiple long, needle-like teeth that will give you a seriously nasty puncture wound.
What Does an Opposum Attack Look Like?
Possums don’t really attack people, not in a truly offensive manner and if they do there’s probably something wrong with it, like rabies.
A possum might hold its ground and give you a good threat display before finally biting if you close in, but it’s highly unlikely that they will close the distance with you to deliver a bite.
Accordingly, if you see a possum, make a point to give it plenty of room and there shouldn’t be any problem.
On the other hand, if a possum is closing the distance with you that is definitely an indicator that something is very wrong and you need to get away from it as quickly as possible.
How Do You Respond to an Opposum Attack?
Assuming you’re actively being attacked by a possum, your best course of action is to do anything that you can to prevent the possum from closing with you and biting you.
The very best thing you can do is simply to run away, as you should easily be able to outpace a possum on flat ground.
If that fails or it isn’t an option, use absolutely any object that you can to keep it away from you. If you don’t have anything to use as a shield, try to stomp the possum one good time and that should put it out of action for good.
Remember, you need to avoid being bitten at all costs! If a possum can’t bite you, it can’t hurt you.
Will an Opposum Eat a Person?!
Yes. Though a possum would never attack you with the intention of eating you (they aren’t predators like that) it is entirely conceivable that should a possum find your dead body they would start to eat you.
Remember that possums are scavengers and have a tendency to eat carrion, and that would include you.
Can People Catch Diseases from Opposums?
Potentially, yes. Possums are known vectors of various diseases, parasites and other nasty, gribbly things you don’t want to get infected with. Salmonella, spotted fever, leptospirosis and toxoplasmosis are all potential infections.
But, luckily, possums are only very, very rare vectors of the rabies virus. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t the primary vector of rabies, but neither are they immune to rabies as some other people assert.
For this reason, you always want to keep your distance from possum and avoid handling them even when they are dead.
Likewise, any possum that is acting very strangely is cause for concern and you should call animal control.