Care of Orphaned Opossums
OPOSSUMS: RAISING FOR RELEASE
by Sharon Alonzo
The early spring brings the arrival of many baby opossums (Didelphis marsupialis), Louisiana’s only native marsupial. The young can be quite successfully raised and released into the wild when older. Release dates vary but it is best to release animals before the onset of colder weather since they will have to learn to find a place to call home and acquaint themselves with the stock of food available. At their release the siblings will not band together but go off as single individuals.
The orphaned young are often found in the mother’s pouch after the animal has been killed. It seems that the young can live for a short while in the pouch of the dead mother.
Some of the things to keep in mind when raising young are: 1) to keep the young animal warm by using a heating pad under their box, cardboard boxes are suggested, 2) provide some soft nesting material, cloth or straw, 3) provide darkness for these animals, since the babies will cover themselves up anyway. These animals are normally nocturnal, therefore, quiet and darkness are comfortable for them.
The young are noiseless except for a pronounced hiss when threatened or startled. The very young animals rarely move around unless disturbed. Older animals are active at night and will focus on not being contained in a cage.
Feeding: Determine whether your orphan can lap up liquids or if it needs to be fed by the bottle. A pet nurser purchased from the pet store, a syringe, or an eyedropper may be used. If animals are sick use separate utensils for each animal. Young opossums should only be fed Goat’s Milk Esbelac, (dilute 1 to 3 with water) – available at most pet stores. Babies need to be fed at least six times a day, decreasing feeding as the animal gets older. When the animals are unusually hungry, they may move around restlessly. Otherwise, they remain snuggled together.
After feedings each animal needs to be stimulated to urinate. This is accomplished by stimulating the urogenital area, which includes the urethral opening and the anus, with a damp rag, towel, or paper towel. The animal must urinate. This stimulation is the same type given by mother kittens to their newborns. Often fecal matter is expelled at this time so be prepared. Individual animals differ, some animals are easier to stimulate before being fed, others after. Some do not urinate more than once or twice a day, but they must urinate at some point. When the animal is urinating on its own, usually by the time it is lapping liquid food, the process can be discontinued. Some clues as to when to stop the external stimulation are damp bedding and dirty paper on the bottom of the box or cage.
When the opossums have the lapping reflex use a metal or plastic lid of a jar to put liquid food in their box or cage. Feedings can be decreased to two or three times a day but be sure all have had enough. Rice cereal and formula may be mixed into a gruel-like liquid to feed the opossums next. Then apples or bananas may be added to the rice cereal mixture gradually using less fluid. Soon cereal may be thinned with water, fruits can be mashed separately, and even mashed vegetables can be introduced. Teeth can come in very quickly at this time. This is also a time of increased night activity so beware that extra security is need for their box or cage.
After the introduction of fruits, you can try moistened dry puppy food, gradually getting the older animal to a diet of puppy food and fruits and vegetables. I have found that the opossums I have raised will virtually eat anything but successful introduction into the wild can never be accomplished unless they will eat native berries and fruits. Always supply water to the animals. However, be aware that a small animal could drown in a bowl which it could not get out of. Decrease feedings to once a day in the evening. This sets them up to look for food at dusk and mimics their expected evening foraging.
I suggest a move of the animals outside where they can experience the smells and sound of the outdoors, as well as the correct temperature for an anticipated release. A cage with a hardware cloth (1/2-inch openings) bottom will allow droppings to fall from the cage and is recommended. Provide an overturned flowerpot for shelter, some bedding material, some branches, and water for their outside cage. Also, this is a great opportunity to see the animals at their most active. Take time out at night to view their foraging and climbing, and restless nocturnal activity. These otherwise sluggish critters really expend energy at night.
Since the objective of raising wild animals is a successful release once off the bottle, reduced handling and contact is beneficial. Larger animals have very sharp teeth, a powerful jaw, and never reach a docile stage.
Pests and diseases are few. Listed here are the ones that we have encountered: external problems include ticks, fleas, mites, and mange in a few animals. Internal parasites exist and the only other problem encountered was a tendency toward a prolapsed rectum (protruding rectal tissue) which was cleaned up when the animal was given Pepto Bismol.
Please remember that you are raising this orphan to return it to the wild. It is easy to become attached to the animal and to convince yourself that it will make a good pet. It is illegal to keep an opossum; these animals are much better off in the wild; and they often start to bite once they mature.
Good luck in raising this highly adaptable Louisiana mammal.