RAISING ORPHANED OPOSSUMS
By Mary Stockard
Initial Stabilization Care for Baby Mammals
1. Check for injuries. Seriously injured
babies should be taken to a veterinarian that day.
2. Warm the baby quickly if it feels cold.
Methods for warming include:
1. Quick method: Place the baby wrapped in a wash cloth inside a
plastic Zip-loc bag. DON’T seal the bag. Dip the bag in a bowl of warm (not hot)
water. Gently swirl it around for about 5 minutes. This is not recommended for
older, active young.
2. Heating pad: Set temperature on low. Place the heating pad half
under a closed box the baby has been placed inside of along with ravel-free
cloths to snuggle with.
3. Disposable plastic bottle: Use a plastic soft drink bottle or
other plastic bottle. Fill it with hot water. Wrap it with a towel or other
cloth. Place it inside a box with the baby. Make sure that it will not roll
around possibly hurting the baby.
4. Rice sock: Fill a sock 2/3 full of rice. Microwave it on high
for 2 to 2 ½ minutes. Place it in the bedding in the box with the baby.
3. Treat dehydration. Give fluids by mouth using a 1 cc
syringe, eye-dropper, or pet nurser. Offer the fluids at room temperature hourly
for up to 6 hours. Do not exceed 12 hours. Any of the following fluids may be
used and can be purchased at the grocery or drug store :
· Gatorade ( regular or clear flavors)
· Pedialyte (clear)
· Sugar/salt water: 3 teaspoons
Sugar, 1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 quart very warm water. Cool the
water to room temperature before offering it to the baby.
4. Give it a warm box or pet carrier.
Eyes closed infants and eyes open young that are in shock should be placed in a
cardboard box or small/medium pet carrier with ravel-free bedding such as a few
tee-shirts. Provide consistent source of warmth such as a heating pad on a low
temperature setting. Place it half under the box or pet carrier.
5. Begin offering dilute formula. Make the
formula as indicated in the diet section. Offer diluted formula every 2 hours
using a 1 cc syringe, eye-dropper, or pet nurser. Syringes are better because
there is less chance of aspiration. Give three feedings of 1 part formula / 2
parts water, then three feedings of 1 part formula/ 1 part water. If the baby
does not develop diarrhea or bloat offer full strength formula at the
recommended amounts and frequency for the age. If problems develop contact a
veterinarian or the Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
6. Provide food and housing as described in the
age and development chart. Contact the Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitation
Center if there are questions about the care instructions provided.
Opossum Diet Chart
Note: Volunteers who do not have access to Zoologic supplements can use
the Home Formula.
Wildlife Center Formula:
1 part Esbilac powder
1 part Zoologic Milk Matrix 30-55
2 parts Water
1 part Esbilac powder
1/3 part Heavy Whipping Cream,
1.5 parts Water
Formula Break-In Chart
Always begin new infants on dilute formula, and work up to full strength formula
Feedings #1, 2 = 1 part full strength formula + 2 parts water
every 2 hours for 4 hours.
Feedings #3, 4 = 1 part full strength formula + 1 part water
every 2 hours for 4 hours.
Feedings #5, 6 = 2 parts full strength formula + 1 part water
every 2 hours for 4 hours.
If at any time the infant develops diarrhea or bloating, cut back on the
concentration of formula until the situation clears up. If such problems
persist for more than 36 hours, seek medical advice.
How to feed: Use a 1 cc syringe to feed formula. Wrap the baby in a cloth to
keep it warm and secure. And hold it in a sitting-up position. Opossums rarely
suckle a syringe but will lick from it. As soon as the babies are used to the
formula, you may pour some in a shallow dish. Opossums learn to lap from a dish
quickly. However, any baby not drinking well from the dish should continue to be
hand fed until it is lapping from the dish and gaining weight.
Stimulating urine and feces: This should be done for babies whose eyes are
closed or just opening. Use a slightly damp cotton ball or tissue to gently
stroke the genital area. The baby should produce urine within a few seconds.
Babies may not urinate or produce feces every time.
Self-feeding diet: Once the opossums teeth have fully emerged begin offering the
diet. The base chow (Science Diet) should be soaked in water to make it soft and
easier to eat
until they reach about 12 weeks of age when it can be offered dry. Formula
should be poured
over the soaked chow until the babies have been weaned from formula at 10 weeks
Two shallow dishes of water should be offered. One dish for drinking and one for
90% of diet: Purina puppy chow or Canine growth
Science Diet (soaked in water until the opossums are older). (Pour formula over
it until babies are weaned)
5% of diet: Fruits and vegetables cut
in dime to nickel size pieces. Any fruit or vegetable may be used.
5% of diet: Insects such as crickets
and worms, dead mice (cut up at first then left whole as babies get closer to
Supplements: Lightly sprinkle the food with a calcium/phosphate
powder to help prevent calcium deficiencies after the baby is no longer
Natural foods: Add as many natural food items to the self-feeding diet as are
Releasing hand-raised opossums
Opossums should be ready for release at 20 to 22 weeks of age. Prior to
release, your opossums should have been in a large outdoor cage for at least two
weeks, preferably longer. They should be acclimated to weather changes,
outdoor noises and the sights and sounds of the world. They should be properly
shy of dogs, cats and humans (EVEN YOU). They must be familiar with their
The release site should be outside the metropolitan area, on land with
appropriate shelter, a constant water source and abundant natural food
resources. There should be other opossums in the release area but it
should not be overcrowded with them.
Since opossums are nocturnal (active by night), it is best to release them in
the late afternoon to early evening. Release when good weather is forecast for
at least 4-5 days and the last chance of freezing temperatures has passed.
Ideally, their nestbox should be left at the release site, under some bushes,
and back-up food provided for 4-5 days until they have located their natural
1. Fowler, Murray E. Zoo and
Wild Animal Medicine, 2nd Edition. W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia, PA. 1986.
2. Harrison, Kit and George.
America's Favorite Backyard Wildlife. Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York.
3. Martin, Alexander C., Zim,
Herbert, Nelson, Arnold L. American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to
Wildlife Food Habits.
Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1951.
4. Marcum, Debbie. Substitute
Milk Formulas for Opossum. Wildwood Farm 14206 FM2769. Leander, Tx. 78641-9109.
5. Marcum, Debbie. Stages of
Development in Pouch Young of the Virginia Opossum. Wildwood Farm 14206 FM2769.
Leander, Tx. 78641-9109. 1983.
6. Whitaker, John O. Jr.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing. NY. 1980.
7. White, Jan. Basic
Wildlife Rehabilitation. International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council.
Walnut Creek, CA 1988
Keeping Babies Wild So They Can Go Back To The Wild
A great many baby opossums are orphaned every year. As babies, they are
cute in an awkward way and will respond to their caregiver with affection. They
are still wild animals though. Individuals raising orphaned babies must not
treat them as pets. A baby opossum should be raised with at least one other
opossum of similar age. This will aid in helping it revert to its true wild
nature after being weaned. You must obtain permission from your county game
warden to legally possess any wild animal even for a short period of time.
Use good hygiene. Wash your hands after handling the babies and cleaning the
cage. Wash bedding and dishes separate from your own. Disinfect bedding and
dishes using 1 part bleach to 30 parts water. Allow bedding and dishes to soak
for at least 15 minutes then rinse. The information in this paper is brief and
intended for raising healthy orphans. If problems develop or you have questions,
please contact the Alabama Wildlife Center.
Natural History Information
The Virginia Opossum belong to the order Marsupialia along with many other
familiar animals such as kangaroos and koalas. Marsupials are mammals that
raise their young in abdominal pouches. The Virginia Opossum is the only
marsupial in North America. In Alabama, opossums are found across the
state(6).Virginia Opossums are also unique in many other ways. The ends of
their tails are prehensile which means they can grasp limbs of trees with it.
However, they never hang by their tails. They have opposable thumbs on
their hind feet which also aids in grasping and climbing. Opossums have 50
sharp teeth which is more than any other mammal.
Despite the fact that they are well armed, opossums tend to be shy and docile.
A characteristic trait of opossums is a behavior called death feigning (or
playing possum). In death feigning, the opossum under threat and without a route
of escape, will become very still. If the threat continues, it will fall
over as if it suddenly died. During this phase of the death feign, an
opossum will sometimes drool and give off a foul odor. After the threat has
passed, it will recover and continue on its way(2).
Activity: The adult Virginia opossum is almost exclusively nocturnal (active
during the night). Activity begins approximately at dusk and peaks between
11:00 pm and 2:00 am. During the cold weather, activity is reduced, but
opossums do not hibernate(6).
Habitat Description: Virginia Opossums are one of the few animals that can live
almost anywhere. They are commonly found on farmland, in cities, in
suburban areas, forests and swamps. They are also one of the few animals
that have been able to successfully coexist with humans. Optimal habitats
for opossums are forested areas near streams or swamps(2). Opossums
will live or den in old hollow logs or trees, abandoned woodchuck burrows, bush
piles, wood piles, rock crevices, and drain pipes(6).
Adult Virginia opossums will eat almost anything. Their natural diet
includes terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, insects, grubs, carrion (dead
animals), and young birds or eggs. Opossums also eat plant food such as
acorns, fruits, such as persimmons, wild cherries, and muscadines.
Approximately 80-95% of their diet is composed of animal food and the remainder
of the diet is plant food (2,3,6).
Territory/Home Range: Opossums are transient and have a loosely defined home
range. They will have multiple den sites and will not necessarily return
to the same den site each day (6). However, a female with young will stay
at the same den site for several weeks while raising her young but if you don't
know where the nest site is, reuniting lost infants can be nearly impossible.
The relationships between opossums tends to be passive except during the mating
season, and territories are not usually defended as is common with many
Breeding Season: In Alabama, the breeding season for the Virginia opossum may
begin as early as January and last until September. Studies indicate that
mating does not occur during October, November and December. Females can
have two to three litters with as many as 11 babies in each litter.
Gestation is only 13 days. At birth, the young are less than one inch
long. The young clinging to the mother's fur will crawl into a pouch
located in a flap of skin on her abdomen. Inside the pouch, the young will
attach to a nipple and will remain there for the next two months. There
are 13 nipples inside the pouch but only a certain number will produce milk.
The number of functional nipples varies per individual but usually ranges from 7
Baby Opossum Initial Care Record
Reg #:____________ Sex:_____
I.D. Mark:__________ Date Rec.:_______
A. INITIAL CONDITIONS (please circle):
1. Temperature: (determine by touch)
2. Injuries Present?
3. Is the baby responsive to touch?
4. Level of Dehydration (skin turgor, mouth color):
10% or >
B. INITIAL MEDICAL TREATMENT (if any):
1. Sub-Q Fluid Therapy: (warm baby first!) Amount
2. Antibiotics: Type______________ Route_______________
BEGIN ORAL FLUID THERAPY ON WARMED BABY
SF Diet? _____________________
LRS = Lactated Ringer's Solution
F#3 = 1 Cup LRS + 1/2 tube Nutri-Cal
If the baby is dehydrated begin w/ the dehydration protocol. If the
patient is a normal, healthy baby skip straight to dilutions.
*Proceed w/ dilutions if the baby is rehydrated. If not, continue fluids hourly
and repeat sub-Q fluids.
Dilutions: 2:1 = 2 parts F#3 + 1 part formula 1:1 = 1 part F#3 + 1 part
formula 1:2= 1part F#3 + 2 parts formula
up to 2
Opossum Developmental Care Chart
4 – 6 weeks
6 – 8 weeks
8 – 13 weeks
Thinly furred, eyes closed,
Thinly furred, eyes open, but
Eyes open, teeth present but
mouth unsealed. Teeth not
look sleepy. Teeth emerging.
still small. Thicker fur developing
present yet. Vocalizing.
More active, lots of vocalizing.
with guard hairs beginning to
emerge by 13 weeks. Body less
than 6 inches long excluding tail.