Opossums and Rabies

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If you love opossums, or know someone who does, you have probably heard the claim that opossums are unable to contract rabies due to their body temperature. Unfortunately, as much as I would love for this statement to be true, opossums can get rabies just like any other mammal.

Can opossums contract rabies?

Contrary to popular belief, opossums can contract rabies. Although rabid opossums are rarely found, all mammals are able to develop rabies and the opossum is no exception. Despite their low body temperature, rabid opossums have been found all over the United States, and Opossums are more commonly found to test positive for rabies than animals like mink (who’s body temperature averages at around 102 degrees f.)

Does a low body temperature make opossums immune to rabies?

Although they are warm-blooded, opossums have a low body temperature compared to other mammals, averaging between 94 and 97 degrees. It is frequently claimed that because the opossum’s body temperature is so low, they are unable to contract rabies. Unfortunately, there are no studies that show the opossums body temperature has any effect on their ability to resist rabies.

What studies have been done on rabies in opossums?

The only published study on the epidemiology of rabies in the Virginia opossum was published by Thomas R B Barr in 1963—Over 60 years ago! While this study proved that opossums can contract rabies, there is no mention of their body temperature providing the opossum any immunity. This study did show opossums to potentially have some immunity, however the sample size for the study was incredibly small and opossums don’t live all that long to begin with. The study showed that juvenile opossums were more susceptible to rabies than adult opossums.  With this in mind, it very well could have been that the rabies incubation period just outlasted the opossum’s lifespan. 

Why is it important to be upfront about opossums and rabies?

Opossums are awesome! Not only do they act as nature’s garbage collectors by gobbling up the pests and dead things on your property, opossums are also helpful for developing lifesaving medical treatments due to their venom resistance! But with that in mind, we shouldn’t keep perpetuating rumors about opossums that aren’t true.

It is very important that when educating about how amazing opossums are, we don’t give out any information that could put people at risk. Because while nobody should ever be touching a wild animal, risk of rabies or not, the belief that it is impossible for opossums to get rabies gives people a false sense of security. Rabies is 100% preventable with a post exposure vaccine, but once the virus hits your brain, death is inevitable. 

Do you need to be afraid of opossums?

No! You do not need to be afraid of opossums! They are shy creatures who have no interest in messing with you. Risk of rabies aside, all we ask is that you do not attempt to try to pet, hold, or otherwise handle an opossum.

Additionally, even rabid opossums tend to be non-violent as the symptoms of rabies they develop tends to be “dumb rabies” as opposed to “furious rabies.” Dumb rabies essentially makes animals catatonic, so they are not going to be coming after you like animals with the aggressive “furious” rabies symptoms. 

Citations

Barr, T. R. (1963). Infectious diseases in the opossum: A Review. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 27(1), 53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3797778

 

Dyer, J. L., Wallace, R., Orciari, L., Hightower, D., Yager, P., & Blanton, J. D. (2013, September 15). Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2012. AVMA. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/243/6/javma.243.6.805.xml

 

Ma, X., Bonaparte, S., Corbett, P., Orciari, L. A., Gigante, C. M., Kirby, J. D., Chipman, R. B., Fehlner-Gardiner, C., Thang, C., Cedillo, V. G., Aréchiga-Ceballos, N., Rao, A., & Wallace, R. M. (2023). Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2021. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.23.02.0081

 

West, P. (2022, November 10). GVSU biochemistry researchers studying why opossums can resist venom of some snakes. GV Next. https://www.gvsu.edu/gvnext/2022/gvsu-biochemistry-researchers-studying-why-opossums-can-resist-venom-of-some-snakes-.htm

 
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