Caring for possums

These guidelines are for the Top End subspecies of brushtail possum, as this is the species most likely to come into care. Rock ringtail possums should only be cared for by experienced carers.

This information should be used as a guide only. You will need specific information to properly care for injured or orphaned wildlife.

Read more about rescuing and releasing animals in the Northern Territory (NT).

You need a permit to care for injured or rescued wildlife.

Background

There are two species of possum in the NT, the rock ringtail possum (Petropseudes dahli) and the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). 

Both species are nocturnal marsupial mammals.

Rock ringtail possum

The rock ringtail is found across the Top End. It lives in tight-knit family groups, where parents and the young from previous breeding care for the new young. 

These possums are found in rocky terrain with trees and foliage nearby. These animals rarely come into care. When they do, they should only be looked after by experienced carers.

Common brushtail possum

There are two subspecies of the common brushtail possum in the NT. The subspecies Trichosurus vulpecula vulpecula lives in isolated populations in the southern part of the Territory and is endangered in the NT. 

If you encounter this species, report it to Parks and Wildlife immediately.

The Top End subspecies Trichosurus vulpecula arnhemensis lives in the monsoon tropics of the NT and in the Kimberley in Western Australia. It is locally common, although it is declining in its native habitats.

Housing

Possums should be kept in a quiet, secure location away from family pets and excessive noise. This includes general household noise, traffic, domestic animals and construction.

Orphaned possums

Orphaned possums should be kept in an artificial pouch that rests against a heat pad set at 30 degrees Celsius to 32 degrees Celsius. 

As the possum develops fur, it should be placed in a small enclosure to allow climbing. 

When the possum is spending a lot of time outside the pouch, provide a nest box or tree hollow to rest in.

As the possum grows, increase the size of the cage to encourage natural behaviour. 

Adult possums

Adult possums can be housed in an enclosure that is 3.5m long by 3.5m wide by 3.5m high.

The space should be arranged to make sure the possum doesn’t feel threatened when you enter to feed or clean.

The enclosure should do all of the following:

  • be as natural as possible, with plenty of the elements possums would encounter in the wild
  • have tree trunks with a circumference larger than the possum’s climbing grip
  • have a mixture of stable and flexible climbing structures, such as wobbly branches and rope
  • have a natural floor with leaf litter and grasses
  • have places to put native food, such as branches or flowering and fruiting flora
  • have multiple nesting areas, including horizontal and vertical nest logs - the open end of the log should be higher than the closed end to encourage upward movement when the animal is climbing out
  • house adult possums separately, unless it’s a mother with at-foot young
  • have shelter to protect from Wet Season weather, heavy sun, or wind and temperature extremes
  • have secluded areas for sleeping and feeding
  • be secure from domestic pets and predators
  • include items to stimulate the possums
  • be cleaned daily and disinfected between inhabitants.

Food and water

In the wild, common brushtail possums are generalist feeders. They will eat leaves, fruits, flowers, fungi, bark and sometimes small lizards, birds and eggs. 

Possums have a low metabolic rate and can easily become overweight. Their diet should be mostly native plants.

Feeding possum joeys

Orphaned possum joeys need to be fed a special milk formula according to their growth stage. 

Possum joeys should never be fed regular cow’s milk as lactose will cause diarrhoea, slow their growth and may cause death. 

There are three brands of formula on the market, which are Wombaroo Possum Milk, Biolac M100 and Di-Vetelact. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for feeding regimes and rates. 

Specialised formulas can be purchased from vet clinics, pet shops or directly from the manufacturers.

Feeding adult possums

Possums eat or live in any of the following plant species:

  • woollybutt
  • stringybark
  • ironwood
  • green plum
  • Acacia difficilis
  • cocky apple
  • Persoonia falcate
  • Acacia aulrcocarpa
  • Xanthostemo paradoxus
  • red bush apple
  • Gardenia megasperma
  • various creeper species.

Their food can be supplemented with small amounts of fruits and vegetables. 

Do not feed possums almonds, cheese, onions, dairy products, green potatoes or junk food.

Put food in containers in high, sheltered areas. Spread the food throughout the enclosure to promote natural foraging.

Possums need fresh water daily. Their water containers need to be heavy and wide-based so they can't tip them over.

Capture and handling

Possums must be handled with care as they may scratch and bite.

Possums can be caught using a catch net or a large blanket. Fold a blanket around the possum's body to provide even pressure on the animal and to protect the handler.

When handling a possum, hold the tail and the scruff of the neck or hold the head and neck between the index and middle fingers.

Limit handling to the shortest time possible.

Transport

Possums can be transported in a hessian or calico bag. Do not use lighter materials as possums can tear them easily.

Always turn the bag inside out so the animal doesn't get tangled or catch its claws on seams. 

Possums can also be transported in a secure, well-ventilated pet pack or box.

Be careful that the animal doesn't overheat during transport.

Enrichment

Enrichment is the set of things you can do to help an animal regain natural behaviour and be ready for release to the wild.

You can use all of the following enrichment strategies to prepare a possum to be released:

  • provide a number of nesting logs
  • provide climbing logs that have a larger circumference than the possum's grip
  • provide varied, flexible horizontal branches
  • string up flexible rope for climbing
  • spread food through the enclosure to encourage foraging
  • grow native grasses with roots in the enclosure
  • grow a variety of bush tucker such as native trees and shrubs
  • feed them apple halves spiked with hard nuts and seeds
  • put rotting logs on the ground to encourage them to forage for insects
  • occasionally place logs with the scent of other animals in the enclosure.

How to tell a possum is ready to release

A possum is ready to release when it is showing the following behaviours:

  • coping with changes
  • moving to different nesting sites
  • foraging food at varying heights
  • active at night
  • recognises predators
  • looking for and eating a range of foods
  • showing good climbing skills
  • uses its tail when moving and sourcing food
  • showing less abnormal behaviour, such as pacing or self-mutilation, and more natural behaviour
  • not getting bacterial dermatitis as much
  • showing improved physical fitness
  • marking objects with its scent
  • is self-reliant and does not seek human interaction.

Contact

For more information contact Wildlife Operations in your region.

Last updated: 27 June 2017