Young Opossum playing dead.

Why Do Possums Play Dead?

Possums are often known to play dead as a defense mechanism when they sense danger. This physiological response is commonly known as “playing possum.”

Despite being a common behavior, few people understand why possums are playing dead and why this benefits them. Let’s dive into the fascinating world of possum behavior and explore why they do this.

Key pest Points:

•  Playing dead is a defense mechanism used by possums when threatened.
•  Possums can stay playing dead for 40 minutes to four hours.
•  Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help and avoid picking up or touching the possum, as they may become aggressive.

What Possums Do When They ‘Play Dead’?

Possums are unique creatures that have developed a fascinating survival strategy known as playing dead. When threatened by a predator, a possum suddenly falls to the ground, closes its eyes, and remains completely still.

This behavior is known as “playing possum.” While it may seem risky, playing dead allows a possum to avoid being attacked by predators only interested in live prey.

When a possum plays dead, its entire body goes limp, and its breathing and heartbeat slows down. While this behavior may seem like an elaborate act, it is not a conscious decision on the part of the possum. It is an automatic response that occurs when the possum feels threatened. Once the danger has passed, the possum will “wake up” and resume its normal activity.

The behavior of possums, when they play dead, is a fascinating example of how animals have adapted to survive in their environment. By playing possum, they can avoid being attacked by predators and live to see another day.

Advantages of ‘Playing Possum’

Playing possum is a defense mechanism used by possums when they feel threatened by potential predators. Here are a few advantages that a possum can enjoy when it plays dead:

Avoiding predators: One of the primary advantages of playing possum is that it confuses predators that rely on movement and activity to locate prey. When the possum becomes limp, the predator assumes that the prey is dead and may abandon its efforts to pursue it.

Reduce Injury: By playing dead, a possum can reduce the chance of sustaining serious injury. While a predator may still attack the possum, it is less likely to do so if it believes that its prey is already dead.

Playing possum is a smart and advantageous technique used by possums to protect themselves against potential predators. A deeper understanding of the possum’s behavior can help conserve and preserve it.

What Does a Possum Playing Dead Look Like?

When a possum plays dead, it appears lifeless and limp, while its tongue hangs out of its mouth, and its eyes appear closed. The possum’s muscles are relaxed, and its body excretes foul-smelling saliva that mimics the scent of decay. These combined factors can make it difficult to distinguish between an opossum playing dead and a dead possum.

What Other Defenses Does a Possum Have?

Possums are nocturnal animals, which means they have a range of defenses apart from playing dead, which assists them in avoiding danger from their predators. Among their primary defenses are their impressive agility and acrobatic skills.

Possums are excellent tree climbers, thanks to their powerful hind legs, sharp claws, and long tails that they use to balance themselves. Climbing trees enables possums to seek refuge and safety from predators, such as coyotes, foxes, and wild dogs, as well as from car traffic.

Another defensive strategy that possums use is the secretion of a nasty-smelling fluid that they expel from their anal glands when threatened. Like skunk spray, the pungent odor repels most predators, including dogs, foxes, and cats. Additionally, possums possess sharp teeth and can bite if provoked, particularly when cornered.

While playing dead is a well-known possum defensive mechanism, they have several other strategies that enable them to survive in harsh environments. With their flexibility and adaptation, along with their resourcefulness, possums have thrived, becoming a fascinating and beloved omnivores.

How Long Will an Opossum Play Dead?

Opossums can stay playing dead for an average of 40 minutes to four hours before regaining consciousness. Despite their odd behavior, opossums use this tactic as a lifesaving strategy when they don’t have many other choices for survival.

What To Do If You Find a Possum Playing Dead?

If you come across a possum playing dead, it is crucial to approach them with caution. Possums often use this defense mechanism to trick predators into leaving them alone.

However, this behavior also puts them at risk of coming into harm’s way, especially in urban areas. Here are a few steps to take if you find an opossum in your yard:

1. Give it enough space and time: Once the animal is observed, it should be left alone for at least 40 minutes before taking action.

2. Remove threats: If the possum is in danger due to traffic or other predators, it must be moved away from harm’s way. However, make sure that you use excessive caution while handling these animals.

3. Set a trap: Setting a live trap for possums can help relocate these animals to a more suitable location. It can also be a humane way to remove them without incident.

4. Call Animal Control: If the animal remains motionless after 40 minutes, contact your local wildlife management office for assistance. Be sure not to handle these animals as they can be dangerous if provoked.

These steps can help you to ensure the safety of a possum playing dead. Possums are valuable members of their ecosystems and deserve our respect, care, and protection for them to thrive.

Adult female Virginia opossum on the fence


How long will an opossum play dead?

When feeling threatened, opossums use different defense mechanisms, from baring their sharp teeth to climbing a nearby tree for safety. If escape is not an option, they’ll fake death as if playing possum – remaining limp and immobile until the danger has passed for 40 minutes to four hours.

Can possums feel pain when playing dead?

When threatened, possums enter a state of shock, unlike any other reflexive animal behavior. While they appear dead, there is no pain or response, and their eyes remain still – even if the predator swats them repeatedly or tries to break bones.

Do possums play dead or go into shock?

When a confrontation gets too intense, an opossum’s instinct is to take the ultimate chill pill – playing dead! This involuntary response occurs when stress levels peak, triggering shock in the animal.

Can you pick up a possum playing dead?

Homeowners should be wary of any “dead” opossums they encounter. These pests may look motionless but are still alive and could transmit illnesses.

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