Short-Tailed Opossum: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Monodelphis domestica
Dawson/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

Short-tailed opossums have grown in popularity as an exotic pet. They are very good pets for beginners because of their cleanliness, omnivorous diet, and general good health. These opossums are small, generally friendly creatures with easy care requirements, and they certainly are cute! Not to be confused with the North American opossums that may be rescued by wildlife centers, these shorter-tailed cousins have been imported and bred as pets since 1978.

Natives of Brazil and neighboring countries in northern South America, the short-tailed opossum has a thick, grey-brown coat, a muzzle similar to a rat, and very sharp teeth. They have large ears but they are very thin-skinned. Their large ears make them quite sensitive to sound, and their large eyes give them good night vision. The hind legs are a good deal longer than their front legs. An opossum's tail is hairless and prehensile, meaning that it can wrap around and hold onto objects.

Species Overview

Common Name: Short-tailed opossum

Scientific Name: Monodelphis domestica

Adult Size: Body is 4 to 6 inches long; tail almost as long as the body

Life Expectancy: 4 to 8 years in captivity

Short-Tailed Opossum Behavior and Temperament

The short-tailed opossum can become friendly and docile. It can be handled easily by people and is curious, active, and entertaining. Because of their tendency to fight with others of their own species, they do best as solitary pets. Cage mates will become aggressive and may eventually even kill each other.

They should only be kept together for breeding, and even then, a pairing should be only allowed for a short time period. There seems to be no difference between the genders when it comes to temperament around humans; males and females make equally good pets as both are often inquisitive and friendly.

Opossums are marsupials, although they do not have a young-rearing pouch, like most marsupials. As the young are born quite premature and helpless, they latch onto a nipple on their mother's abdomen; there they will stay until they are further developed. They are tidy animals but are known to escape their enclosures. The short-tailed opossum is a nocturnal animal so it might not be a good pet for a child.

Housing the Short-Tailed Opossum

Short-tailed opossums are adept at escaping, so whatever enclosure is provided should be made escape-proof. A well-ventilated aquarium (at least 20 gallons) with a tight-fitting lid or a narrow-mesh wire cage should work well. The temperature of the enclosure should be kept at 70 to 80 F.

Bedding should be provided for the opossum. Corn cob litter or shavings (avoid cedar) work well. A nest box is also required, either a commercial, woven nest, or a plastic container like a margarine tub will work, but be sure there are no sharp edges. Tissue or shredded paper (avoid inked newspaper) will be used as nesting material.

Branches for perching and climbing are necessary. Make sure they are non-toxic and have never been treated with any pesticides; parrot climbing toys and ladders also work well for opossums. In addition, a solid-surface hamster wheel can be added to provide an opportunity for exercise. Assure that long tails cannot get stuck in the device. They may also like tunnels, cardboard tubing, flowerpots, and other containers to climb through and into. Avoid PVC material that may off-gas.

Short-tailed opossums are fairly tidy creatures and will usually pick a corner area to use as a potty; place a litter pan in that location to make cage cleaning easier. These animals are relatively odor-free, and they only need the cage cleaned once per week.

Food and Water

Short-tailed opossum owners and breeders tend to feed a wide variety of things to their animals. It is possible to get commercially manufactured short tail food (e.g. Brisky's Short-Tailed Opossum Food). Otherwise, a commercial insectivore diet probably provides the best basic nutrition, although some people feed cat food, ferret food, and a variety of other pelleted diets with success.

Look for diets that are high in protein and low in fat. A variety of additional treats should be offered, including mealworms, crickets, fresh fruit and vegetables (offer a variety), and hard-boiled eggs. Other options for quick and easy foods are applesauce and baby foods.

Dry food should be available throughout the day, and live insects or fruit can be offered between one and five times a day. Feeding bigger items such as eggs or chicken is best done at night. Remove the items in the morning if they have not been consumed. Occasionally, special treats can include small amounts of cooked chicken and low-fat yogurt.

Using a general vitamin/mineral supplement is a good idea as well. Water is very important to short tails as they can dehydrate very quickly, so it is vital to make sure their hanging water bottle is always accessible and filled with fresh, clean, and clear (preferably non-chlorinated) water.

Common Health Problems

The short-tailed opossums are fairly hardy pets. They can become ill if proper care is not taken, but most ailments are preventable with good husbandry. They do seem to suffer from anal prolapse, which can be effectively prevented with ivermectin twice a year.

You should also have regular visits with an exotic animal veterinarian to care for this unusual pet. Make sure you have one lined up and at the ready prior to bringing your short-tailed opossum home. You'll need to schedule regular check-ups, and you'll also want them on-hand to help you with any emergencies as inquisitive pets sometimes get into things they shouldn't.

Purchasing Your Short-Tailed Opossum

Bringing home a baby that's three to four months old is best, but adults will bond with you as well. Always check first with local adoption agencies, rescues, and exotics rehabbers to see if they have or can locate a short-tailed opossum in need of a forever home. The next best option is to find a reputable breeder in your area. The rescues may be able to inform you on this topic as well.

Is It Legal to Own a Pet Short-Tailed Opossum? 

As of June 2006, hobbyists with three or fewer breeding females do not need a federal USDA license to own a short-tailed opossum; as they are a species from South America, they are not wildlife indigenous to North America. Larger breeders and all retail pet stores do need a current USDA license to sell them.

The state agencies that regulate exotic pet ownership are the Department of Fish & Game and the Department of Natural Resources. Check with your local state agency to make sure you are legally allowed to house a South American short-tailed opossum; be sure you specify the full species name so as to avoid receiving misinformation.

Lastly, check with your local municipality to find out if it is legal to own a short-tailed opossum. You may need a special permit or registration. An exotics vet can also help clarify your town or city laws.

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