It is quite common to see one or more brushtail possums passing through our place of a night, but recently I had an experience with a possum that I wanted to share with you.
I want to tell you about the deadly dermatitis that brushtail possums can get and also about my personal experience with a possum suffering from this hideous illness.
The disease is called Exudative Dermatitis and is a terrible skin condition that affects common brushtail possums. If left untreated it can cause a painful death.
A possum who is suffering stress gets a little scratch which becomes infected by a bacteria which then leads to the skin condition.
Stress can come from not getting enough food, overcrowding in the area, a joey’s mother being killed, not enough homes available, being involved in fights over territory, being chased or attacked by dogs and cats, living in suburbia, injuries etc.
It is also believed that humidity plays a contributing factor in causing the dermatitis as tropical conditions may increase the growth of bacteria.
The dermatitis starts off as small red patches on the body and often the front paws are wet from the weeping of blisters. Scabs form and fur falls out. The affected skin then falls off and the bare patch looks red and raw, much like a bad burn. The disease spreads quickly and in later stages the possum can become blind. Eventually the possum will die.
The disease occurs around the face, legs, rump and tail, and adult females can also have dermatitis on their back where their joey has scratched them while hanging on as a backrider.
A possum suffering from this deadly dermatitis can be treated and saved but only if treated in the early stages of the disease. A vet will need to assess the animal and if it can be saved, they will start a course of antibiotics. The possum will then be looked after by a wildlife carer for about 2 weeks while continuing the medication. After this time if the vet gives the all clear, the possum will be released back into the wild.
My Possum Story
A while ago we discovered a mother possum and her joey were regular visitors in a possum box we had that was situated underneath the house and on top of a tall cupboard that you needed a ladder to get to. Here they are in this photo taken on 13th February 2016.
On 27th February 2016 I had another peek in the box and took a photo of the same two possums. If you look closely, you can see a little red mark around one of the joey’s eyes. This is the beginning of the dermatitis, however, we didn’t know that at the time.
On 6th March 2016, which was only a week later, I took another peek in the box and was shocked to see the joey looking like this.
I did some quick research on the internet and it looked like the joey had this dermatitis disease. I rang the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital who said we could bring the joey down to them. When we got our things together and had a plan how to take them there, we found that both the mother and joey had climbed out of the box. Upon seeing us, the joey climbed straight back into the box, so we put a netting over the entrance so it couldn’t get out. The mother possum sat in the corner on top of the cupboard, and since neither me nor my husband knew how to handle a full grown possum who was unwilling to get into the possum box, we decided to leave her there and just take the joey. Since the possum box was not attached to anything and was just wedged in between the cupboard and the rafters, it was easy to manoeuvre it out and take the possum box down to the hospital with the joey inside it. From the look of the receptionist’s face at the hospital, I don’t think they see many possums brought in complete with their own possum box!
So the joey was admitted to the wildlife hospital and we would get a call later to update us on her condition. The vet I later spoke with confirmed the joey, who was a little girl, had dermatitis but it was in its early stages so she was on antibiotics and waiting for a wildlife carer to collect her. The vet said the joey had the dermatitis not just on the face and leg, but also a lot around the base of her tail. He said she was lucky we were able to catch her and bring her in so she could be treated as she will eventually be able to be released back into the wild.
About two weeks later, we got a call from Tayla, the wildlife carer, who said the joey was doing well and was cleared by the vet at the wildlife hospital to be released. Tayla said the possum was to be released back where she came from, which was our home, so she agreed to meet us the next night so we could be present when the joey was released.
So on the night of 21st March 2016, Tayla, myself and my husband were standing around the base of a tree which Tayla had chosen as the release spot on our property, and in the light of a torch, the cage was opened. The little joey didn’t need much coaxing, she stood up, placed her front paws on the edge of the cage, looked at Tayla, then at me, then bounded off into the darkness!
Here is a photo of the joey just before she was released. You can see that her skin has grown back and is healing nicely. It even looks like some fur has started to grow back.
On one hand, I feel so awful for not picking up on this dermatitis disease earlier with this little possum, but on the other hand, I feel happy that we did get to her in time to save her and she is now free and wild and having possum adventures.
I hope this post has been of use to you and that you are now aware of this dermatitis disease if you weren’t before. If you ever see a possum that looks like it has this disease, please try and capture it safely and take it to a wildlife hospital or wildlife carer. Alternatively, ring a wildlife organisation to come and catch it. Either way, the possum can then receive the medical attention it needs. You might just save a life.