Feeding a Baby possum
PREPARING TO FEED
A possum needs to be warm and hydrated before milk replacer can be offered. Thus, before feeding, check for warmth and hydration.
Testing for Warmth
Feel the possum’s body, ears and feet for warmth
Testing for hydration
Look at face
Are the eyes wide open and glossy or dull and partly closed. If the possum is severely dehydrated, their eyes will look dull (not glossy and moist) and may not be fully open.
Rub skin over ribs. Does it move smoothly or does it ‘stick’? Can you feel fluid under the skin. The skin will glide freely if the possum is well hydrated but will feel ‘sticky’ if dehydrated.
Pinch the skin between the shoulder blades with your fingers and measure the time it takes for the skin to smooth out again.
o Immediate smoothing out – indicates a good level of hydration
o Slow to return to normal smoothing – indicates a poor level or dehydration.
If a possum comes into care and is well hydrated, offer milk replacer once it is warm.
If it is only mildly hydrated, offer it pre boiled water orally and then start it on milk replacer an hour later. .
If the possum is dehydrated, it will need subcutaneous fluids (fluids injected under the skin). A local vet or wildlife carer will be able to inject fluids.
Young possums may regurgitate their food. Don’t panic if your possum stretches its head out and looks like it is convulsing for a few seconds. If this continues, you should seek assistance.
WHAT TO FEED
Joeys are dependant on their mother’s milk. This is delivered from a teat in her pouch. We need to offer a milk substitute. Do not give cows milk as possums are lactose intolerant.
Wombaroo Possum Milk Replacer is recommended. A possum’s milk strength changes as the baby develops. Wombaroo mirrors these changes and makes two strengths of milk formula. One is for in pouch joeys and the other for joeys where 80% of pouch life is complete. Check feeding charts to calculate which milk is required.
Other formulas available are universal formulas, meaning they are made for any baby animal, not specifically possums. Examples of this are Formulae One and Divetalac.
Making the Milk
The milk should be made up with cooled boiled water. Store the liquid milk you have made in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Do not use milk older than this.
Alternatively, you can make up a larger batch and freeze it. It can be stored in the freezer in small containers. Small jars or film canisters can be used. Film canisters are an ideal size for one day’s milk. They can be obtained from your local photographic shop.
Sterilise all equipment used to make up the milk with boiling water or antibacterial solution.
How Much to Feed and How Often
Weigh your joey and assess their development stage. Refer to our feeding and development charts to calculate the feeding regime.
The development stage is very important. A sick animal may be underweight and thus older than its weight suggests. For example,, a baby ringtail which is one of twins or triplets, may be half to two thirds the weight of a single young.
To help determine an approximate age, as well as measuring weight as a guide, you can:
o look at the fur to see if it is flat or fluffy. If its fluffy, this indicates an older possum,
o note whether its eyes are shut, slitting or open. If open, it may be older,
o take note of its faeces to see if is toothpaste consistency or pellets. If pellets, this indicates an older possum
o if it is emerging from the pouch to cling to Mum, an emerging joey will start to eat natives, fruit and veg., as well as their milk formula.
Impact is another Wombaroo product which can be added to the milk. It is a food supplement made from bovine colostrum power and provides the possum with a substitute colostrum to boost its immune system.
Marsupials are different from eutherian animals (horses, pigs, dogs, humans), as the mothers do not produce a colostral milk, containing immunoglobins, soon after birth.. Instead, baby possums receive immunoglobulins throughout lactation – so, for the entire period they are feeding from mum, their immune system is supported by mum. A joey misses out on this during the period in which we raise it and its immune system may thus be compromised. As a result, it can be prone to many problems.
Colostrum is the first milk produced after birth by eutherian animals. It is high in protein, much of which is immunoglobulin. Immunoglobulins are a group of proteins with antibody characteristics. They are produced in response to infection by micro-organisms. Most species are born devoid of immunity and must acquire all their initial immunoglobulins from colostrum.
When to use Impact
Impact can be used for very young furless marsupials, sick marsupials of any age or marsupials which do not thrive throughout their lactation period.
It can also be used for marsupials with thrush or diarrhoea. Impact has shown good results in preventing and treating thrush in marsupials. Use Impact in the formula until all signs of thrush (colour, smell, bubbling etc.) have ceased, and continue for a least four days to boost the immunity. If there is no improvement within 2 days, it may be used in conjunction with Nilstat.
Impact can be added daily to the milk replacer you make up.
HOW TO FEED
What to use
Feeding a possum must initially be done using a syringe (plastic or glass) with a teat or trimmed winged infusion attached to the end.
Warm the Milk Replacer
The milk replacer (or boiled water, if required to address rehydration) should be fed to the joey at body temperature.
To warm the milk replacer (or boiled water), draw up into the syringe to the required level. Then place a teat over the bottom end and heat by placing it in a mug of warm water. Test the temperature BEFORE feeding the baby possum. This can be done by squirting a few drops onto the under side of your wrist.
Feeding the possum
Keep in mind you will be teaching the baby possum a new way of feeding. There are a number of things to do to entice the baby to this new way.
Feed in pouch
Feed the possum in a pouch and, initially, covering its eyes with the pouch liner. You can cup its body and pouch in your hand to make it feel more secure.
As it gets older and has been in care for a while, it may prefer to have its face uncovered.
Placement of the teat or winged infusion
Each possum likes to be feed differently. Some like the teat/winged infusion at the front of their mouth, while others like it at the side. Some like to take the teat into their mouth and others like to lick the milk off the end of the teat.
To encourage the possum to start feeding, place the teat at its lips and squirt some milk onto the lips. If this doesn’t work, you may need to push to teat into the side of its mouth, between their teeth on the lip.
Once it has been in care for a few days, it should settle into this new feeding method and may even start to take the teat into their mouth as soon as they see it.
Being in a noisy place or having strangers present at feed time can upset some sensitive joeys and they may not feed. We recommend you begin feeding a new joey alone and in a quiet room.
Remove any spilt milk from the possum’s fur with a damp tissue and change the pouch if it is wet and soiled. Milk left uncleaned can lead to problems.
Cleaning feeding utensils
All syringes etc need to be sterlised and kept very clean.
After use, always clean with warm water and detergent to dissolve fats. Bottle brushes are useful – and salt is a good abrasive to clean inside teats. Leave in antibacterial solution (such as Milton) for small possums (e.g. if on more than 2 feeds a day). Rinse the Miltons from the syringes etc. with boiled water before the next feed.
By the time the joey is down to two milk feeds a day, it should be introduced to ‘lapping’. This can be initiated from a spoon held in front of the possum. Once it has caught on, the spoon can be placed onto the bench – and eventually the milk can be placed into a small bowl and left in the cage. Rat bowls are good as they are small and can not be knocked over. Alternatively, use a small “D” cup.
Do not re-use warmed milk. Bacteria can breed in milk which has been warmed.
Difficult Feeders and New Possums
A possum can be difficult to feed when it first comes into care. This may be from the stress of its ordeal or it could be in pain or dehydrated. If in pain, it may need pain relief and assessment by a veterinarian. Check its hydration levels as a dehydrated possum will not feed.
Suggetions to Encourage a Reluctant Feeder
o Press your thumb and forefinger either side of its mouth while feeding to encourage sucking
o Keep its pouch snug around it.
o A sweetener can be added to the milk replacer, such as honey water. To make honey water, dissolve ½ tsp of honey in 2 teaspoons of boiling water. Add 1 ml of the honey water to 10 ml of milk replacer. If the possum has diarrhoea, or there is a potential risk of diarrhoea, do not add a sweetener to the milk.
o Dip the teat into honey to encourage the possum to take it in its mouth.
o Some ringtails can be difficult to feed and may prefer to lap from a teaspoon at an early age rather than be fed with a syringe and teat.
If you are nervous, your possum may be picking up on this.
Consider, again, if your household is noisy. A very sensitive possum does not like noise – or people, other than their carer, to be present when they are fed.
Remember possums are nocturnal and only active at night. Thus, they are not accustomed to bright lights. Ensure your light is not shining into the possum’s face.
Contact an experienced wildlife carer if you are having difficulty feeding a possum.
An experienced wildlife carer may be able to give you some suggestions or, by looking at the possum, may notice an injury or be able to give you ideas on improving your feeding technique.
Some possums coming into care may need an experienced carer for the first 24hrs, in order to settle and teach them the new way of feeding and captive life.