The Virginia opossum’s rat-like appearance and association with filth leads many people to associate it with disease. In the last few years, many people have been alarmed by headlines about opossums spreading murine typhus in Los Angeles, and it has reignited fears about this gentle marsupial.
No mammal actually spreads murine typhus. Typhus is caused by dangerous bacteria spread through the poo of a specific type of flea, known to some as the “cat flea.” Cat fleas, as their names suggest, prefer to snack on kitties and are often found in enormous numbers in colonies of feral cats. Cat fleas have also been found on the bodies of dogs, mice, rats, and, most recently, opossums. They most likely made the jump from cats to opossums when opossums dined with feral cats at outdoor feeding stations.
Any time a human touches an animal with cat fleas, there is a risk that the flea could jump from the animal to the human, bite the human, and poop on the human’s skin. If the person scratches their skin and gets the flea poop in an open cut, they might catch murine typhus. All of this requires a series of very unlikely events happening at the same time, and opossums aren’t a likely culprit.
The most important way to prevent murine typhus is through avoiding exposure to cat fleas. If you have pets, use effective flea treatments year-round. Use good home hygiene and effective pest control to keep flea-carrying rodents away from your house. If you have a flea infestation in your home, address it promptly.
If you do see a cat, dog, or wild animal— including an opossum— that needs help, please don’t handle it without gloves and call a professional, licensed rescuer to assist. But unless you’re personally handling opossums without gloves on a regular basis, your odds of catching murine typhus from them are nearly nonexistent.