Opossums are great fakers. In addition to very convincingly “playing dead,” their other common defense mechanism is to stagger, sway, drool, open their jaws, and hiss when frightened. To anyone with a passing familiarity with rabies— even if only from old movies— it’s easy to mistake these behaviors for symptoms of a serious and fatal illness.
If an opossum’s defensive bluff is enough to make you give it space, that’s a good thing! But if it causes you to panic and kill the little critter out of fear, that’s not good at all.
While absolutely any mammal can get rabies— even bunnies and squirrels!— it’s very rare for it to occur in opossums. Each year, recorded cases of rabies in opossums are even lower than cases in cattle, deer, and horses. This is likely because of a combination of their robust immune systems (necessary for their scavenging lifestyle) and their low body temperature, which doesn’t incubate rabies as readily as most mammals.
With that said, it’s important to listen to an opossum’s “I’m scary and rabid!” bluff, even though it’s pretty much always a bluff. If you do get bitten by an opossum (or any other wild animal) it’s very likely that you’ll have to choose between having the critter put to sleep for testing, and undergoing a series of very expensive and painful shots. Please give wild animals space, for their safety and yours!