A guide to raising Brushtail possums

To raise and release any native species requires you to have a license from D.E.R.M.  If you are interested in becoming a carer, please read through this site, then contact this group or another to find out about joining. 

This information is a guide only.  Practices change and are updated constantly. 

You must be licensed to raise a Brushtail Joey. 

 

Always be aware when raising native animals that the reason you are doing this is to eventually return that animal to the wild.  As much as a joey needs love and attention, the time will come when you have to distance yourself from the animal to give it a better chance of survival in the bush. 

To this end, from the moment you decide to be a foster carer, you need to plan for the needs of the possum, its growth and development, and its eventual release back into its native habitat.  Possums need outside aviaries to explore and experiment in, to learn the climbing, leaping and hanging skills so necessary to survival.  Keeping an adult possum in a cockatoo cage will not encourage a viable releasable animal. 
Possums are not pets – they cannot be house-trained.  So as much as your adorable joey possum likes to live in your house, the time will come when you both need a separate space away from each other!
Brushtails in the wild prefer open woodland, with older trees which have hollows for nest sites.  One brushtail will have several nesting sites within its territory.  Brushtails are usually solitary animals, although they will share the same feeding areas.  As a rule they only come together for mating purposes.  They can be very territorial, and can inflict severe damage during fights over territory or mates. 
Brush-tailed possums will nest in caves and holes, and in man-made structures and roof tops. This latter habit can cause some dissension between humans and possums.  They live in a diversity of habitats, ranging from lush forests to desert regions, including wet and dry sclerophyll forest and woodlands. 
A mature brushtail will weigh in at anything from around 2 kg to 4 ½ kg, depending upon the sex of the animal and where it comes from.  Breeding for females can start when they are around 14-16 months, and for the males at 18-24 months.
The main breeding season for brushtails is between March/May and again in September/ November.
Gestation takes approximately 18 days, and a joey the size of a jelly bean is born.  The head and front legs are formed, but the joey has underdeveloped back legs.  It crawls from the mother’s cloacae to the pouch, where further development takes place.  Usually only one brushtail is born at a time, although the pouch has two teats.  For around the first 80 days, the joey is permanently attached to the teat.  Babies are born furless, eyes closed and ears attached to the head.  Weights and times below are approximated.
90 days–75 gm - eyes are opening.
95 days-90 gm- skin darkens prior to fur appearing.
100 days-100 gm- fine covering of fur appears
120 days – 150 gm- fine fur all over, starting to emerge from pouch
130 days-200 gm-nibbling solid food
150 days-400 gm- put in indoor cage
Joeys do not emerge from the mother’s pouch until they are 4 to 5 months old, and then back ride on the mother, still drinking her milk as well as eating solids.  They are weaned by the time they are 8-9 months old. 
A furless brushtail joey has a better chance of survival than a furless ringtail joey.  Once they are furred, failing an injury, then their survival rate is very good. 
At some point of being a carer, you may be required to remove a joey from a dead mother’s pouch.  If the joey is still attached to the teat, DO NOT PULL IT OFF.  If you do, you will cause irreparable damage to the joey’s palate, and the joey will eventually die.  Ensure first that the mother is dead, and then place a safety pin or paper clip THROUGH the skin of the teat above the joey’s mouth.  Cut the teat from the mother, but leave it in the joey’s mouth.  The joey will eventually (in around 2-3 hours) spit out the teat itself.  Please don’t be put off by this.  There is no blood or mess, and the skin of the teat is very thin, smaller than a straw.  There is no other way to remove the joey to save it. 
Very young joeys cannot toilet by themselves.  When in the pouch, the mother stimulates them by licking their genital area, which encourages them to defecate or urinate.  This keeps the pouch clean. Hold the joey firmly in one hand, and using a tissue, tickle the area around the cloacae, and joey will do the right thing for you!  Because they can wee quite a lot, I use an old butter container, holding them above it so the wee drops into it.  You can then put a lid on it.  I get a clean container every day.  A joey needs to be stimulated in this way at least every second feed.  Be gentle - over stimulation can cause damage.  A joey first into care may not wee much, as it may be dehydrated.  As the joey grows older, it will go to the toilet by itself.  When it starts to toilet on its own, your job in that area is done!
Brushtails can form a very strong bond with their foster parent.  Like all babies, they need love and attention to thrive, but eventually, you will need to cut down your contact for the sake of survival in the wild. 
Offer native foliage from the time your joey is around 200 grams, as well as milk.  As the joey grows older, drop milk from the mid-evening feed, offering a wide variety of native flowers and foliage.   Be careful of where you collect your foliage – if you roadside collect, there is a chance of lead poisoning occurring from traffic pollution - wash your foliage before giving it to the joey.  Stand the branches in water (I use an old drink bottle tied to the side of the cage) to keep them fresh.  Replace each day or every second day, depending upon how fresh they are.  
Releasing a possum does not mean taking it out into the bush and dumping it there with a banana.  Before the time comes for release, you need to find a suitable release site. 
If you can soft release from your place all the better.  A possum needs a couple of days in an aviary at the place it is going to be released, to accustom it to the noise and smells of the area.  The animal is released by opening the door, and allowing it to choose when it will come and go.  Adult brushtails will often go out for the night and return to sleep in the aviary, and they will often do this for a few weeks.  For the first few nights, I still supplement feed by putting native branches in the aviary.   Eventually, when the possum decides not to return home, I still leave the door open for 5 days, to give the option of a safe haven.  After that, I put feed on top of the aviary in case it is needed, for a week.  Then they are on their own.  I let my neighbours know that I am releasing, so that if my animal ends up in their yard, they can call me.  This way, everyone looks out for my joey!
Release weight for a brushtail varies with the animal, but standard for a female is around 1.0 to 1.2 kg.  For a male, I release around 1.2 to 1. 4.  Often your animal will tell you when it is ready to go.  The scent gland on their chest becomes prominent, and they scent mark their aviary all the time.  They are becoming territorial, and it is not wise to go in the aviary at night at this point!   Sometimes, a smaller animal is ready to go, and sometimes, they can be quite large and still want mum, so common sense on your behalf needs to be employed at this time.  Releasing a large male onto the territory of another large male is asking for trouble.  Juvenile males are more acceptable.  Females have a territory of around 1 km, and a male’s territory will overlap several females, covering a distance of around 3 km. 

Husbandry when they first come into care.
When an animal comes into care, it may well be cold and in shock.  Do not attempt to feed a joey in this condition.  Warm it gently, either with your own body heat or a hot water bottle.  Once the joey is warm and more responsive, you can offer Spark or suitable supplement.  Joey’s are not fed milk until they have done a wee. 
There are several things that can be offered to counteract shock –

  • Rescue remedy – a couple of drops of Rescue Remedy – available from Health Food Shops – in the mouth will help calm the animal.

  • Arnica – a couple of drops in the mouth (6 cc every 3-4 hours)

FEEDING
As a general rule, Brushtails need to take around 15-20% of their body weight in milk; therefore a 100 mg joey will take approx. 15-20 ml per day, usually over a 4 hourly period, so they take around 4/5 ml per feed.  As the joey gets older and drinks more, give more time between feeds and increase the amount offered, until you are down to 4 feeds per day.   From around 250 gram, encourage the joey to be lapping the milk from a bowl. 
At around 400 gm, the joey should be on three feeds a day, and definitely lapping the milk from a bowl.  Native food should be a sturdy part of the diet. 
Joey should be weaned by 500 gm.  Sometimes they wean themselves earlier, but be aware that a joey still drinking milk will not eat his solid food as willingly as he should. 
At this point, it is time to start playing together in the outside aviary.  Take the joey outside to the aviary each day, holding it until it becomes game enough to leave you and explore the aviary on its own.  This takes around 2 weeks.  At this point, leave the joey in the aviary by himself for an hour, then go back and get him.  Do this each day, gradually increasing the time he is left until you feel he is ready to spend a night out by himself.  Make sure you check him first thing in the morning.  By 750 grams your joey should well and truly in the aviary. 
Now comes the hard part!  From around 800 grams you will need to start cutting down your contact with the joey, who is now a teenager!  Take his food in during daylight hours, and collect any leftovers in the morning.  Do not leave food to sit in the aviary during the day, as this encourages vermin and ants into your aviary.  Make sure he has access to fresh water, and keep his foliage fresh.  Now all you need to do is watch until he is old enough to be released. 

INTRODUCING SOLIDS
When you are introducing solids to your joey’s diet, start with flowers from native plants.  Native foods are always best.  The tips from branches, new growth, have a soft feel and a nice smell.  At first your little one will just ‘gum’ them, but eventually they will have a good munch.  Don’t offer things like chocolate or peanut butter and toast – they are not going to find these foods growing on the trees!
All possums, like people, have individual tastes, and you will have to experiment until you find what your joey will eat.  Sometimes they refuse a food when they are little, then love it when they are older!
Most native plants/foliage is suitable to offer but try some of these:
Eucalyptus torelliana (Cadaghi)
E. ptychocarpa (Swamp Bloodwood)
E.curtisii (Plunkett Mallee)
E. tereticornis (Forest Red Gum)
E.camadulensis (River Red Gum)
Grevillea (leaves and flowers)
Calliandra (Pom Pom) (leaves and flowers)
Rose (leaves)
Lilly Pilly (leaves, fruit and flowers)
Mango (leaves, fruit and flowers)
Plumbago (flowers)
Crepe Myrtle (flowers)
Bottlebrush (leaves and flowers)
Mulberry (leaves, fruit and flowers)

 

DON’T OFFER- Azalea, Oleander, Pepper Tree and Allemande – These are poisonous to possums. 
This dip is particularly good for an adult possum that is unwell. 
Avocado dip – 1 ripe avocado, peeled and mashed.  Equal amounts of baby cereal (Farex), 1 teaspoon of honey.   Mix to a smooth paste with water.  
DO NOT neglect native foods – Foraging for native branches is part of your commitment to being a carer. 

 IN A NUTSHELL. . . . . . .
Un-furred or under 100 grams- you will need perseverance and patience to raise a little one like this.  Be prepared to do night time feeds in the wee small hours!  Once a brushtail hits around 70 gram they have a much better chance of survival.  Their eyes start to open anywhere from this weight on, and it is pure delight to be the one that they see first!
These babies must be kept warm at all times.  You will need a hospital box or a basket with a heat pad to offer constant heat.   A hot water bottle will do the job, but you must ensure that the water is kept up to temperature.  There must be an ambient temperature of around 30 -32 C.  Place the joey in a snug pouch.  Layer a towel over the top to keep in warmth.  I use old nappies.

 

These babies take a large number of small feeds per day.  At this age, I use a 1ml syringe because then I can keep track easily of
how much the joey is taking.  You may, however, find it easier to use a bottle and teat.  Make sure you measure the milk, and keep
track of what is eaten.  New babies are not used to opening their mouths, so you many need to prize the jaw apart gently to insert the syringe or teat.  At this age, the mouth is often still joined at the edges, so softly, softly!

You are looking at 2 ½ to 3 hourly feeds with a joey this size. 
70 grams – less than 2 ml per feed
100 grams – about 3 ml per feed
Common sense is involved here.  Don’t force the joey to eat – if
the milk is coming back up, it doesn’t want it!  Feed amounts are gradually increased, as their tummy has to get used to it. 

100 grams to 200 grams
Babies that come into care at this age should still be watched for shock.  Check for body warmth, and do not feed a cold joey.  Again, it is your choice, and that of the joey, on whether to feed with a syringe or a bottle and teat.  Some will take to the bottle well, and others don’t. 
At the lower weight, you are on 3 hourly feeds (6,9,12,3,6,9) working up to four hourly as their weight and the quantity they take increases.  You may need to top them up before going to bed.
At around 150 grams, introduce native foliage.  Around 200 gram offer thinly sliced banana and other soft fruits.  The joey may take no interest in them at first, but gradually he will start to investigate what you offer.  Don’t offer more than one piece of each fruit – it will only be wasted at first.   Soft custards and pureed fruits are also acceptable, and encourages them to lap. 
200 gram to 300 gram
A joey of this age coming into care may still need artificial warmth for the first 24 to 48 hours.  After that, the joey should be able to keep itself warm.  If the weather is warm, reduce the heat to night time only, otherwise you may dehydrate the joey.  Again, it is your choice of bottle or syringe, but at this age a joey can be encouraged to lap at a bowl.  Sometimes bottle feeding can settle a new orphan in. 
200 grams –  6-10 ml per feed over 4 feeds
300 grams – 12 -15 ml per feed over 4 feeds
These babies may have been investigating native food from the safety of mum’s back.  Offer flowers and soft fruit, and work up. 
300 gram to 500 gram
Again, artificial warmth for a new joey coming into care, but a hand raised animal already in care should be warm enough in a pouch on its own.  Joey should be encouraged to be lapping, even if you need to hold it to start with.  If it won’t lap, then revert to bottle or syringe until the joey settles.  Native food and solids should be available.
300 gram – 12-15 ml per feed over 4 feeds
400 gram – reduce to 3 feeds, cutting out the mid-evening milk to encourage eating of solids.
500 gram – reduce to 2 feeds, morning and night, then one bowl left out at night until joey is weaned.

This is information is written from my own experience with raising Brushtails.  I have collected and collated the information over several years, gained from sharing information with other carers.  This publication is designed to provide an overview of the subject matter covered, and whilst due care was taken in writing the materials, no liability is accepted for any error, omission or reliance upon information or advice.

B. Clarke ©

 

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