Possum vs Rat: Identifying Key Differences and Similarities

by Morgan Mulac

Possum vs Rat: Identifying Key Differences and Similarities


In the animal kingdom, rats and possums are two creatures that are often misunderstood because of their appearances. Both animals are often seen as dangerous or pests which couldn’t be more false! Both rats and possums can make great pets and companions.

Even though rats are more common and require fewer regulations than possums, you can also adopt possums as pets because they are not as dangerous as they may seem.

We are going to explore in this blog the differences between possums and rats, both in the wild and as companion animals. Including their physical characteristics, their behaviors, and how to identify one from the other.

What is a Possum?


Opossums (commonly called possums) are the only marsupials native to North America, and contrary to what is commonly believed, possums are not rodents at all, but nocturnal animals that are distant relatives of the kangaroo.

Possums have a misunderstood history as being pests, but the truth is that they act as nature's vacuum cleaners and will often get rid of other pests dangerous to humans. Additionally, possums are one of the few animals alive that don’t carry rabies, as their body temperature is too low to carry the virus.

Although considered wildlife in most states, there are many states where it is legal to own a possum with the proper permits. The most common type of possum to own as a pet is the Short-tailed opossum, though the Virginia opossum is quite popular as well.

One of the most common ways to tell an opossum from a rat is by its medium-sized body (about the size of a cat), their large, hairless tails, and their long snouts.

The lifespan of a wild possum is around 1-2 years, and they can live up to 4 years with proper care in captivity.

Before we move on, it is important to note that there is another animal known as a possum. These are very similar to North American opossums, but these species of possum are native to Australia and New Guinea. This blog will refer to possums as the opossums found in North America.

For a quick overview of Possums for our readers outside of North America, the most common type of possum found in the wild is the common brushtail possum, they have large ears, and bushy tails, and are found in a variety of colors and are also nocturnal animals. They are not as similar in appearance to rats as the North American Virginia opossum.

What is a Rat?


Fancy Rats are the domesticated species of rat that are commonly kept as pets. As they are descendants of brown rats, they’re believed to be native to northern China.

Rats are members of the Rodentia order, common characteristics of species in this order include a single pair of continuously growing incisors and typically small sizes.

A wild rat's lifespan is around 12 months, while domesticated fancy rats can live up to 2-3 years with proper care.

It is also well known that rats have a long history of being misunderstood. While they are capable of carrying disease, pet rats rarely carry diseases that are dangerous to humans.

Specific characteristics of rats include a pointed nose, long scaly tail, and small ears. Aside from their large, protruding eyes, they also have sharp claws that are well-adapted to climbing and digging. In addition, rats eat a wide variety of foods, including insects, fruits, and vegetables.

Physical Differences Between Possums and Rats

Rats and possums in the wild or in urban areas may initially appear similar, but a number of key differences exist between the two wild animals, which allows you to distinguish between them after a closer look.

Size and Body Structure

One of the biggest characteristic differences between a rat and a possum is that possums are much larger than their rat counterparts. Where domestic and wild rats will typically max out at 300 grams, possums can weigh up to 13 pounds, making them much larger animals.

Possums and rats have similar body structures, but possums have more pointed faces and longer legs, which enable them to stay higher off the ground. Rats walk on their toes with their front feet first, whereas possums use their hind feet to grip rough terrain and keep their balance, as they have opposable thumbs.

Fur and Coloring

Another very noticeable difference between rats and possums is in their coloring and fur. While rats can come in all kinds of colors, possums are typically gray and brown all over, with a completely white face.

Rats also have much softer fur than possums. Different types of pet rats can also have different fur patterns, such as rex or patchwork rats that have curly, but still soft fur.

Facial Features and Tails

There are definitely facial differences between possums and rats. As mentioned above, possums have distinctive white facial fur, additionally, a possum's eyes are situated to be front facing, whereas a rat's eyes are located on the side of their heads.

The other visual difference between rats and possums can be seen in their teeth, rats have a single pair of incisors, whereas possums have 50 teeth.

Their tails are also another key difference between the two animals. While both rats and possums have naked tails, possums have much longer and prehensile tails that these arboreal animals climb trees with ease. A rat's tail also has many uses, including temperature regulation and balance.

The average pet rat will have a tail that’s around 7-9 inches long, whereas the average possum will have a tail that is 8.5-19 inches long.

Behavioral Differences Between Possums and Rats

Whether they are brought up as pets or in the wild, possums and rats have very different behaviors, so in this section, we will be covering behavioral differences of both domesticated and wild species of these animals.

Feeding Habits

Both in the wild and in captivity, rats are omnivores and scavengers that will eat almost anything they can find. Unlike wild rat food, pet rat food is formulated to give a rat proper nutrients that they wouldn’t otherwise find in the wild. Wild rats will also take small nibbles before eating to ensure what they’re having is safe.

Possums in the wild are opportunistic omnivores, which means that typically they’re herbivores, but can and will eat meat if it is available to them. Pet possums should have a similar diet, filled with plenty of fresh veggies and a tablespoon of protein a day.

Social Structure and Behavior

A large behavioral difference both in the wild and in captivity between rats and possums is their social groups. Rats typically always live in packs, while possums remain solitary animals unless mating or raising babies.

Birthing is also another large difference between the two animals. As possums are marsupials, they develop half in the female possums womb, and half in her pouch. Rats however fully develop their babies in the womb and remain with their young until they’re fully weaned.

Defense Mechanisms

Possums have a variety of defense mechanisms, primarily involving their ability to play dead, which makes them unappealing to other animals as many will not want to eat a dead animal. Possums also give off a distinctive

In contrast, rats are known for possessing sharp incisor teeth that they use to bite attackers, and they also possess a strong sense of smell and hearing that identify potential dangers in their environment. As well, they can deglove their tails to get away from predators who have captured them.

Similarities Between Possums and Rats

Possums and rats share a lot of similarities, which is commonly the reason why they are confused with each other. It's also important to point out that they share a lot of similarities as pets as well.

Long tails, pink feet, sharp teeth, and longer faces are among their physical similarities. Additionally, both animals' tails are naked and provide them with some benefits when it comes to getting around.

As pets, both rats and possums have many similarities. There is no doubt that both pets are extremely friendly and social animals once they have come to trust their owners, and both enjoy climbing around their surroundings as well.

As much as rats and possums are very similar in personality, rat care, and upkeep are much simpler than possum care and they don't require any permits to own and handle.

How to Correctly Identify a Possum or Rat

Having discussed the differences and similarities between rats and possums in the previous section, we can now discuss how to identify each of them based on their characteristics.

If you are trying to identify possums based on looks, you need to keep in mind the physical characteristics mentioned above. The size is the first thing you need to keep in mind, if it looks like the size of a cat, you may have a possum on your hands.

If you can’t see the animal, however, identification can be a little harder. Possums and rats both make a variety of noises. The sound of a possum can be described as a hiss, growl, or grunt, and they may also make a clicking noise with their tongue if they are scared or agitated. Rats on the other hand have a higher-pitched and squeaky sound. They may also make a barking noise if they are alarmed.

Implications of Misidentification

Since we are a pet care blog, we recommend using a company or wildlife rescue that uses catch-and-release control methods rather than toxic and harmful methods, since these animals are a misunderstood and natural part of the ecosystem. However, we understand that unless they are your pet, you may not want them in your home.

You and the person coming to pick up the animal will both benefit from not misidentifying what animal you have in your home. As if you have a possum and tell the company or rescue that it is rat, they will have the improper equipment to handle the animal.

You might not be as likely to misidentify these animals if you adopt them as pets, but don't assume they have the same regulations to own as pets. To own a possum in most states, you will need a larger enclosure than a rat cage, and you will need a permit as well, so it is important to find out what the laws and regulations are in your jurisdiction. It’s also important not to assume you can use rat supplies for possums and vice versa.

Did You Know Rats Make Great Pets? Learn More!

Possums and rats are two of the most poorly understood of animals that are both important members of the natural environment and can also make wonderful pets for you and your family.

Rats, in particular, can make wonderful companions! These pets require very simple care and upkeep, and they are relatively easy to adopt, which makes them among the best pets for people to have. For more information about owning rats as pets, check out some of our other blogs to know more about these furry friends and what it is like to keep them as pets.


How do you tell if it's a rat or a possum?

Size is one of the most reliable ways to tell the difference between a rat and a possum, as possums can be up to 13 pounds, whereas rats are much smaller, weighing around 300 grams.


Can a possum look like a rat?

A baby possum may look like a rat at first, but after a close look, rats and possums are clearly different.

How closely related are rats and possums?

To many people's surprise, rats and possums aren’t related at all! Rats are considered rodents, and possums are considered marsupials.

How do you identify a possum?

The most recognizable attributes of a possum include its size, as well as its distinctive white fur around its face.


Have Questions About Possums and Rats?

Email us at cages@qualitycage.com

Author Bio: Morgan Mulac

Morgan Mulac has been working as a freelance writer for five years and has developed a passion for exotic pets. Dedicated to learning about exotic animals from all over the world, she seeks ways to share her knowledge with new owners about how to better care for their animals. If Morgan is not researching or writing about exotic pets, you can find her enjoying a cup of coffee and planning her next adventure. https://morganmulac.com/

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