Ringtail possums are endemic to Australia where they are found in rainforest and shrubby woodland habitats. They have also adapted very well to suburbia.
The ringtail is a marsupial. Marsupials have a very short gestation period, the babies (joeys) are born in a very underdeveloped state and development continues to take place in a pouch (with one or two exceptions).
Hand-rearing an orphan ringtail possum requires commitment and dedication. It is a time-consuming task with many challenges to face and it can sometimes end in heartbreak.
If you have no experience, the best thing you can do by the baby possum is to take it to a wildlife refuge or rescue centre. Depending on the state in which you live, it may be illegal to keep a 'wild' animal without a permit.
However, if keeping the baby is the only option the following hints may help.
Any young orphan is vulnerable and fragile. It will be stressed and possibly in shock. It could be injured and/or dehydrated. Ringtails are very susceptible to stress and very delicate as babies.
Possums normally live in colonies. It is always best if several orphans can be raised together. Preferably they need to be of a similar age. This is where a wildlife centre is a good choice as they are likely to have little possums of similar age. The co-ordinator at the centre will try to juggle joeys and carers so that babies of a similar age are raised together. Weighing the newcomer will give the carer the approximate age of her new charge. Keep newly acquired orphans quiet and stress-free. Don't allow them to be passed around to strangers or children.
When you first get your little ringtail orphan, keep him warm and quiet. If he is injured, try to get him to a veterinarian. If he is cold, it is important to get his body temperature up. This must be done gradually. Wrap him in something warm and tuck him under your shirt or jumper. You can use a heat pad or hot water bottle but warm him slowly. Place a thermometer in with him and aim for an ambient temperature of 28 to 32oC.
After the initial vital days, possums can be housed in a large tin. Wrap the tin in soft, preferably woollen material and place a 15 watt globe in the tin. Punch holes in the top so that the heat does not build up causing the globe to break. Place the possum against the tin. A sock, beanie or sleeve of an old jumper also makes a good substitute home for a little possum. Make liners for the 'nest' by sewing up two sides of some old hand towels. These can be washed and replaced as necessary.
For tiny possums, you may need to pin the top to stop the little one escaping. As the possum grows, run a ring of wire round the top of the 'pouch'. This will allow the possum to come and go as he pleases. Eventually the pouch will need to be kept in a cage of some sort as the possum will instinctively try to leave the pouch and move around at night.
When the little orphan has outgrown his pouch, he will need a hollow log as a nest. Place this in an aviary or large cage. If you give him some branches he will line the log with leaves and twigs. This log can be moved into his release area when he is freed back into the wild, giving him a familiar base until he becomes accustomed to his new surroundings.
Once the possum is warm, you can offer him a feed. Unfurred baby possums can be offered one teaspoon of glucose mixed with 100ml of boiled water. This provides a transition between his mother's milk and whatever milk substitute you decide on. He will need to be fed every two to three hours right through the night. Furred orphans should be fed every four hours and again, this should be offered through the night as well as during daylight hours. Weak or dehydrated animals may need to be fed more often but never more than two hourly as it is too tiring for them. It is imperative that orphans be kept on a strict routine as regards feeding.
Marsupials cannot tolerate lactose and should not be given cow's milk. The milk from their natural mother changes in composition as the baby grows. So much for a primitive species! Wombaroo is a commercial dry milk product especially formulated for marsupials. Two different formulas are available for possums.
It is imperative that utensils be kept scrupulously clean. Wash bottles and teats as soon as feeding is over and sterilise them. Prepared milk can be kept in the fridge for 24 hours but should then be discarded.
Possum mothers lick the baby's genital area to encourage urination and defecation. You will need to be the substitute mother. Use a moistened cloth or cotton ball to gently massage the genitals. Ringtail possums faeces passed in the morning are different from those passed at night. Baby ringtails may ingest their daytime faeces (this is called 'papping') as this helps them produce digestive bacteria in the stomach.
Baby possums of around 42 days are known as 'pinkies' as they have no hair. At around 95 days (40 grams approximately) the eyes begin to open. By 3 ½ months they have a very fine coat of fur. Orphan possums weighing from 45 to 60 grams have a very low survival rate and need 1 ml feeds every three hours. This means through the night as well. When the joey weighs 60 to 80 grams, they still need to be kept warm but don't need to be confined so much. Give roughly 5 feeds daily at regular intervals and begin to offer native vegetation. Sixty grams babies will consume about 2ml per feed and 80g babies 3ml per feed.
Once they weigh 80 to 100g, they need to be practising their climbing and finding out about the world. Hang the pouch on the side of an aviary or cage so he can come and go. However, if taking on a new orphan at this weight, make sure they are kept warm until they settle in. Offer a range of native foliage and flowers and very gradually reduce the amount of milk fed mid evening.
By the time the orphan weighs 100 grams, care becomes easier. Give three 5ml milk feeds daily with foliage. At 150g, leave 15 to 25mls of milk out at night for your charge.
Once over 250 grams, wean the orphan and give plenty of native foliage. Fresh water should always be available. Only handle when necessary now. Ringtails prefer native vegetation to human foods but be sure that whatever you offer has not been sprayed with weedicide.
River and forest red gum, Plunkett mallee, grevilleas, calliandras, callistemons, plumbago flowers, lilly pilly, and cadaghi are all suitable but experimentation may be needed before finding varieties that your possum likes. Rose petals and mangoes are often enjoyed. Azaleas, lantanas and oleanders are poisonous to most animals. Apples, vegetables and pears are popular. If collecting vegetation from roadside verges, wash thoroughly to remove pollutants and sprays.
If, for some reason, your possum cannot be released back into the wild, adult males should be castrated. Ringtails can live happily in captivity unlike some species.
But if you have decided to release your possum, when the time comes, place their cage where you wish to release them. In a few days, leave the door open, maybe place food in or on top of the cage for a week or so. When the food is no longer taken, it is safe to take the cage away and pat yourself on the back for the excellent job you have done.