Some Possible Risk Factors Associated with Cardiomyopathy in Opossums (Didelphis)
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2011
Heather C. Miller1, DVM, MS; Michael M. Garner2, DVM, DACVP; Scott Terrell3, DVM, DACVP
1The Greenville Zoo, Greenville, SC, USA; 2Northwest ZooPath, Monroe, WA, USA; 3Department of Infectious Diseases and Pathology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA


As the only North American marsupial, opossums are commonly used in educational programs in U.S. zoos and aquariums. Opossums (Didelphis virginiansis) can be trained for a variety of commands; however, with an average lifespan of only 1–2 years in the wild, and 3–4 years in captivity, opossums are not equipped for a long career in our zoological facilities. Anecdotally, opossums as well as other small mammals are known for having a relatively high incidence of heart disease. This exact incidence rate is unknown, and risk factors for heart disease have not been evaluated for this species. At two independent zoo pathology services, the relative prevalence of cardiomyopathy in opossums was determined to be approximately 17%. This is considered high compared to data collected on domestic dogs,1 northern fur seals,2 African hedgehogs,3 and meerkats4. In domestic cats, cardiomyopathy is also common, being found in 16% of healthy cats.5 Taking this into account, it appears that opossums may be similar to cats in overall prevalence of cardiomyopathy. However, while cats predominantly display hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) with histologic characteristics of concentric ventricular hypertrophy, opossums tend to have degenerative cardiomyopathy being characterized histologically by multifocal degeneration of myocardiocytes, or dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), similar to the lesion seen in some dog breeds, domestic ferrets, and giant anteaters. This paper will outline the signalment and possible risk factors associated with the high relative incidence of cardiomyopathy in North American opossums. Moreover, we recommend evaluating cardiac function during annual examinations to assist in early diagnosis and potential treatment in this species.

Literature Cited

1.  Fleming J.M, K.E. Creevy, and D.E.L. Promislow. 2011. Mortality in north American dogs from 1984 to 2004: an investigation into age-, size-, and breed-related causes of death. J Vet Intern Med. 25(2):187–98.

2.  Spraker, T.R., and M.E. Lander. 2010. Causes of mortality in northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska, 1986–2006. J Wildl Dis. 46(2):450–73.

3.  Raymond JT and Garner MM. 2000. Cardiomyopathy in captive African hedgehogs (Atelerix albiventris). J Vet Diag Invest. 12:468–472.

4.  Mutlow A, Garner MM. 2009. Myocardial disease in captive meerkats (Suricatta suricata) Proceedings AAZV p 32.

5.  Paige, C.F., Abbott, J.A., Elvinger, F. and Pyle, R.L. 2009. Prevalence of cardiomyopathy in apparently healthy cats. JAVMA, 234(11):1398–1403.


Speaker Information
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Heather C. Miller, DVM, MS
The Greenville Zoo
Greenville, SC, USA

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