By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
While sugar gliders look like flying squirrels, they are not rodents. Sugar gliders are in the marsupial family, like kangaroos. And like kangaroos, they have a pouch in which females raise their young. They are called sugar gliders because they have a fold of skin stretching from their wrists to their sides which enables them to glide from place to place when their arms are outstretched. Gliders are nocturnal (active at night) in the wild and are very social animals, living in groups of 6-10 in New Guinea and Australia.
Other anatomical features that make them unique are their very large eyes, the scent gland atop the male’s head used for marking territory, the presence of a cloaca (a common chamber into which the rectum, bladder, and reproductive system empty before reaching the outside via the vent opening), a fork-shaped penis in males, and the existence of two uteruses and two vaginas in females.
Adult males typically weigh 100-160 grams (0.22-0.35 lbs.), while adult females weigh 80-130 grams (0.18-0.29 lbs.). Average lifespan is 5-7 years for both males and females.
Wild-type or classic sugar gliders have gray fur with a black dorsal stripe and a white under belly. Captive sugar gliders, however, have been bred with a variety of fur colors and patterns.
Sugar Gliders as Pets
Sugar gliders are available from shelters, breeders, and pet stores across the country. They make excellent pets for people who take the time to learn about their needs before acquiring them.
As they are extremely social animals that get depressed when housed alone, sugar gliders should never be kept singly as pets but rather should be housed in pairs. Males and females may be kept together, as long as the male is neutered after 5-6 months of age — a relatively simple procedure that is commonly performed by glider-savvy veterinarians. If not neutered, the male will mate with the female to produce 1-2 babies (called joeys) after sexual maturity (about 8 months in females and 12 months in males).
Sugar gliders are playful, curious animals that typically love to hang out with both their cage-mates and their human caretakers. Given their natural affinity for pouches, they generally love to curl up in a shirt pocket or in a fabric pouch. Pouches designed for sugar gliders are typically available in pet stores.
They must be handled daily by their owners to become tame or they tend to be nippy. Thus, they are not great pets for families with very young children. Since they are nocturnal, they are best for people who have time available to handle them at night. Given their quick movements and inquisitive nature, they must only be allowed out of their cages while closely supervised, in pet-proofed areas free of electric cords and other dangerous objects on which they might chew.
Sugar Glider Care and Housing
Sugar gliders should be housed in as large a cage as possible to enable them to jump, leap, and glide around. Minimum size cage requirements for a single glider are 3’ x 2’ x 3’. Securely locked, metal cages with bar spacing no more than 0.5” apart are best, as sugar gliders are notorious escape artists. They should be allowed out of their cages daily for exercise but only when closely supervised, as their curious nature tends to get them into trouble.
Cages should contain a small pouch or bag (commercially available) placed high in the cage for sleeping and hiding during the day. Cages may be lined with shredded paper or recycled paper-based bedding. Bedding should be spot-cleaned daily and thoroughly changed weekly. Cages also should contain branches and shelves (also commercially available) on which gliders can perch at different levels within the cage. Bird toys and swings and smooth-sided exercise wheels meant for rodents also may be enjoyed by gliders. The location of toys within the cage should be varied periodically to keep gliders mentally stimulated.
The cage should also contain multiple food dishes, as well as a water dish or sipper bottle, depending on what the glider is used to drinking from, all of which should be refreshed daily. Ideally, cages should be kept in rooms maintained between 75-80°F, but gliders can tolerate temperatures between 65-90°F.
Feeding Sugar Gliders
Sugar gliders are omnivores (eat both plant and animal matter) that have specific nutritional requirements that must be met for them to stay healthy. In the wild, they eat sap and gum from eucalyptus and acacia trees, as well as pollen and nectar from flowers, and a variety of insects.
Wild gliders consume minimal fruit. In captivity, gliders are often overfed fruit and underfed protein and nectar sources. To date, no one has found a perfect diet for pet sugar gliders that is based on only one or two items. Pet sugar gliders seem to thrive on a diet that combines approximately 25% protein (such as cooked eggs and small amounts of lean, cooked meat, commercially available pelleted diets for insect-eating animals, and smaller amounts of gut-loaded insects such as crickets and mealworms), with an additional 25% green, leafy vegetables and smaller amounts fruit (including sweet potato, carrot, mango, papaya, grape, berries, and apple) and 50% commercially available pelleted food for sugar gliders that serves as a source of nectar.
Rather than sugar glider pellets, many people feed a homemade concoction called Leadbeater’s mix, recommended for pet sugar gliders for decades, that combines a commercially prepared nectar powder with water, hardboiled egg, high protein human baby cereal, honey, and a commercially available vitamin supplement. There are many variations in this Leadbeater’s recipe, all of which must be refrigerated and discarded every three days.
There is no single ideal diet for pet gliders; variety seems to be key. As gliders naturally graze through the day, rather than feed them at scheduled meal times, food should be available at all times — unless the gliders are overweight.
In general, regardless of their diet, gliders should be supplemented with a vitamin and mineral powder containing calcium that is sprinkled lightly over their food daily. All diets, of course, should be discussed with glider-savvy veterinarians.
Common Diseases in Sugar Gliders
Sugar gliders, like people and other pets, can suffer from a variety of illnesses, including bacterial and parasitic infections, traumatic injuries, cancer, and organ failure. Perhaps the most commonly recognized conditions in gliders are obesity, malnutrition, metabolic bone disease, dental problems, and stress-related disease.
Obese sugar gliders have little ability to exercise, are overfed, and often eat excess protein (such as too many insects) or fat. Like obese humans, obese gliders are often lethargic and can develop secondary heart, liver, and pancreatic disease, as well as arthritis. Treatment involves increasing exercise, decreasing portion sizes, ensuring a balanced diet, and addressing secondary conditions.
Malnourished gliders are typically weak, thin, and dehydrated. They may be unable to stand or climb, have broken bones, bruises, and pale gums. These animals should be examined by a veterinarian and have blood testing and x-rays to assess their condition. Commonly, malnourished gliders have low blood calcium and blood sugar and are anemic. Secondary liver and kidney failure may occur. Typically, they must be rehydrated, syringe fed, offered a balanced diet, given supplemental calcium, and housed in small, padded cages so that they don’t fall and injure themselves. Treatment is generally long-term.
Metabolic bone disease (also called nutritional osteodystrophy) is a specific form of malnutrition in which blood calcium levels are low, blood phosphorus levels are high, and multiple bones are swollen or fractured from lack of calcium. Gliders with severely low calcium levels may suffer from seizures. Treatment is the same as for malnourishment, with long-term administration of calcium and supportive care.
Dental disease in gliders commonly results from ingestion of soft, sugary foods. It may start as tartar build-up and progress to gingivitis (inflamed gums), tooth root infection, jaw abscesses, and tooth loss. Affected gliders may eat less, salivate, paw at their mouths, become lethargic, and lose weight. These animals should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible and should be sedated for a thorough oral examination and skull x-rays to assess their teeth and jaws. They should be treated with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and syringe feeding. Infected teeth need to be extracted, and jaw abscesses typically require surgical debridement.
Unfortunately, dental problems are often recurrent in gliders; thus, it is critical that sugar gliders with dental problems have regular veterinary check-ups to ensure their teeth are healthy.
Stress-related illness in gliders is commonly seen in those that are housed alone or those that are kept awake all day long. They will chew on their own skin, pace back and forth repeatedly, and overeat. Given their highly social nature and natural nocturnal behavior, sugar gliders must be housed in pairs, given adequate periods to sleep during the day, and handled often to socialize them.
Medical Care for Sugar Gliders
All sugar gliders should be examined within a few days after they are obtained to confirm that they are healthy. Not all veterinarians are comfortable treating sugar gliders; thus, it is critical that a sugar glider owner seeks the advice of veterinarian trained in sugar glider care.
A veterinarian should be able to perform a complete physical examination on an awake glider with gentle restraint in a towel. More invasive testing, such as blood sampling, if indicated by the veterinarian, may require brief sedation of the glider with gas anesthesia. The veterinarian should take a stool sample to analyze it for parasites, and he or she should review proper diet, housing, and behavior. Sugar gliders do not require annual vaccinations, like dogs and cats, but should have an annual veterinary examination to help ensure they remain healthy.
Sugar gliders make great pets for people with the time and patience to care for them properly. However, they are not low maintenance pets; thus, they aren’t right for everyone. If you’re considering getting a sugar glider, talk to breeders and veterinarians before you take one home to ensure this adorable but time-consuming animal is right for you.