All About Sugar Gliders

Lauren Jones, VMD
Written by:
Published: July 22, 2022
All About Sugar Gliders

Sugar gliders are lovely, interesting, energetic, and inquisitive animals that have gained recent popularity as pets. While they may look like rodents, they are actually small marsupials, most closely related to kangaroos and koalas.

As a nocturnal tree-dwelling species, they have large eyes to help them navigate in the darkness. They get their name from a flap of tissue connecting their wrists and ankles, called the gliding membrane, which allows this species to sail, as they cannot fly, from one place to another with remarkable accuracy. 

Sugar gliders can make wonderful pets and bond closely with their human families if given the specific care, enrichment, and socialization they require. Gliders can live up to 15 years old, so they are a lengthy time commitment as a pet parent. They are very social and live in groups of 5-12 in the wild. Sugar gliders vocalize frequently and are typically docile, but will bite when scared, stressed, painful, or poorly socialized.

Sugar Glider Housing

Like most exotic species, the husbandry—or overall care—of sugar gliders is important for a happy and healthy pet. This care starts with their housing. Cages should be constructed of PVC-coated wire with plenty of places for gliders to climb and grab. The openings in the mesh shouldn’t be larger than ½-1 inch. The cage should be at least 36×24x40 inches, with height as the most essential factor.

Gliders are from Australia and New Guinea and are an arboreal species—therefore spending most of their time living and gliding from tree to tree. Replication of this environment makes gliders as close to their natural habitat as possible. Many sugar glider enthusiasts find that bird cages work well as sugar glider habitats—although avoid cages with only vertical bars that may cause injury.

Sugar gliders enjoy toys and other items in their cage as enrichment. Hide and nest boxes and pouches allow safety, comfort, and dark areas to rest. Frequently switch other enrichment tools in the cage, including shelves, solid running wheel, swings, and bird toys. Branches and plants are extremely important to mimic a glider’s natural environment and allowing room to leap and climb. Use caution with any natural products to ensure you’re not introducing pests or chemical sprays. Sugar gliders will chew on branches, so make sure only nontoxic plants and trees are provided.

Line the bottom of the cage with paper towels, hay, or Carefresh bedding. Stay away from wood shavings which may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system. Spot-clean the cage daily and perform a more thorough cleaning of housing, toys, and accessories every few weeks.

Because they are nocturnal, do not keep gliders in bright sunlight, which may result in eye damage. Sugar gliders thrive around 75-90 degrees F and should never be kept in environments lower than 70 degrees—even at night. Owners may utilize additional heat sources in colder months to provide appropriate temperatures.

Gliders are very active and will utilize the entire cage for exercise, play, and exploration. Because of this, most veterinarians and owners recommend keeping two water bowls in the cage—a traditional hanging water bottle and a second water dish on the cage floor near the food bowl.

Foods for Sugar Gliders

In the wild, a sugar glider’s diet is highly varied. They are true omnivores and adjust their food choices based on climate and season. They will eat pollen, insects, larva, spiders, sap, gum, plant blossoms, and nectar. It is difficult to reproduce this ever-changing diet in captivity, so domesticated sugar gliders frequently suffer from poor nutrition.

Some home diets may provide the nutrients required to keep a sugar glider healthy, however they are difficult to make, and few owners are willing to provide these complicated recipes for their pet. Talk to your glider’s veterinarian if you wish to formulate a diet for the best results.

Captive sugar gliders may receive commercially available glider-specific pellets and nectar supplements. In addition, they should receive fresh fruits, vegetables, and insects. Insects should be gut-loaded and dusted with a calcium supplement—similar to many reptiles. Gut-loading refers to the process of feeding insects a nutritious diet for 24-48 hours before feeding them to the sugar glider. By gut-loading, the insects are packed with vitamins and minerals that positively impact the glider.

Make sure to rotate all varieties of food—insects, fruits, vegetables. Use caution to not feed fatty, super sweet foods, pits, seeds, or too many insects. Sugar gliders may ignore other food sources—preferring the sweet fruits or juicy insects and ignore nutrient-laden foods. This can lead to obesity and metabolic disorders.

Some examples of healthy food choices to feed on regular rotation with your sugar glider include:

Insects:

  • Crickets

  • Mealworms

  • Superworms

  • Waxworms

Vegetables:

  • Squash

  • Cucumber

  • Bell pepper

  • Carrots

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Bok Choy

  • Jicama

Fruits:

  • Papaya

  • Oranges

  • Bananas

  • Strawberries

  • Cantaloupe

  • Mango

  • Kiwi

  • Peaches

It is never appropriate to feed a sugar glider a commercially available diet made for cats or reptiles. Also avoid chocolate, dairy products, and even grapes or raisins. Fruits and treats should not make up more than 5% of the sugar gliders’ diet.

Food should be provided in the afternoon or early evening when sugar gliders are naturally feeding. Remove all uneaten food in the morning. Some owners will use acacia gum stuck in wood holes a few times a week, providing enrichment for natural sugar glider behaviors. 

Sugar Glider Medical Needs

Healthy sugar gliders are alert, with clean, clear eyes. Their nose, eyes, and mouth should be clear of any discharge or discoloration. Their coat is smooth and soft. Males have two scent glands that can be confused with bald spots. One is on the top of their head and the other is on their chest. Healthy sugar gliders are active and inquisitive with no signs of breathing difficulty or malaise.

Sugar gliders often have medical conditions, secondary to husbandry concerns. The most common disorders include:

  • Malnutrition: causing paralysis, blindness, lameness, and seizures

  • Obesity

  • Parasites: causing  loss of appetite or changes in bowel movements

  • Hair loss: may be stress-related, especially with un-neutered males and poorly socialized individuals

  • Respiratory issues: causing increased breathing rate and effort

  • Trauma

  • Dental disease: facial swelling, drooling, or decreased appetite

  • Cancer: obvious tumors or lethargy and weight loss

  • Metabolic bone disease: most sugar gliders don’t receive appropriate levels of protein and calcium, which causes metabolic bone disease and may show as decreased appetite, weight loss, lethargy, tremors, and lameness due to broken bones

  • Infections: skin, pouch, and tooth infection can cause fever, lethargy, pain, swelling, and discharge

  • Blindness and cataracts: hazy eyes and incoordination

If your sugar glider has any physical abnormalities, is behaving differently, eating differently, is lethargic, or you have any other concerns, contact your veterinarian immediately. Sugar gliders should receive routine veterinary care at least annually. They may require bloodwork, fecal analysis, and routine dental checkups.

Sugar Glider Cleaning Needs

Sugar gliders naturally keep themselves clean. They do not require a water or shampoo bath, unless prescribed by your veterinarian. They also do not require dust baths, like chinchillas or hamsters. If you feel your sugar glider requires a bath, consult with your veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying husbandry problem or physical ailment.

All food and water dishes should be cleaned daily. Spot-clean the cage for any messes daily. Fully clean the entire cage every 2-4 weeks, depending on how many and how messy your gliders are in their cage. Cages should not be cleaned when gliders are inside, as the chemicals may be irritating to eyes, nose, and lungs. Vinegar cleaning products and diluted bleach are all safe to clean the hard items in the cage; make sure it has had time to completely air out before returning your sugar gliders.

Sugar Glider Handling & Behavior

Sugar gliders can be difficult to handle, especially if they are young or poorly socialized. They should not be scruffed (held by the back of the neck) or held by the tail. Many sugar gliders respond well to being carried in a zippered, fleece pouch. Veterinarians may need to safely restrain your sugar glider during examination by placing one thumb and index finger under the jaw with one finger on the top of the head.

Sugar gliders should have socialization with their human at least 1-2 hours a day especially if they are housed alone. They are highly social animals and prefer spending time with other sugar gliders. Therefore, they are usually happier in groups of two or more.

If they do not have enough emotional and environmental stimulation or enrichment, they commonly self-mutilate, causing hair loss, pain, and infection. Neutering males may help decrease this behavior, but always talk to your vet about how to best help any specific behavioral issues with your sugar glider.

When properly socialized and trained, sugar gliders can have personalities similar to dogs and can bond strongly with their human. They may respond to commands and even know their name. Well-socialized sugar gliders are rarely aggressive. When they are frightened or defensive, they may stand on their back legs, making loud noises and possibly charging.

How to Pick Up Your Sugar Glider

Pick up your sugar glider by safely and calmly placing one hand on the top of its back and chest, near its arms. Use your other hand to gently scoop from below. They may feel more secure on your shoulders or in a pocket. Eventually, as they get comfortable with their surroundings, gliders will want to explore.

Exploration is a wonderful way for humans to bond with their sugar gliders, as well as providing exercise and enrichment. However, due to their highly inquisitive nature, sugar gliders can easily injure or otherwise hurt themselves, so always supervise your glider when they are outside their cage.

 

References

  1. Brust DVM, David M. VIN.com. A Quick Reference Guide to Unique Pet Species - Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps) Pet Care. January 2011.

  2. Strat-Zenoni DVM, Deanne. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital. Sugar Glider Care.

  3. Pollock DVM, DABVP, Christal. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Sugar Glider. February 2010.

  4. Wikipedia. Sugar glider. May 2022.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Moonstone Images


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