By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
With their large eyes and distinctive features—including fold of skin that stretches from their wrists to their sides that enables them to “glide”—sugar gliders make great pets for people who have the time and patience to care for them properly.
Sugar gliders are not low-maintenance pets, but they make companions for people who take the time to learn about their needs and interact with them often. Part of their care involves regular veterinary check-ups with a glider-savvy to make sure they are healthy. Thus, sugar glider owners should be familiar with signs of potential illness in their pets and should budget for veterinary care when needed.
How Often Should I Bring My Sugar Glider to the Vet?
All sugar gliders should be examined by a veterinarian trained in sugar glider care within a few days of being adopted to help ensure that they are healthy. The veterinarian should perform a complete physical examination on the glider with it gently restrained in a towel. More invasive testing, such as blood sampling, may require sedation of the glider briefly with gas anesthesia. Your veterinarian should also analyze your glider’s stool for parasites and should review proper diet, housing, and behavior with you. While sugar gliders do not require annual vaccinations, like dogs and cats, they should have annual veterinary check-ups to help ensure they remain healthy.
In addition to receiving annual exams, sugar gliders suffer from a variety of illnesses, including bacterial and parasitic infections, traumatic injuries, cancer, and organ failure, which will require veterinary care. The most commonly recognized conditions in gliders are obesity, malnutrition, metabolic bone disease, dental problems, and stress-related problems.
Obesity in Sugar Gliders
Sugar gliders who are typically fed excess protein (such as too many insects) or fat may become obese. Sugar gliders love insects and would eat them every day if they could. Therefore, insects should be offered only a few times a week. As gliders naturally graze through the day, food should be available at all times unless a glider becomes overweight. Like obese humans, obese gliders have difficulty exercising, are often lethargic, and frequently develop secondary heart, liver and pancreatic disease, as well as arthritis.
Owners who notice weight gain, lethargy, or breathing difficulty in their gliders should have them examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Treatment involves increasing exercise, decreasing portion sizes, ensuring proper nutrition and dealing with any secondary conditions.
Malnutrition in Sugar Gliders
Malnourishment in pet gliders often occurs when these animals are overfed fruit and underfed protein and nectar sources. Pet sugar gliders generally thrive on a diet comprised of approximately 25 percent protein (such as cooked eggs and small amounts of lean, cooked meat, commercially available pelleted diets for insect-eaters, and smaller amounts of gut-loaded insects, such as crickets and mealworms), 25 percent green, leafy vegetables, 50 percent commercially available pelleted foods for sugar gliders that serves as a source of nectar and smaller amounts of fruit (such as sweet potato, carrot, mango, papaya, grape, berries, and apples).
Rather than sugar glider pellets, many people feed a homemade recipe, called Leadbeater’s mix, 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 is key. Regardless of their diet, gliders should be supplemented with a vitamin and mineral powder containing calcium that is sprinkled lightly over their food every day. All diets, of course, should be reviewed with glider-savvy veterinarians.
Malnourished gliders are usually weak, thin, and dehydrated. They are often unable to stand or climb and have broken bones, bruises and pale gums. They may lay on the cage bottom and have difficulty breathing. Gliders with these signs should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible to have blood tests and x-rays performed to assess their condition. Blood tests on these animals often show low blood calcium and blood sugar, as well as anemia. Secondary liver and kidney failure also may occur.
Malnourished gliders must be rehydrated, syringe fed if they’re not eating, given supplemental calcium, and housed in small, padded cages, so that they don’t fall and injure themselves. Treatment is generally long-term, and affected animals must be transitioned to a more balanced diet, or they may suffer recurrence of signs.
Bone Disease in Sugar Gliders
Metabolic bone disease (also called nutritional osteodystrophy) is a form of malnutrition in which blood calcium levels are low, blood phosphorus levels are high and multiple bones swell or fracture from lack of calcium. Gliders with severely low calcium levels may have seizures. These animals need to be seen immediately by a veterinarian if they are seizuring, as this activity can be life-threatening. Treatment is as for malnourishment, with long-term administration of calcium and supportive care, as well as provision of a more appropriate diet.
Dental Issues in Sugar Gliders
Dental disease in sugar gliders commonly results from ingestion of soft, sugary foods. Initially, tartar builds up on teeth causing gingivitis (inflamed gums), just as it does in people. Gingivitis may progress to tooth root infection, jaw abscess formation and tooth loss. Affected gliders generally eat less, salivate, paw at their mouths, become lethargic and lose weight. Animals showing these signs should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible so that they may be sedated for a thorough oral examination and skull x-rays to assess their teeth and jaws. Gliders with dental disease are typically administered antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications and are syringe fed. Infected teeth should be extracted, and jaw abscesses should be surgically removed. Dental problems are often recurrent in gliders; therefore, sugar gliders with dental problems must have regular veterinary check-ups to ensure their teeth remain healthy.
Stress-Related Illness in Sugar Gliders
Stress-related illness in gliders is usually seen in pets that are housed alone or that are kept awake all day. These animals commonly chew on their own skin, pace back and forth repeatedly and overeat from boredom. Given their highly-social nature and natural nocturnal behavior, sugar gliders generally do better when housed in pairs, can sleep during the day, are taken out of their cages daily to exercise, and are handled often so that they become socialized.