Exotic Pets: Sugar Gliders

Exotic Pets

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sugar gliders have been described as flying squirrels, pocket-sized oppossums and rats; and while these descriptions might put the image of what a sugar glider is in a person’s head, none of these are actually true.

Sugar gliders are most well-known for the membrane between their front and back paws, which is similar to flying squirrels, but these gliders hail from the Australia/Indonesia area.

Sugar gliders are marsupials and carry their young in a pouch, so they are cousins with possums. And since gliders aren’t in the rodent family, they don’t need to chew in order to wear down their teeth like a rat or a squirrel would.

In the wild, sugar gliders are considered to be colony animals, which means that they typically live in groups of two to seven. They live in trees and typically sleep together. They are foragers, and they eat almost anything they can find from worms to plants to small birds, but they really like to use their long incisors to scrape off the bark of a tree and suck on the sap. They are nocturnal, which means that they are most active at night and their big eyes are sensitive to light. 

Comet, sugar glider, stretching out her patagium in the cage.

It used to be said that sugar gliders are all from Australia, but recent research from earlier this year looked at DNA from a sample of sugar glider pets in the U.S. and suggests that most, if not all, sugar glider pets come from a specific population near Sorong, Indonesia. 

Diet

Sugar gliders didn’t come to the United States as pets until 1994, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. So there is still a lot of research to be done about sugar gliders’ care as pets. Diet, especially, is a large contention between sugar glider experts and owners.

“Proper diet for a sugar glider is really important. If they don’t get the proper nutrients they need, they can be in serious trouble health-wise and die, or have further lifelong complications like hind-leg paralasis if they don’t get the proper calcium intake they need,” said Domenique Leech, a sugar glider breeder. “If you get them on a proper diet like The Pet Glider Fresh diet or BML, something that’s adequate for them, they won’t smell, they won’t have behavioral issues, they won’t have health issues, and it will save you and the sugar gliders a lot of time, money and frustration.”

One major player in diet research not only in the US but worldwide is Peggy Brewer. I had an exclusive interview with her over video chat since she is located in Texas. She owns a company called Critter Love that sells sugar glider food and other care items. She says it all started in 2003, when she got her first sugar glider.

‘Ever since I was really young I always wanted to be a veterinarian. I was doing an internship with a vet years and years ago and I discovered there was no way I could be a vet because there was no way I could separate my feelings when it came to euthanizing animals. I would cry along with the owners and although it is okay to cry, you can’t do it in front of the owners and I couldn’t stop myself.’

Peggy Brewer, Owner of Critter Love

“I had a little store—a little booth at the Texas trade center. I was doing wood burning. My husband is a fantastic woodworker and he was making me little trinket boxes, toy boxes, plaques, and all that other stuff. I would woodburn art into those pieces and sell them,” said Brewer, “I had a couple come in and ask me if I could do a personalized box for their sugar gliders. And I looked at them and I said for your what? And they said for their sugar gliders. They told me what they were and I told them I was interested in seeing what they looked like and the following weekend, they came up to pick up their box and they brought up two little joeys and I absolutely fell in love with them. And they said, well do you want to trade? And I said absolutely and it was the best trade I ever made.”

From there, Brewer met Dr. Tim Tristan, a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets. Together, they came up with the original HPW diet.

“We since changed the name to Critter Love and we were doing blood testing on my own sugar gliders at that time,” said Brewer, “but it wasn’t until I met up with other exotic nutritionists and found out different testing to do in 2010, and that’s when it really started taking place.”

A sugar glider eating the Critter Love diet.
Courtesy: Peggy Brewer

The Critter Love Plus diet consists of raw honey, eggs and bee pollen which you mix with a vitamin powder. If you choose to feed the Critter Love Complete, you just need to blend the mix you buy online with water. With both diets, you then add a “Critter Love Salad.” You can buy dehydrated salads online or find the recipe to make your own on the Critter Love Salad on their website.

There are a few other diets that sugar glider owners use—one created by The Pet Glider, which is accronymed as TPG. This diet calls for a person to make their own food using the recipe on their website then sprinkle vitamins on top of the food.

Another diet is called BML, which stands for Bourbon’s Modified Leadbeater’s diet. Rumors in the sugar glider community attribute Taronga Zoo in Australia for creating this diet, but we reached out to Taronga, and Zoo and Wildlife Nutritionist Michelle Shaw said she doesn’t think it was developed at Taronga.

A Leadbeater’s possum is a small animal that is closely related to a sugar glider, and Shaw believes the diet was originally developed to lure Leadbeater’s possums into traps, and the diet has changed many times over the years since then.

Taronga Zoo Sydney has cared for different types of gliders found in Australia for over a hundred years, including sugar gliders. They currently have two sugar gliders, and they feed a variety of insects, insectivore mix, nectar, vegetables, greens, and native blossoms.

In the United States, the sugar glider community does not agree on what diet is best to feed. Diets that provide recipes are often criticized for having too many variables, and some studies have shown that the more options you give sugar glider owners, the more likely the diet is to be unbalanced.

“It used to be that we would say, feed vegetables and fruits in moderation, in variety. Through testing the blood work, we learned that it’s not always the case,” said Brewer.

Brewer said she had three groups tested, from Wisconsin, Florida and Tennessee. Two of the groups followed a salad plan while the Tennessee group fed fruits and vegetables they chose.

“Although her animals looked absolutely amazing and healthy, blood work showed that they were actually lacking some nutrients, so the appearance doesn’t always go with what the blood work says,” said Brewer, “Outside appearance doesn’t always tell you want’s going on, on the inside.”

“If they’re not getting enough of something or they’re getting too much of something, you never know what’s taking place with the organs, how it’s affecting their kidneys, their liver, their pancreas. You never know what’s taking place there.”

Peggy Brewer, Owner of Critter Love

The balance of calcium and phosphorous in the sugar glider diet is one of the major things that is taken into consideration when experts create or modify a diet. Another source of disagreement is the protein levels of a diet.

“A lot of people think that they need the same amount of protein that their wild ancestors do. What I say in that aspect is take an athletic person and take a couch potato. Two humans, but they have two different nutrient levels,” said Brewer, “Sugar gliders need a very low amount of protein and a very low amount of fat in their overall diet. Too much protein has and will cause kidney damage and failure. Too much fat in the diet will cause fatty liver disease. If you’re feeding an unbalanced diet, that’s going to cause discoloration of the whole entire coat as well as obesity.”

Some things people agree on is that the pits and seeds of fruit are poisonous, as well as chocolate, garlic, onions, and leeks. Avocados are too fatty to feed on a regular basis, and the pit and outside are poisonous. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and peas make sugar gliders gassy. Canned fruits and vegetables are not suitable for sugar gliders because of the added sugars, sodium and preservatives.

Sugar glider spittings after a snacking on a pellet food.

Sugar gliders need something in their diet that they can munch on. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, gum disease and tartar are a common occurrence in sugar gliders that are fed a soft diet. TPG and Critter Love both offer a pellet food to feed alongside the “staple” diet in order to cut down on that tartar. 

Often, sugar gliders will suck on and chew on the food and then spit out what is left over. This especially happens with pellets and the skins of fruits and vegetables. Brewer said that one thing sugar glider owners should keep in mind is that sugar gliders don’t clean their plate like a dog or cat would. 

“They don’t eat the insoluble fibers, so they’ll say, ‘My glider is picky.’ No, your glider is not picky, it’s an opportunistic eater,” said Brewer, “It will eat anything that you put in front of it basically, but it will eat different every night. Some still eat all their carrots and then the next night they won’t touch them.”

Theodore, a mosaic sugar glider

Sugar glider coat colors:

  • Standard grey
  • Black beauty
  • Melanistic
  • White Face
  • Creamino
  • Platinum
  • Leucistic
  • Albino
  • Mosaic

Bonding

People often choose sugar gliders as pets because they’re cute and because they form a strong bond with those that are around them—both other sugar gliders and owners. But, it’s something that takes time to cultivate.

“Another misconception is, you find a glider, whether it be online or someplace local and you’re going over to the breeder’s house or the breeder is showing you videos, and this glider is just as sweet as can be–no crabbing, super nice. You get it home and all of a sudden you have a crabby joey, and you’re thinking, ‘What happened? I’m supposed to be able to love on it.’ That doesn’t happen,” said Brewer, “You’re removing it from everything that it’s ever known as safety and now it’s in a place all by itself away from mom and dad and it’s really scared. It’s not that the breeder did anything wrong. It’s not that it’s over-stressed from the travel. It’s just that it got moved and now it’s afraid and it’ll take a little time, love and patience and consistency to build that bond with them. I try to tell all my clients, yeah he’s super sweet here, but do not expect that when you get him home.”

Once you form that bond, it can be hard on the sugar glider if you decide to give it away later. Sugar gliders typically live to be between 9-12 years old. Anyone who decides to take up the responsibility of owning a sugar glider should expect to keep the glider for its entire lifetime. Leech takes in re-home, surrender and rescue sugar gliders.

“Sometimes it can be hard taking in a rescue or a surrender because they don’t always make it,” said Leech. “They sometimes come to us very sick. And the vets can’t help them because they’re so far along. We do the best we can, and we try to make their stay here as comfortable and loving as possible. If they don’t make it, then it’s hard because you get attached.”

Remy, sugar glider, is a surrender Leech took in.

At the time of visiting Leech, she had one surrender named Remy, who had his foot amputated.

“He came with a partner. They were in two separate cages their whole lives and they have never interacted. The partner sadly did pass away from old age. He was about nine years old,” said Leech. “Remy is still hanging in there. He needs a little bit of extra help. He has that missing limb. I’m still leery about it—it may or may not be causing him pain. He’s a sweetheart. He just needs the right people. He still nips a little bit, but it’s nothing compared to what it was when we first got him. He’s taken a complete turn around for the better.”

Single Sugar Gliders

Because sugar gliders are colony animals in the wild, a common belief in the sugar glider community is that gliders must at least be bought in pairs. Some people believe that single sugar gliders will become depressed and die or start to self-mutilate. Brewer said that’s not exactly true.

“First of all, sugar gliders will only self mutilate if they are in pain. They don’t self-mutilate because they’re lonely. They may over-groom. Some veterinarians will call that a type of self-mutilation,” said Brewer, “but in the sugar glider community, we refer to self-mutilation to the glider actually tearing itself open, chewing on its cloaca or its tail area, and if that ever happens, go to the vet right away because more than likely they either have a parasitic issue going on, or they have a bacterial issue. The overgrooming can be due to stress, boredom, or even overactive hormones. So check all three of those things, have a wellness check done, and then go from there.”

Brewer said that in the wild, sugar gliders start dispersing from each other after two years and find a different colony.

“The studies in Australia have actually found that they have several nests that contain single sugar gliders throughout a couple of seasons so it’s not that they’re always in colonies.”

Brewer said she doesn’t want people to feel like they’re doing wrong by their glider or that their glider is going to die if they are alone, because that isn’t the case.

“Having a single sugar glider–if you have the proper cage, if you have mind-stimulating toys, things that they can actually interact with their little hands and try to take the bracelets off or forage or something, and you give them the proper amount of time–you can have a sugar glider live by itself for 15 years like you can have in a pair,” said Brewer, “And besides that every single glider I’ve ever sold–six months later they always come back for another one. They’re like potato chips.”

Supplies

Two of Leech’s sugar gliders in a fleece pouch.

Sugar gliders require a larger cage that they can jump around in, a wheel, toys, and nesting pouches to sleep in. Each sugar glider likes different types of toys. Some sugar gliders like toys they can chew on, while some like toys to hide in, climb, forage or items to move and throw. 

Sugar gliders sleep in fleece pouches. Most people will buy a pouch for the cage and a bonding pouch, which you can wear around your neck to take them with you. Fabric items should be cotton, flannel, or fleece because it’s less likely that their nails will get stuck in the fabric.

“When they are sewn, you should not be able to stick a toothpick underneath exposed threads,” said Leech, “Any item that has an exposed thread that a toothpick can squeeze under, a toe or nail could possibly slip under, that can cause a broken toe, loss of a toenail or even a possible foot amputation if something would get infected or broken.”

Leech also recommends staying away from metals because they rust easily, and to stay away from bird toys with colored dyes in case the dye isn’t safe for them to ingest.

“Anything that they can’t get their head stuck in–small, round openings that are smaller than two inches–should not be left unattended with them,” said Leech, “It’s a safety hazard. If they get their head stuck in and they can’t get out, they thrash around and they could possibly break their neck.”

Wheels with a middle spoke are dangerous for sugar gliders because gliders do a little hop when they run and it could injure their back. There has been some glider deaths related to the middle spoke. Many sugar glider owners will purchase mosquito net pop-up tents so that they can play with their glider outside of the cage without worrying about them getting hurt or getting into something they’re not supposed to.

A good rule of thumb when purchasing sugar glider items is to buy them online from reputable companies that are advertising the toys as being specifically for sugar gliders. Sometimes local sugar glider breeders or other owners will make and sell toys and pouches as well.

A mosquito net tent is a great way for owners to play with their sugar gliders.

Supplies Checklist

  • Fleece Sleeping Pouch
  • Fleece Bonding Pouch
  • A proper wheel
  • A mosquito net tent
  • A cage, recommended at 24 x 24 x 36 minimum
  • Toys
  • Food and treats that follow a staple diet of your choice

Mannerisms and Care

Gliders bark, similar to a dog. When they are upset or scared, they make a noise called crabbing, which sounds similar to a cicada. They can also hiss, and when they are particularly happy or eating something they enjoy, they will chirp.

Since sugar gliders are not domesticated animals, owners should expect the animals to use the bathroom wherever they want, including on an arm or shoulder. Sugar gliders cannot be potty trained, and they can bite pretty hard if they feel threatened.

Routine care includes trimming the sugar glider’s nails, cleaning the cage, and washing any fabric in the cage. Sugar gliders require check-ups at the vet twice a year. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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