Posted: October 9, 2014, 9:35 p.m. EDT
Sugar gliders are a small marsupial from Australia and New Guinea. Some owners refer to them as sugar bears, but they are closer to a sugar opossum. They are named for the gliding membrane (patagium) that allows them to "glide” and for their natural diet, which is high in sap and other "sugary” items. They are nocturnal and have rather large eyes for better nighttime vision. Sugar gliders are social animals and usually live in small colonies with six to 10 family members. They became a popular exotic pet in North America in recent decades.
Despite their popularity as pets, the veterinary literature contains sparse information about sugar gliders. The few common medical problems they are known to have all relate to husbandry or care issues. And that is why husbandry is so important for sugar gliders.
The proper diet for sugar gliders is under debate. Some people believe there is a lack of a good diet for them commercially. This means some owners try to make an appropriate and balanced diet for their pet. This may sound easy, but it is not. In order to make a complete diet, the diet of wild sugar gliders needs to be understood.
In Australia wild sugar gliders eat gum from trees, sap, honeydew, manna, insects, spiders, flowers, nectar and pollen. In general this is a high carbohydrate and a moderate protein diet, which is a difficult diet to duplicate in captivity. Several suggested homemade diets exist for sugar gliders. Most of these are based on a modified Leadbeaters’s diet.
The Leadbeater’s diet was originally developed for Leadbeater’s possums. It contains water, honey, cooked egg, human baby cereal, and reptile vitamin, mineral and calcium supplements. In addition to the Leadbeater’s diet, small amounts of fresh fruits such as apples, bananas, kiwis and oranges should be added. Small amounts of fresh veggies such as corn, sweet potato, peas, carrots and green beans should be added, too. Insects like mealworms, crickets, June bugs and spiders should also be added. Small amounts of fruit juices and nectars can be offered along with fresh water. A small amount of dog food can be offered as an occasional treat. Some people recommend adding yogurt to the diet for an extra calcium source.
The Leadbeater’s diet or any variation is a time-consuming and expensive food to make on a regular basis, but an inappropriate diet can cause medical problems such as metabolic bone disease, obesity, malnutrition and dental disease.
Metabolic bone disease is a common problem when a sugar glider’s diet lacks enough calcium and vitamin D and has too much phosphorus. This can cause painful bones, lameness, fractures, and even paralysis if the bones of the spinal column are affected. Metabolic bone disease can be treated by correcting the diet, supplementing with a liquid calcium product and supplementing with a vitamin D product. After the blood calcium level is raised to the normal range, the hormone calcitonin can be used to help speed up the process of getting calcium back into the bones.
© Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
This modified Elizabethan collar will prevent this sugar glider from bothering his wounds and allow them to heal.
Sugar gliders are also prone to self-mutilation of the tail, legs, scrotum and penis. Sugar gliders kept by themselves or sugar gliders who are stressed will chew on themselves and can make severe wounds. These wounds need medical care, and the source of stress needs to be corrected to solve these challenging cases. Some cases require the damaged portion of the tail to be amputated. A male that has not been neutered should be neutered, and the damaged scrotum or penis may need to be surgically corrected. Antibiotics and pain medication are needed in most cases. A modified Elizabethan-collar can be used to prevent any more self-trauma while the wounds heal. Anti-depressants like Prozac are sometimes used, too, but must be administered under veterinary supervision.
Sugar gliders can make good pets for some people, but they do require a lot of attention and a major commitment of time and money to properly care for them. They are nocturnal and require a large, tall cage to allow for plenty of exercise during the night. They are social animals that are best kept in groups of two or three and require at least two hours of socialization and bonding with the owner nightly.
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