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Recently, Sugar Gliders are receiving more and more attention on the internet through viral videos of owners feeding their own or showing their amazing gliding abilities. However, whilst this new found fame for these tiny creatures is helping to raise awareness of them, it is also causing the spread of incorrect information on how to properly keep and care for said animal. The aim of this guide is to hopefully give some insight and clear up any misinformation or queries.
Firstly, Sugar Gliders are nocturnal marsupials who's native habitat is the forests of Australia. Because of this, when kept as pets, they must be kept at warm temperatures of around 27°C consistently throughout the year. In addition to this, in the wild, Sugar Gliders live as part of huge colonies, and so, cannot be kept in isolation. If you want to own Sugar Gliders, you must be committed to the care of groups of two and up; owning a singular glider is not an option if you want them to develop successfully. You must also be committed to the Glider's life span, as Sugar Gliders (when cared for correctly) can live up to fifteen years. They are not like hamsters, and re-homing, whilst possible, is definitely advised against as Sugar Gliders bond with their owners; they come to see you as a member of their colony. There are some cases where Sugar Gliders have died from depression after being split from their cage partner, or after their previous owner has re-homed them. However, this is not always the case. But if you are considering owning a Sugar Glider, make sure you can commit to their full life-span before taking them on.
Following on from this, it is a myth that Sugar Gliders can survive purely on a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables. Whilst it will not kill them, it will definitely shorten their life-span, hinder their growth and cause them all kinds of medical problems. Gliders need a well-balanced diet with plenty of calcium, along-side a mixture of fruit and vegetables and fresh grubs. Yes, Gliders eat grubs. They are omnivorous which means they eat a mixture of plants and meat, so if you are afraid of handling insects such as meal worms, Sugar Gliders are not the pet for you. Whilst they eat meat, you don't need to fear them trying to take a bite of you as they cannot process red meat. They can only eat white meat such as chicken or turkey, however this should only be given sparingly and as treats. Another good treat is any kind of fruit or vegetable based baby food, although they seem to show a fondness towards chicken and carrot baby food. (Do not feed any baby foods containing red meat, pasta, rice etc).
Referring back to the fact that gliders need a diet with plenty of calcium, this is because without a regular calcium intake they can suffer from a calcium deficiency which can lead to something called "nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (NSHP)," or sometimes referred to as "metabolic bone disease or MBD." (Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, 2017, accessed 03/11/17). This is when a Glider is fed an incorrect diet from a young age, and so their bones have not developed properly or 'mineralized'. This makes the bones incredibly weak and fragile, meaning that the Sugar Gliders cannot glide or climb as it will result in the breaking of their bones. Many owners do not realise their Gliders are suffering from this until they find them paralysed and unable to move due to a broken spine.
Because of this, it is important that your Gliders are fed a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, meal worms (alive, not dried), white meat and something called Lead Beater's Mix. This is a paste you cook and then freeze and serve alongside their food everyday which ensures they get a good balance of all the vitamins they need to live healthily. The recipe for Lead Beater's Mix is as follows:
- 1 Hard Boiled Egg
- 150ml Warm Water
- 150ml Honey
- 15g Baby Rice
- 2 tsp Calcium
- 2 tsp Supplement powders
Firstly, beat the hard boiled egg until homogenised. Then, mix the honey and warm water together and slowly add to the egg. Once all the honey, water and egg are thoroughly mixed, now add the powders slowly and mix until you have a paste. (Through experience, it is easiest to make this paste in a blender). Either put the paste into ice cube strays and freeze, serving one cube per Glider, or pour all the paste into one large tub, freeze, and serve a heaped teaspoon per Glider.
This paste and the food listed previously will ensure that your Sugar Gliders are receiving all the nutrients they need to prosper. Fresh water should always be available and changed often to keep it clean. Gliders will not drink from dirty water.
TIP: You can tell if your diet is working well as the better a Glider's diet, the cleaner and shinier their coats look. An unhealthy glider has cracked fur, and where their coat is meant to be white or creamy, it goes a dingy, yellowy colour.
The next thing to address is cage sizes. Now, whilst no one (unless they are a millionaire) can replicate the giant forests of a Sugar Glider's natural habitat, a decent cage-size must be provided as well as a large enough room for them to be let out to exercise. It is recommended that a good cage size is at least four or five feet across by five or six feet tall, with a width of at least two feet. However, this is still not enough, and time outside the cage must be provided to give your Glider's the exercise and stimulation they need. Some people do this by providing 'tent' time. This is when they put up a tent of any decent size, in either a room of their house or outside, and they then zip themselves and their gliders in with some toys and a small dish of water. This means the gliders are able to climb and glide in a safe and controlled environment.
Another popular way of providing exercise is by taking your gliders into a completely empty bathroom (all cleaning products and hygiene products have been removed or stored away, and the toilet lid is down) and let loose in a completely dry bath. This, once again, provides a controlled environment for the gliders to jump and climb without causing damage to themselves.
The final way is to simply let the Gliders loose in whichever room their cage is in. This room must be safe for them to wander in however, all wires must be tucked away, and all windows securely closed. Whichever way you choose though, your Gliders must always be supervised for the duration of their exercise time to ensure they remain safe.
Sugar Gliders are nocturnal, and so they will sleep most of the day and awaken in the evening and throughout the night. Because of this, if you keep them in the same room as you sleep, they can be disruptive to your sleep for the first few weeks. Sugar Gliders communicate through short, loud barks which repeat one after the other for up to two minutes at a time, and so this can be disturbing as it is loud and recurring. However, most people become used to this, and find they can sleep through the noise after a few weeks.
Gliders also have a tendency to smell as they scent through glands. The males have glands on their chest which usually turn a dark brown or red colour when they are of age to scent, whilst the females have scenting glands in their pouches and their genitals. Gliders also use their sense of smell to recognise one another and they will become accustomed to your smell too, and be able to recognise you from it. Because of this, it is important to try not to change your overall scent too much, either with strong perfumes, aftershaves or shower products. Lightly scented products consistently used are better.
Gliders kept in a clean cage will not have an over-powering odour. By regularly cleaning their cage, at least once a week, you will help to control the intensity of their scent. (When cleaning Sugar Glider cages, ensure you are using animal friendly products).
Male gliders will often scent through the use of urine as well to mark their territory, especially when kept in the company of other males. It is common place, when more than one male live together, that when they progress through puberty, they will begin to fight for dominance. This must be acted upon quickly, as if left to fester, it can result in the males killing each other. If you keep more than two males together in one cage, it is likely you will have to have them neutered. Whilst operating on small animals can be risky, it is better to neuter them than allow them to kill one another, and with a good exotic veterinarian, the procedure is straightforward and largely successful.
This leads on to the next point, which is that Sugar Gliders, like most exotic pets, are expensive- especially when something goes wrong and they do require medical treatment. Because they are often difficult to handle and require so much expertise to diagnose, their consultations and procedures can often become quite pricey, and it is recommended they have at least one check up a year. If you do not think yourself in a stable enough financial position to pay out up to £150 ($200) per vet trip, then, sadly, Gliders are most likely not the pet for you.
Now, if you are interested in having Gliders as pets, it may be because you have seen videos of owners carrying snoozing Sugar Gliders around in their jumpers or tops, or you've seen videos of Gliders snuggled up with their owners. Well sadly, whilst this is obviously not impossible, it is incredibly rare for a Sugar Glider to do this. It can take years and hours upon hours of hard work to make Gliders as sociable as what you may see in some Facebook videos, and so buying Sugar Gliders under the pretence that you'll be able to cuddle them and take them out with you will unfortunately be disappointing. However, Sugar Gliders still make wonderful pets as they are so energetic, and all are tame-able to some degree. Most owners with a little work are able to hand-feed their Gliders and have their Gliders sit on their shoulders, hands, heads or arms, or jump off of them or land on them from a glide. The fact that most are not the most cuddly creatures should not be a deterrent to owning them, but just provide a realistic expectation of what owning Sugar Gliders is like. If you end up with one that likes to snuggle, then that's just a bonus!
Whilst on the subject of handling, it is worth mentioning that in the early stages of training, Sugar Gliders can, and most-likely will, bite. And to be truthful, yes, it really hurts. But with a lot of time, effort, and bonding exercises, Gliders can be trained not to bite when being handed food or picked up. One way of doing this is to put some honey or baby food on your finger and allow them to lick it off. The first few times they may nip when all the food is gone, but simply remove your hand for a minute or so, and then return it with more food on. Repeat this a few times, over the course of a few weeks, and this will hopefully teach your Glider that they do not need to be afraid of you, nor do they need to bite to be rewarded.
Sometimes they may still gently nip, but not out of aggression. Being nocturnal, Sugar Gliders eyes are sensitive to bright light and so it is better to interact with them in low lamplight if this is possible. However, if you do feed them or handle them in full light then they may gently nip to gauge what you are, to test if your finger is food, or to warn whatever you are that you are scaring them. If this happens, simply remove your hand from them as calmly and gently as you can, and then approach again in a slower manner to give them time to work out who you are.
Gliders need a variety of toys in their cage to help stimulate them whilst they are inside it. Good toys are hammocks, climbing ropes, rubber ducks, wooden climbing blocks and bridges. Most parrot toys or small rodent toys are suitable for Sugar Gliders, except for running wheels and balls. You may come across running wheels online that are described as specially designed for Sugar Gliders and may even say that they come with sandpaper inlays to cut the gliders claws as they run. Do not buy these. They are actually incredibly dangerous to gliders, as the extra skin between their front and hind legs that allows them to glide can become trapped in the axle of the wheel. This is incredibly painful to Gliders, but it could cause things to escalate and Gliders have been killed by these wheels as their bodies become wrapped around the axle. If you want to allow your Glider to run, make sure you give them as much out-of-cage time as you can instead of buying these running wheels.
Hopefully this article has been helpful in educating you as to what it is truly like to own a Sugar Glider, and has helped you to decide if a Sugar Glider is the right pet for you. Of course, do some of your own research around this article as well before making your final decision, and if you choose to get some little Suggies of your own, good luck and all the best!
'Calcium Deficiency in Sugar Gliders', Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital (2017), http://azeah.com/sugar-gliders/calcium-deficiency-sugar-gliders. Accessed, 03/11/17.