What’s a Sugar Glider?

 

tanooki-bamboo

Uh…what is THAT?!?

Perhaps you’ve seen a picture like this pop up in your Facebook feed. Maybe you saw one at the State Fair.

“Is it a rat? Is it a squirrel? Is it a bat?” you ask.

It’s a sugar glider! Sugar gliders are adorable, soft, fuzzy, and wonderful! However, sometimes the full responsibilities and truths of sugar glider ownership are obscured by how cute gliders are. Here is an honest summary from somebody who has owned sugar gliders for over a decade.


SO…REALLY…WHAT IS A SUGAR GLIDER?

I’ve been answering “What’s a sugar glider?” since I brought my two gliders home in 2006 when I was still living in mid-Michigan. I had seen a girl in one of my college classes bring her sugar gliders to class in the pouch of her hoodie, and I was in love. I began researching, and several months later, I brought home my sugar gliders from breeders when they were joeys (young sugar gliders) that were old enough to be separated from their parents. Sugar gliders look like squirrels, but they are actually marsupials. Their ancestors originated in Australia or Indonesia, but they have been exported as part of the pet trade in numerous countries, including the United States. Today’s captive sugar gliders are quite a bit smaller than their relatives that you would see in Australia.

I bet now you’re thinking:

“Wait, you said you got yours in 2006? How long do they live?!?”

Sugar gliders have an average lifespan of 12-14 years of age. They might look like a hamster with a tail, but they live MUCH longer and require more specialized care.

“They’re adorable! What are their personalities like? Can I carry a sugar glider around in my pocket?”

Sugar gliders are an example of animals that have been tamed by the pet trade, but they are not exactly domesticated. Take a domesticated dog, for instance. You can assume if you bring home a domesticated dog that it will enjoy your company, be friendly with you, and generally want to interact with you. This is because dogs and humans have been cultivating a relationship over thousands of years together.

Humans started a pet-and-owner relationship with sugar gliders much more recently (more like several decades ago instead of thousands of years ago). A sugar glider does not typically have the immediate affectionate inclinations of a dog, and you have to go through substantial process in order to encourage your sugar glider to bond with you and appreciate your company.

Even with following the bonding process, sugar gliders are individuals. Some like to be carried around with their human all day; in fact, some people carry their sugar gliders daily in hoodie pockets or bonding pouches (they are marsupials, after all!) Some people even carry their sugar gliders around in their bras! Other sugar gliders may warm up slightly but may never be that appreciative of human company.

I brought home both of my gliders at about the same time and followed the same bonding process with each of them. Tanooki, my female, enjoys riding around in a bonding pouch. Kirby, my male, resents having his beauty sleep interrupted and prefers to be left alone.  Both of my gliders are tame: they will ride on my shoulder, enjoy taking treats from me, and are reasonably well behaved getting their nails trimmed. However, you should not assume if you bring home a sugar glider that it will sit in your hand and enjoy being cuddled like some of those pictures you see on the internet. Those gliders are a lucky combination of a very loving personality (genetics) and humans who did a great job bonding with them.

Similarly, you may see pictures of sugar gliders cuddling with dogs or cats on the internet. I really don’t recommend this. It’s not worth taking the risk. While some cats and dogs can get along with small animals, many times our smaller furry pets simply look like prey, and cats and dogs may follow their prey drive accordingly. It is very easy for a cat or dog to injure or even kill a small animal.

Finally, I would not recommend carrying a sugar glider in your pocket or out in the open where they can run away. You run the risk of your glider running away and not coming back. Sugar gliders are not dogs, and they don’t tend to come when you call them! Sugar gliders will not be able to survive in the climate of the Pacific Northwest, and the odds of a captive sugar glider getting enough food when suddenly alone in the wild are not favorable. A sugar glider used to captivity is also easy prey for predators. Is this really a risk worth taking?

It should also be noted that leashes are not appropriate for sugar gliders.

“No leashes? Why not? Do they need exercise?”

Sugar gliders are very active and they require regular play time. A safe and appropriate wheel in their cage is also recommended. Sugar gliders are arboreal mammals, meaning they live in trees in the wild. They use their patagium, or wing membrane, to glide from tree to tree, similar to a flying squirrel (though they are not capable of true flight). Sugar gliders are also nocturnal, meaning they need to come out at night!

A leash would be more likely to damage a sugar glider’s neck and/or patagium than to be a useful tool in working with a sugar glider. My gliders come out into a glider-proofed room to play at night. Other people use tents to let their gliders out to play. Gliders cannot be potty trained, so keep this in mind when deciding where to let your glider run around. They are also great at getting into tiny holes and escaping, so any room you let them in should be glider-proofed to ensure their safety. Things like open toilets have claimed the lives of many a sugar glider (they don’t swim).

In reality, it is more important that a pet sugar glider gets nighttime play time than to be carried around in the daytime. One vet described it to me this way: “Would you appreciate someone dragging you out of bed and carrying you around at 3am? Because that’s what it’s like when you carry your sugar glider around during the day!” This helped me understand why Kirby was so crabby when I carried him around. He’s much happier when I let him sleep by day and take him out to play at night.

“People I met told me a sugar glider is a lot like a hamster. Is that true?”

Not at all. Here are some big myths vs. facts out there about sugar gliders.

MYTH FACT
You can keep a sugar glider in a hamster cage. Sugar gliders need a large cage since they are used to living in trees (unlike hamsters, which are rodents, who burrow into the ground). The smallest their cage should be is 3 feet high x 2 feet wide x 1.5 feet across. Larger cages are strongly recommended. Remember you will have to clean this cage regularly!
You can feed a sugar glider apples and pellets and you’re good. Sugar gliders need a specialized diet. Improper diets have been linked to devastating nutritional deficiencies like hind leg paralysis (HLP). I feed my sugar gliders a Modified Leadbetter’s Diet, which is based on what the Aussies have been feeding their captive gliders in zoos for decades. There are other balanced diets out there, but do your research.

To me, a quality diet is 1) one that my gliders will eat, and 2) one that has many years of gliders eating it in the past while remaining happy and healthy.

It’s best to keep a sugar glider alone so it bonds only to you. Keeping sugar gliders alone is cruel and unusual punishment, akin to keeping a human in solitary confinement for life. Sugar gliders are highly social animals that live in large groups in the wild. Sugar gliders kept alone in captivity are prone to depression and even self-harm. Sugar gliders must be kept with at least one other glider companion.
Sugar gliders don’t need to see a vet. While a sugar glider won’t need vaccines like a dog or cat might, they DO need to see a vet. Yearly wellness exams are recommended, as well as any trips for illness or emergency. You will need to find an exotic vet that is experienced with treating sugar gliders.

Side note: If a vet ever offers to sand or trim your sugar glider’s teeth, RUN. Sugar gliders are not rodents and do not have incisors that need to be ground down. Trimming their teeth will do them great harm. Sadly, many vets do not know very much about sugar gliders…it is up to the owner to be educated and keep their pet safe.

Sugar gliders need a heat rock. A sugar glider may actually burn itself on a heat rock. Instead, you will need to use a heat lamp outside the cage or heat the room they are in to an appropriate temperature, which will feel quite toasty to you as a human. I keep my glider room between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit; it is important that the temperature does not fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit unless you are going to provide a heated nest box.
Sugar gliders won’t breed in captivity. Actually sugar gliders are quite good at breeding and will do so rapidly. If you are getting a male sugar glider, you should get him neutered. Neutered males often have calmer temperaments and also smell a lot less!  Furthermore, there is a surplus of sugar gliders out there, so by neutering any males, you are helping by not contributing to overpopulation. If you decide to become a breeder, make sure you do so only after a great deal of careful research, and find an established breeder to mentor you.
This person I just found selling sugar gliders at Place XYZ is reputable and trustworthy. Are you sure? There are actually sugar glider mills out there where sugar gliders are bred in awful conditions, similar to puppy mills. In fact, most reputable breeders will NOT  bring sugar gliders to fairs and sell them. Consider adopting a sugar glider that needs to be rescued or re-homed.

If you are going through a breeder, visit that breeder if possible, and ask lots of questions to ensure they care about their animals and are not keeping their gliders in poor conditions. Ask how many gliders the person has, and how often they come out to play. If someone has dozens of pairs of sugar gliders, it is likely that those animals are not really getting much individual attention or exercise. You should also ask how big the cages are (see note above for minimum appropriate cages size).

Sugar gliders are low maintenance pets. Hopefully by now it’s obvious that this one is a myth. Sugar gliders need a large cage, a special diet, a special vet, at least one buddy, a bonding regimen, and regularly supervised playtime. If someone is telling you that a sugar glider is a low maintenance pet, they are not being honest with you about how to properly care for a sugar glider.

 

Unfortunately, I have seen an uptick of people purchasing a sugar glider and having no idea what they are getting into. Some organizations are out to make a quick buck and deceive people into thinking gliders are easy pets. Once the person realizes how much work a sugar glider really is, they often no longer want them. Do your research before bringing home a sugar glider or any other pet!

 

 

 

 

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