By Craig Sernotti
The sugar glider is an exotic small pet. Many people acquire one because they’re so cute—for the right person, the adorable, big-eyed sugar glider makes an excellent pet.
Sugar gliders are expensive to purchase, and because they are social and should be kept as a pair, you must consider this additional expense. They are arboreal, meaning they live in trees, so they require a lot of space in which to move around comfortably. If you cannot purchase a pair or provide the necessary space they require, the sugar glider may not be for you.
Sugar gliders measure about 12 inches (30 cm) from their nose to the tip of their tail, and about half that length is tail. They are marsupials like kangaroos and koalas and so raise their young in an external pouch. In the wild, they glide from tree to tree. Sugar gliders are nocturnal—their large eyes are adapted to help them see at night. They can live about 14 years in captivity. Because they are exotic pets, sugar gliders are not legal in all states; check with your local authorities to see if it’s legal to keep them.
The sugar glider offered for sale in pet stores is native to the forested areas of northern and eastern Australia, New Guinea, and the surrounding islands. He was introduced to Tasmania in 1835 and has since spread across the island. Some scientists think that he was then introduced into other parts of the world, where he can still be found today. Sugar gliders have been kept in zoos for hundreds of years but have only been sold as pets for little more than a decade.
Enclosure and Setup
Sugar gliders require a large cage, larger than any other small animal. It must be constructed of vertical wire bars—your pet will enjoy climbing and hanging from them. An aviary (a setup to house birds) for your sugar glider measuring 6 feet (2 m) high, 6 feet (2 m) long, and 4 feet (1 m) wide is ideal.
The sugar glider won’t spend a lot of time on the floor of the cage, so contact with his droppings and bedding is not a significant concern. The bedding should comprise wood shavings (pine, aspen) or recycled paper—these will not cause health problems. Change the bedding as needed.
Your sugar glider must have a nest box to sleep in during the day. You will also need a food dish, a water bottle, and a variety of toys. Items such as ladders, swings, chains of metal or plastic, balls, bells, and even mirrors can make your pet’s cage more interesting and provide him with entertainment. Replace wooden items occasionally because your sugar glider will chew on them.
Sugar gliders are omnivores. You must offer a healthy, varied diet consisting of animal- and vegetable-based foods that approximate what he would eat in the wild. He can be fed a mixture of fruits, vegetables, seeds, mealworms, crickets, yogurt, and other foods that offer a healthy variety. Offer milk-based products as an occasional treat. You should not feed your sugar glider chocolate, butter, or any food items high in salt or full of processed sugars.
Your pet should always have access to clean, fresh water. Change it regularly.
Like other small animals, sugar gliders spend a large portion of their waking hours grooming themselves. If you are keeping more than one, they may groom each other. If you must bathe your sugar glider, clean him gently with a damp, warm washcloth, and dry him completely with a second towel. Do not use shampoo.
You will have to clip your sugar glider’s nails every two weeks or so. Be sure that you have styptic power on hand to stop the bleeding in case you cut the nail too close. If you are uncertain how to cut your pet’s nails, ask your veterinarian to show you how.
Health Care and Illness
Preventive care is the best way to keep your sugar glider healthy. If you keep his cage clean and offer fresh foods and clean water, he has a good chance of living a long and happy life.
Sugar gliders can suffer from various infections, illnesses, and injuries. One major condition that can occur is called hind leg paralysis. Symptoms include dragging one or both hind legs, difficulty staying upright, and reluctance to move. It is caused by a diet that’s too low in calcium and vitamin D3 and too high in phosphorous. A proper diet will prevent this condition from ever developing.
Because sugar gliders are exotic animals who have not been kept as pets for as long as, say, rabbits or guinea pigs, you will have to search for a veterinarian who is familiar with the species.