What I Learned About Sugar Gliders After I Graduated From Vet School

Being marsupials, sugar gliders are one of the more unique small animal pets, and some of their health issues are also unique.

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A sugar glider gets weighed. praisaeng/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Jerry Murray

When I went to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, sugar gliders were not yet a popular pet; therefore, sugar gliders were not covered in the exotic/small mammal pet class. They were not even covered in the optional zoo and wildlife medicine class. Needless to say none of the traditional veterinary textbooks covered sugar gliders either. The Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine textbook at that time had a nice section on marsupials, but it did not have anything specific about sugar gliders in it. I would have to wait 13 years for the second edition of “Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery” (the pink book, 2004) to add sugar gliders in order to have a good reference book. I would learn even more about sugar gliders from the veterinary staff at the Taronga Zoo (Sydney) when I went to Australia to speak at a conference in 2008.

Sugar gliders are a small marsupial from Australia, which makes them very different from other pets in North America. Kangaroos, wombats, wallabies and koalas are some of the other marsupials from Australia. The only marsupial native to North America is the opossum. Thus I had a lot to learn about sugar gliders when they started to become a popular pet.

sugar glider with protective collar
Courtesy of Jerry Murray, DVM
A plastic can cover provided a makeshift collar to prevent this sugar glider from self-mutilation as he awoke from surgery.

Surgery For Sugar Gliders

The first sugar glider problem I came across was surgery and anesthesia. I quickly learned that sugar gliders usually require less of the gas (sevoflurane or isoflurane) used for general anesthesia than most pets. When I first started seeing sugar gliders, the local sugar glider rescue had asked me to neuter some recently surrendered males. Intact males can be quite territorial and even aggressive at times. Neutering quickly reduces the testosterone level and improves the glider’s temperament; however, the male glider’s anatomy is very different from any pet I was familiar with. The scrotal sacs (often called pom poms by the owners) are located on a stalk about an inch or two from the body. The question quickly became: do I remove just the testicles or do I remove the testicles and the scrotal stalk? The rescue operator suggested that I leave the pom poms and remove just the testicles. She had already learned that gliders recover better that way.

Sugar Glider Self-Mutilation

Sugar gliders are prone to self-mutilation as they wake up from anesthesia. It was obvious they would need an Elizabethan collar for protection during the first few hours after any surgery. This would require some trial and error, but I was able to make an “Aggie collar” from a plastic can cover, as shown in the photo. After consulting with an anesthesiologist from one of the veterinary colleges, I started using a nerve block with marcaine around the scrotal stalk for additional pain control. I have neutered several hundred sugar gliders this way without any complications or self-mutilation after the surgery.

Sugar gliders are also prone to self-mutilation when they are stressed. Stressed gliders will frequently chew the distal tip of the tail all the way to the bone. Some males will even chew off the distal portion of their penis. The Aggie collar and the nerve block are useful to prevent this, too. If it occurs, most of the time surgery is needed to amputate the distal part of the tail. Antibiotics are usually needed for the skin and bone infection, and Prozac is useful in reducing the underlying stress and anxiety. Environmental enrichment and trying to correct any stress-inducing problem are also needed to prevent reoccurrences in the future.

Basic Sugar Glider Diet And Treats 

Feeding Sugar Gliders

I clearly did not know much about sugar glider nutrition when that first glider showed up at the clinic. There was very little information on what sugar gliders should eat back then. I had to rely on information about what wild sugar gliders eat in Australia and try to make some logical suggestions based on that. Sugar gliders are omnivores that eat lot of insects and sap in the wild. It would be hard to duplicate their wild diet in captivity, but there are a few good diets that can be made for pet gliders. One of the major nutritional problems in some glider diets is a lack of calcium or a high phosphorus level. This can cause a serious problem for their bones and cause weak bones that can fracture easily. This is sometimes known as metabolic bone disease. In worst-case scenarios, this could even cause a fracture of the backbone and cause paralysis. A calcium deficiency can be avoided by using a calcium and vitamin D supplement.

Eye Problems

Sugar gliders have large and bulging eyes. The protruding eyes give then a unique look, and it adds to their cuteness factor. It also makes them more prone to eye trauma and corneal ulcers. These eye problems can be a challenge to diagnose when the glider is awake and active, so sometimes they need to be sedated to get a good look at the eyes. Fortunately most of these cases are easy to treat with the same antibiotic eye drops that veterinarians routinely use for dogs and cats.

I had to learn everything about these little marsupials from Australia after I graduated from vet school, and I am glad that I did. Sugar gliders are a highly social animal and can make a great pet for the right person. With a proper diet and a calcium supplement, sugar gliders can live a long and healthy life.

Article Categories:
Critters · Sugar Gliders