Sugar gliders

Sugar glider adultMany of today's popular small pets, including gerbils, hamsters and chinchillas, were first kept in the USA before being introduced to Europe. Sugar gliders are the latest addition to this list. They have a very cuddly appearance, thanks to their soft fur and appealing, large eyes, but in this case, they’re not rodents but marsupials and so distantly related to kangaroos!

The sugar glider is actually a type of possum, which grows to about 15cm (6in) in length, with a furry tail which is as long as its body.  Males are heavier than females and can weigh as much as 130g (5oz).

These possums originate from Australia and parts of New Guinea. Those now being kept in North America and Europe are descended from zoo-bred stock, but they are demanding in terms of their care needs. 

One important difference which sets these possums apart from other small animal pets is that they are adapted to glide, rather like flying squirrels. They have folds of skin around the sides of their bodies which they can use to escape danger or move from one tree to another. Sometimes they catch insects in flight. This means that they need to be kept in an indoor aviary-type structure, rather than a cage. 

Housing

Sugar glider on poleOwners frequently house their sugar gliders in flights covered with mesh which is about 0.5in (1.25cm) square. Branches must be provided for climbing purposes in this enclosure. These are likely to be gnawed and so they must be replaced regularly. Avoid cutting branches from any trees which have been sprayed recently with chemicals or could be toxic, like yew, laburnum and lilac, and be sure they are mounted firmly in the enclosure.

Sugar glider in nest boxA spare room can be adapted to the sugar gliders' needs but they can prove to be rather clumsy if they are allowed to glide around an ordinary room. They are likely to knock over ornaments.  There is also the near certainty that they will soil furniture and curtains with their sticky droppings, particularly if they take to climbing on to the curtain rail. Screening of some sort is often advisable around the sides of their enclosure in any case, for this reason.

Sugar gliders need to be given a choice of nest boxes where they can sleep. These are often made from melamine faced chipboard so the interior can be wiped over easily, with soft, shredded paper being recommended as a lining. These small possums need reasonably warm surroundings : about 16°C (60°F) seems ideal, although temperatures much over 24°C (75°F) may cause them distress.

Feeding

Sugar glider eatingSugar gliders are omnivorous, and their typical diet consists of a wide variety of fruits, plant matter and invertebrates. Both fresh and dried fruit can be offered to them, with the stones being removed from plums and similar fruits beforehand. The fruit can be mixed with honey too, to give some variety.

A small animal vitamin and mineral powdered supplement must be sprinkled over fresh food of this type, on a regular basis. This is vital, as sugar gliders are susceptible to a shortage of calcium in their diet, and this will soon lead on to skeletal weakness.

Always suspect this problem in a sugar glider that has even a slight difficulty in moving. Seek veterinary advice without delay under these circumstances, as this so-called metabolic bone disease (MBD) can rapidly prove fatal, if it is not treated.

Vegetables, nuts and invertebrates such as gut-loaded (calcium-enriched) mealworms and waxworms must also be provided as part of their diet, along with some cat and dog food as a source of protein. Feeding sugar gliders is not cheap and their food preparation takes some time! They are best fed in the early evening every day, as this is the stage at which they are becoming active. Nectar, as sold for hummingbirds, should also be supplied, along with a separate supply of drinking water, in special drinkers that cannot be tipped over.

Behaviour

Sugar gliderSugar gliders tend to become more active at dusk as revealed by their large eyes. They normally live in family groups, so they need to be kept in pairs. Youngsters can be produced at any time of the year. Up to three young can be anticipated in a litter. They are born just 16 days after mating and weigh just 0.19g (0.005oz) at this stage. Almost totally helpless, they crawl instinctively into their mother’s pouch, like young kangaroos.

Here they will remain for the next ten weeks before venturing out into the nest box. About five weeks later, they will finally emerge into their enclosure. Soon they will be eating on their own and can then be moved into separate quarters.

Young sugar gliders are able to breed by the time they are about a year old. Regular handling once they leave their nest means that they will soon become very tame. These marsupials rarely fall ill, and have a life expectancy of up to 14 years.

If frightened, they make a noise like the yapping of a small dog. It is important to keep sugar gliders apart from other pets such as dogs and cats of course though, because they may be harmed by them.