EXOTIC ANIMAL CARE
David M. Brust,DVM
Sugarland Pet Hospital
Sugar Land, Texas
David Brust received his DVM degree
from Texas A&M University in 1984 and has been a practicing exotic
animal veterinarian since that time. He is a past president of the West
Houston Veterinary Medical Association and host of the radio talk show, “Ask
the Vet.” He is the current president of the Association of Sugar Glider
Veterinarians,™ www.asgv.org. Dr. Brust is the author of “Sugar Gliders: A
Complete Veterinary Care Guide,” and has filmed over 30 educational
documentaries for the public regarding
proper sugar glider care and husbandry.
All photos courtesy of ASGV™ and
WHAT EVERY VETERINARIAN NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT
Table 1. Vital Statistics
||13-19 cm (5.0-7.5 in)
|85-142 g (3-5 oz)
|Base metabolic rate
||46.2 kJ/d (130 g animal)
||97.3°F +/- 0.7°F (36.3°C)
||Year round in captivity
||Polyestrous - 29 days
||5-17 days, after migration, fetus will remain in pouch 50-75 days.
|Litters per year
||Twins 80% of the time;
triplets are documented
||35-60 days out of
Sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps),
also known as sugar bears, are small
marsupials similar in appearance to
small flying squirrels that are native to
Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea.
They were first brought to the United
States in 1993 and have rapidly grown
in popularity as companion pets. Most
domestic sugar gliders in U.S. are the
smaller New Guinean subspecies.
Although they are legal companion
pets in 46 of the contiguous states
(with the exception of California and
Pennsylvania), breeding and sales are
strictly regulated by the USDA.
Suitability as Pets
Young sugar gliders are best human-socialized between 8 and 12 weeks out of the pouch. The bonding process may take several weeks to complete. Human socializing for taming and handling may be difficult in sexually mature adults who were not socialized as youngsters.
Sugar gliders are colony animals, therefore it is strongly recommended
One of the most distinguishing features about sugar gliders is that they have 4 hands. Each hand has four fingers and an opposable thumb.
Males have 2 scent glands—a diamond-shaped “bald spot” on the forehead and a smaller
sternal spot in the center of the chest.
A sugar glider’s nails may become sharp. Nails may be filed but not clipped; it may
reduce the animal’s ability to firmly grasp its
surroundings, allowing it to fall.
Females do not have either of these characteristics.
While the patagium is similar in appearance
to that of a flying squirrel, sugar gliders exhibit muscular control over it and can steer
themselves to their target.
Males have a bifurcated penis with a preputial
covering; the scrotum is anterior to the cloaca.
they should be housed in groups of
two or more whenever possible. If
housed alone, owners must be
advised to spend a minimum of 2
hours per day interacting with the
animal to provide necessary companionship
and prevent malaise. Sugar
gliders may self-mutilate if not given
enough social stimulation.
Although nocturnal by nature, sugar
gliders are able to adjust to any
schedule that allows maximum
interaction with their owners. They
enjoy playing outside their enclosure;
however, careful supervision is
strongly recommended to prevent
encounters with common household
hazards, such as floor or halogen
lamps, metal venetian blinds and
When properly trained, they may
exhibit behavior similar to many dogs,
e.g., expressing affection, recognizing
their name, coming on command.
With training, they will ride around in
the owner's pocket for hours without
Common vocalizations include
“crabbing” (when frightened), barking
(lonely or playing), purring/chirping
(contentment) and sneezing/hissing
(grooming or playing).
Aggression is rare in well-acclimated
animals and is typically limited to
young joeys or unsocialized adults.
When threatened, a sugar glider will
stand on its back legs and charge at the
threat, feigning strikes and making
loud sounds similar to a locust.
Each of the 4 hands possesses sharp,
scimitar-like claws and opposable
Teeth do not continually grow like
rodents and should not be routinely
trimmed unless presenting serious
Sugar gliders exhibit exceptional
muscular control over the gliding
membrane (patagium), allowing the
animal to glide up to 50 m.
The semi-prehensile tail is primarily
used for steering when gliding.
Males have a large pendulous scrotum
and a bifurcated penis. Prominent
scent glands are visible on the forehead
and chest. Females exhibit a
ventral pouch (marsupium) with 4
Growth of Joey
A study of the offspring from 30
breeding pairs was conducted to
observe and record the developmental
weight and characteristics of young
sugar gliders over the first 8 weeks out
of the pouch. The study concluded that
certain developmental markers were
more reliable than size and weight in
estimating the age of joeys (Table 1).
EXOTIC ANIMAL CARE
Female sugar gliders have a prominent, midabdominal pouch (marsupium) where they
carry their young.
Females have four teats.
Female sugar gliders have 2 uteri and 2
elongated lateral vaginae that open into a
single cul-de-sac divided by a septum.
Normal internal organ placement.
Free-ranging sugar gliders’ diet
consists primarily of pollens, arthropods
and plant and insect exudates;
however, their diets can vary greatly
by season, location and climate
conditions. Attempts to replicate this
type of diet for domesticated animals
may be impractical in non-clinical
settings. Sugar gliders should not be
presented with a wide selection of
high-sugar, high-fat items as they will
almost always eat these foods to the
exclusion of other more nutritious
foods. Inappropriate feeding practices
and inadequate homemade diets are
believed to be a substantial contributing
factor to many illnesses seen by
practitioners and reduces the animal’s
Although some homemade diets
may be adequately designed, they are
rarely practical for the average owner
because it is often more difficult for
them to secure necessary ingredients
and maintain precise feeding ratios.
Fresh portions should be fed in the
evening. Preservatives, pesticides and
excessive fat should be avoided in the
diet. Acceptable treats include small
portions of fruit (e.g., melons, peaches,
mangos, blueberries, papaya), yogurt
Selected Sugar Glider Diets
The following feeding programs are published in Johnson-Delaney C: Exotic Companion
Medicine Handbook for Veterinarians. Zoological Education Network, 2000.
Owners electing to use any of the following diets should be advised to mix the ingredients
precisely as outlined in order to maintain nutritional consistency and efficacy.
SUGAR GLIDER DIET 1
(Recommended by author, see www.asgv.org
for additional information)
The ideal daily diet for a domesticated sugar glider should equal approximately 15-20% of its body weight and consist of the following 4 components:
- Nutritionally-balanced kibble* (approx. 75% of daily intake). This equates to 1-2
oz per animal and should be available free choice in the enclosure at all times.
- Sliced fresh fruits and vegetables (approx 25% of daily intake). This equates
to approximately one-eighth of an apple per
animal and should be placed in the
enclosure at night and removed each
morning. Items should not be diced or
chopped to maintain moisture content.
- A calcium-based multivitamin* should be
sprinkled over fresh fruits or vegetables 3-4
times per week.
- *Special consideration: Kibble and multivitamin
products should be designed
specifically for sugar gliders and formulated
to work in tandem with each other. Mixing
products made for other animals is generally
SUGAR GLIDER DIET 2**
- 50% Leadbeater’s Mixture
- 50% insectivore/carnivore diet
- 150 ml warm water
- 150 ml honey
- 1 shelled hard-boiled egg
- 25 g high protein baby cereal
- 1 tsp vitamin/mineral supplement
Mix warm water and honey. In separate
container, blend egg until homogenized;
gradually add honey/water, then vitamin
powder, then baby cereal, blending after each
addition until smooth. Refrigerate.
**Based on research and consultation with Australian
zookeepers, veterinarians, and naturalists
SUGAR GLIDER DIET 3
(one daily portion)
- Include equal amounts of: chopped apple,
grapes or mango, carrot, sweet potato,
hard-cooked egg yolk, zoo formula
insectivore or exotic feline diet, plus 1 Tbsp
volume of pet industry-raised insects
- Pet industry-raised insects that have been
fed a commercial cricket diet or enriched
- Or, owner can dust all insects, fruits and
moist foods with a complete vitamin/
- Insects include mealworms, crickets,
- 1 Tbsp insects (2 small mealworms or
4 small and 2 large or 2 waxworms)
- Nectars formulated for lories/lorikeets can
be given as a fruit-portion substitute or as
- Foods should be “chopped together” to
decrease the ability of the glider to pick out
only the favorite parts
SUGAR GLIDER DIET 4*
(feeds 1 sugar glider)
- 1 tsp-sized piece each, chopped: apple,
carrot, sweet potato, banana
- 1 tsp leaf lettuce
- 1/2 hard-cooked egg yolk
- 1 Tbsp good quality zoo feline diet
- 1 dozen mealworms
* Chicago Zoological Park adapted from AAZK Animal
SUGAR GLIDER DIET 5**
(feeds 2 sugar gliders)
- 3 g apple
- 3 g banana/corn
- 1.5 g dog kibble
- 1 tsp fly pupae
- 3 g grapes/kiwi fruit
- 2 tsp Leadbeater’s mixture
(see previous Diet 2)
- 4 g orange with skin
- 2 g pear
- 2 g cantaloupe/melon/papaya
- 3 g sweet potato
- On Wednesdays: feed day-old chick; when
available, large insects (mealworms)
**Taronga Zoo, Sydney Australia
and applesauce. Owners should be
cautioned against feeding fatty,
nutrient-deficient insects as treats
because sugar gliders will often hold
out and refuse to eat anything else
once they become accustomed to
insects. Treats should be no more than
5% of daily intake. Filtered spring or
drinking water (not unfiltered tap
water) should be available at all times.
The recommended enclosure size for 1
or 2 adult animals over 5 months of
age is: 36 inches (91 cm) wide by 24
inches (61 cm) deep by 40 inches (102
cm) high. Large aviary cages are the
most practical option for adult sugar
gliders. Additional height is the
The ideal enclosure size for 1-2
babies or juveniles younger than 5
months out of the pouch is: 18-20
inches (46-51 cm) wide and deep and
24-30 inches (61-76 cm) high.
PVC-coated wire is preferred over
epoxy, paint, powder-coated or
galvanized wire due to potential
health and safety hazards. Rectangular
openings should be no larger than ½"
x 1" (1.25-2.5 cm). Enclosures consist
EXOTIC ANIMAL CARE
Due to an instinctual fear of falling, sugar
gliders will become significantly less active
when they cannot firmly grasp their
A smaller, “starter” cage is more conducive
to the well-being of joeys under 5 months
out of pouch. The ideal cage size for 1-2
joeys is 18-20 inches (46-51 cm) deep x
24-30 inches (61-76 cm) high.
A nesting cloth, loosely draped over a heat
rock is recommended rather than traditional
nesting boxes or hanging pouches, as a
sleeping area, especially for young joeys. This
combination reduces stress on the glider and
promotes the bonding process with owners.
Solid-construction (not wire mesh) exercise
wheels provide a good source of environmental
enrichment and exercise for sugar gliders.
The least stressful method of sedation is
achieved by using a large face mask as an
induction chamber while 5% isoflurane is
Once induced, 1-3% isoflurane is delivered
for maintenance using either a small face
mask or 1 mm Cook endotracheal tube.
A sugar glider can be safely restrained by
placing the thumb under the jaw and the
index finger on top of the head.
Normal radiographs, dorsoventral and lateral views
anesthetized longer than 5-10 minutes.
Fluid therapy is required to maintain
The initial consultation and annual
examination should include:
- Careful analysis of all aspects of the
diet and husbandry (directly related
to most clinical presentations)
- Physical examination
- Stool flotation/smear for abnormal
protozoa/parasite levels (a fecal
sample is usually obtained by simply
picking up or restraining the animal)
- Dental examination
- Other diagnostics
- CBC/chemistry tests
- Radiographs to assess bone density
- Males should be neutered whenever
possible to avoid anti-social behaviors
Only small volumes of blood may
safely be drawn, up to a maximum of
1% of the animal’s body weight in
grams. A 1-mL tuberculin (or 0.5-mL
insulin) syringe, with a 25- to 29-
gauge needle, is recommended for
most diagnostic sampling, depending
on the site selected.
The cranial vena cava may be
accessed at the thoracic inlet by
directing the needle caudally at 30° off
midline toward the contralateral hind
limb. To avoid inadvertent cardiac
puncture, insert the needle halfway of
its length as the vessel is superficial in
location. (View instructional collection
videos at www.asgv.org.) With practice,
blood collection at this site is
usually the most successful regardless
of the animal’s size or condition.
The medial tibial artery is highly
mobile and easiest to access just distal
to the stifle using a 29-gauge needle.
As much as 0.5 ml blood may be
EXOTIC ANIMAL CARE
Table 2. Hematologic Reference Ranges
for Domestic Sugar Gliders
||29.50-62.75 x 103/μL
||92.02-281.18 x 103/μL
||3693.98-7157.15 x 103/μL
||112.55-170.69 x 103/μL
||1461.03-2204.57 x 103/μL
||292.18-400.32 x 103/μL
||8.31-8.83 x 106/μL
||5.49-9.31 x 103/μL
Table 3. Biochemistry Reference Ranges for Domestic Sugar Gliders