EXOTIC ANIMAL CARE
David M. Brust,
DVM Sugarland Pet Hospital Sugar Land, Texas [email protected]
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 www.asgv.org.
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
|Incidence of multiple births
||Twins 80% of the time; triplets are documented
||35-60 days out of pouch
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 houseplants.
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 restraint.
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 thumbs.
Teeth do not continually grow like rodents and should not be routinely trimmed unless presenting serious issues.
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 internal teats.
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 life span
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:
(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.
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 not recommended.
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 feed
Or, owner can dust all insects, fruits and moist foods with a complete vitamin/mineral powder
Insects include mealworms, crickets, waxworms, moths
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 a treat
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 Diet Notebook
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 primary consideration.
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