Sugar gliders require special care but can be fun pets

“What’s a sugar glider?” I was asked recently. As I described the physical appearance of a sugar glider, a marsupial that hails from Australia and measures about six inches plus a long fluffy tail, I realized not many people have heard of these exotic pets.

The creatures are somewhat similar to flying squirrels, with webbing between their front and back legs that allows them to “glide” from branch to branch. They are active, and nocturnal, so they’re not a good choice of pet for everyone. But people who have them say that they are very clean and can be tame and affectionate.

Does the word marsupial remind you of a kangaroo? Female sugar gliders have pouches too – you can spot a vertical opening on the abdomen of a female (that makes it relatively easy to determine gender, too, so there aren’t a lot of accidental sugar glider pregnancies).

They’ve got soft fur, big eyes, and big ears, and they make a variety of sounds that include chattering, whirring and barking. Yes, that’s barking – as in a dog. Or, more realistically, a small puppy. The barking noises are usually made in the middle of the night, and seem to be related to their search for other sugar gliders. Gliders kept singly do it much more than those that are paired up, so it’s always recommended that you get two. (Plus, a single glider can get very lonely – they really are pets best kept in pairs.)

In Oregon, sugar gliders are legal to own, but breeders who plan to sell babies need a license from the USDA. Some states, notably California, do not permit the animals, or have restrictions about who can own them. If you’re thinking about an out-of-state move, make sure the destination state also allows these critters.

You’ve pretty much got to keep these guys indoors, as they cannot tolerate low temperatures (remember, they’re native to Australia). Even with temperatures in the 60s you need to make sure the gliders have warm bedding if they get cold. Some pet owners utilize space heaters to keep the temps around their pets to 80-plus degrees.

Cages should be large and have at least three “stories” or balconies that the gliders can jump to. Ropes and branches make great cage furniture ? make sure any branches come from a tree that is pesticide-free, or you could end up poisoning your pets. A large exercise wheel, sized for larger rats or guinea pigs, help your gliders get active. Look for a wheel that is solid or has very small wire openings so that the gliders’ tails cannot get caught as they run.

A dark “house” or box should be provided as a sleeping area. Gliders often like to mark their cages with small amounts of urine, which doesn’t smell too bad if you keep it clean. However, cardboard or wood can absorb the urine and start to have odor, so any house should be fully washable or easily replaceable.

Sometimes gliders will mark their food bowls, too, so get ones that are small enough that they can?t sit in them. Fill the bowls with meals high in protein and calcium. In the wild the gliders eat sap and insects, but in your home they can eat a commercially prepared food for sugar gliders or a diet consisting of mealworms, crickets, boiled eggs, and the like. Supplement with fresh fruits and vegetables, applesauce and a little yogurt.

Many specialized homemade diets can be found online – start by researching one called Leadbeaters Mix and see how you think that would work for your household. Calcium supplements are important, and a good multi-vitamin helps. Hint: Most sugar glider supplies must be purchased online or special ordered through a pet supply store. It’s not unusual for gliders to be extremely picky about their food, and to even reject something they have enjoyed in the past, so be willing to experiment and work at coming up with the right diet for your pets.

You’ll also need to go slow as you socialize your pet. Look for sugar gliders that are already tame, and commit to giving them time and attention so they’ll bond to you. Some owners carry their gliders around with them in a pouch worn around the neck to get them comfortable. Patience is the key to making your sugar gliders trust you.

Sugar gliders do fall victim to loneliness, and can even die of it. They are social animals and really require another of their kind to be happy. Having two is an easy way to prevent such issues. Other health problems that may crop up include a propensity for hind leg paralysis with a diet low in calcium or when under stress. Cataracts and inverted pouches in the females are also common health issues. Find an exotics vet willing to see these animals before you need one, because it can be tough to locate the right medical care in an emergency.