Companionship and Housing
Sugar Gliders Need Company
I cannot stress strongly enough how much sugar gliders need company of their own kind for their physical and mental well-being.
Wild gliders live in large colonies and being alone would mean death to them. Our captive gliders are not under threat from predators (although some pet gliders have met their demise because of the family cat/dog) but that does not mean they do not have this instinct.
Captive gliders are not domesticated and they cannot be compared to domesticated animals like dogs. Dogs have been domesticated over thousands of years (estimated at 18 – 32 thousand years) and have learnt to accept humans as part of their pack. Despite these thousands of years however, dogs still need a hierarchy, they still feel the need to protect the pack, and they will still hunt and squabble over food so they are still showing some of their wild instincts.
By complete contrast, sugar gliders have only been kept in captivity for around 200 years. According to Stephen Jackson in the book Australian Mammals Biology and Captive Management, “Possums and gliders have long been held in captivity with records suggesting that considerable numbers of sugar gliders were held as pets as early as 1830 – 1840s (Gunn 1851)”.
They did not seek out humans to make their life easier (like dogs allegedly did), we sought them out to make our lives more pleasurable.
Some unethical breeders are happy to sell gliders to be on their own, they tell people that so long as you can spend 2 hours a night with them, they will be fine. This is not the case, 2 hours with company means 22 hours alone. Sugar gliders are nocturnal so will be most active while you are (or should be) sleeping.
They will also tell you that it is easier to bond with one glider, rather than two. Again, this is not the case, gliders give each other confidence. A glider without confidence will be crabby and nervous, even in pairs they can still be nervous but usually one is more curious than the other and the shy glider will soon follow suit.
Sugar gliders have been used as test subjects in laboratory experiments investigating serotonin deficiency depression. The following is a quote from ‘Practical Marsupial Medicine’ by Cathy A. Johnson-Delaney, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian):
“Self-mutilation is usually seen in solitary sugar gliders. Sugar gliders have been used in laboratory animal medicine as models of serotonin-deficiency depression. To clinically depress a sugar glider, the researchers found one only has to house them as single animals.”
Depression is known to repress the immune system which would make single gliders more susceptible to illness. Self-mutilation which is a common problem with solo gliders will start with over grooming, they will then start to pull their fur out and this can then lead to them biting themselves. Veterinary intervention is required as they can seriously damage themselves.
Depression, immune suppression and self-mutilation are not the only dangers of keeping a solo glider. Gliders need to be kept warm, if their body temperature drops too low they will fall in to torpor.
Wild colonies will become torpid when the weather is too bad for them to go out and search for food. The difference is however, that wild colonies are large so they snuggle together to make sure their individual body temperatures do not drop too low.
If our captive gliders drop in to torpor, due to the lack of a colony, they struggle to maintain their body heat. As a result their energy stores are burnt up by the body trying to maintain a safe body temperature as well as keeping all the internal organs functioning. Once the energy reserves are used up, the body cannot continue to function and, if not caught in time, they will then die!
If you are not prepared to provide this most basic of requirements, then I would strongly urge you to dismiss the idea of sugar gliders as a pet. Quite simply put, it is cruel to keep a glider on its own!
Sugar gliders may be small but they are very active, they need a lot of enrichment and thus require a lot of room. We recommend a minimum enclosure size of 4ft (H) x 2ft (W) x 2ft (D) (not including the stand) for two gliders – but bigger is better. If the cage is too small the gliders will begin to show stereo-typical stress behaviours such as backflips or running around the cage bars in circles.
I am often asked how much an initial set up would be for two gliders. This will depend on the enclosure, how many toys you buy, cage furniture, vitamin supplements, food. An adequate cage will cost over £100 unless you are lucky enough to find yourself a decent bargain. Sugar gliders are notoriously adept escape artists so splashing out on a high quality cage is worth it.
If you wish to go down the arboreal vivarium route, you could be looking at £200+, you will then need to adapt it to suit sugar gliders which could be another £100+. I asked a group of sugar glider keepers to estimate their set up costs, and we came to the conclusion that it costs between £300 -£500 before your gliders!
Many people use cages for housing which need to be good quality as gliders are very adept escape artists. There should be no gaps which you could fit two fingers through and the bar spacing should be a maximum of 15mm. Gaps are usually found around the roof, around doors and around the bottom – often there is a grate separating the body of the cage from the waste tray, ensure the grate is flush to the bottom of the cage.
Some cages have a flap for easy removal of the waste tray; if the grate is not flush to the bottom of the cage then gliders will find and use the flap as an escape route.
The cage should be powder coated, but be warned, sugar gliders are messy! A covering may be necessary to stop them from flicking food/waste up your walls, a large piece of fleece or a shower curtain are ideal.
Position the cage so that it out of the way of draughts and not in direct sunlight. You will need to find somewhere that is quiet in the daytime to allow them to sleep and somewhere that other, un-supervised pets cannot get to.
Despite sugar gliders being nocturnal, they still need a day/night cycle so make sure whatever room they are in will need be light during the daytime (don’t keep curtains closed).
I would not recommend keeping sugar gliders in the bedroom; they are nocturnal and active so are likely to disturb your sleep. Not only will they be running around the enclosure and playing in their wheel, they can also be quite vocal. It has been noted on numerous occasions that gliders become more active and vocal around a full moon.
Nor would I recommend you allow your gliders free roam of your bedroom while you sleep. Gliders need supervision, they will climb the walls, the curtains, get in to very small spaces, hide practically anywhere, eat anything and get in to as much trouble as they possibly can! It is not safe!
You could even end up crushing/suffocating them if they were to get in to bed with you. You need to know where your gliders are, they need a watchful eye keeping over them. As lovely as it sounds to allow them the space while they are at their most active, their safety must come first.
Sugar gliders come from temperate forests and so they need to be kept warm. If the temperature drops too cold they are at risk of dropping in to torpor which can be fatal if not caught and reversed. If the temperature is too hot they will overheat. The ambient temperature needs to be around 25-30 degrees Celsius.
Humidity also needs to be taken in to consideration, central heating causes the atmosphere to be very dry which is no good for gliders. They have very delicate skin which will dry out if there is
no humidity. The outer edges of their ears will dry out and crumble away, if you notice this starting to happen you need to increase the humidity a little. Some people lightly mist with warm water above the cage, you don’t want to get them wet.
There seems to be a growing trend of keeping gliders in custom made vivariums, I personally prefer vivariums as I feel they are more secure. Both enclosure types have pros and cons: with a vivarium, ventilation can be a problem, you will need to make sure there are secure air vents at the top and bottom of the viv to allow air flow. In a cage ventilation is not a problem, but draughts can be – draughts are very dangerous to gliders as they can cause chills.
Vivs are relatively escape proof – unless you leave the door open, or the air vents are not secured properly, they cannot get out! With a cage however, bars bend, there are often large gaps, waste tray flaps, the bar spacing is too wide, there are a lot of opportunities for escape! Also, in vivariums gliders are safe from other pets you may have.
Cages are great for hanging ‘cage furniture’, especially if the roof is also bars and not just an apex roof. Vivs however are not so great for hanging things! The way we get around this issue is by covering the sides with untreated willow trellis which allows gliders to climb the walls, and we tend to have a more natural looking set up with branches and logs and of course, a wheel.
There are many more pros and cons for using cages and vivs but to me, the viv wins! Safety is paramount.
Live branches are an excellent addition to the cage, the glider can run along them and display natural behaviours such as stripping bark and gouging holes. You could drill some holes along the branch and fill with acacia gum or the odd mealworm or waxworm, this is great enrichment for gliders and I’m sure you’ll be amused by the happy noises they make whilst eating their discovery! Any branches must be cleaned and non toxic; you should be 100% positive that they have not been treated by fertilizer or insecticide. To clean branches use an animal friendly disinfectant such as F10 and boiling water and then used a wire brush to scrub off the lichen. Branches from Apple trees are readily available and safe to use, even better would be branches from Acacia trees or Eucalypt trees – you can also use the blooms from these, the gliders will love either destroying them or they may just discover the nectar) which is also an excellent addition to the diet. In the wild they use Eucalyptus leaves to line their nest, so you may wake up one morning to find your lovely leafy branches are now stripped and sticking out of the pouch or nestbox.
According to Dr. Stephen Jackson, Melbourne Zoo, All species of Acacia (for the sap), Banksia, Callistemon, Corymbia, Eucalyptus, Melaleuca (for nectar or pollen) are suitable for Sugar Gliders.