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 Medicineʼ 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.