Bonding with Sugar Gliders – Start Off with Realistic Expectations

Bonding with Sugar Gliders – Part 5
By Lisa

Huh?  Part 5?  But what happened to Parts 1-4?  As mentioned before, we have written lots of information on bonding over the past few years.  If you would like to review the other parts of this series, they are here:  OneTwoThreeFourSix.

In our current article, we hope to take you on a bit of a different journey starting off with realistic expectations, which is so important. On our website, we offer hand-tamed baby sugar gliders (joeys) and it is critical to understand what the statement, “hand-tamed” means.  Anyone who has ever talked to me on the phone about getting a SunCoast Sugar Glider has heard this speech before, but I think more people need to hear it before they step into a situation that may not be quite what they expected!

Sugar gliders bond by scent AND they are territorial.  We handle our babies every day!  I should know because I’m the lucky girl to have that as one of my “jobs”.  How cool is that?!  But you see, just because the babies are handled by me does not mean that they will instantly accept a new human or humans (yup, gliders can bond to more than one person).  We believe it is very important to touch and hold the babies often.  This keeps them human friendly, but does not make an instant bond for a new glider keeper.

Just like any relationship with a pet, what you put into the process is what you will get out of it.  Do not expect an instant pet!  If you want to have great sugar glider friends, it will take time and effort on your part.  I often tell the story about my Labrador Retriever, named Georgia.  She is a frisbee-catching fool!  And I assure you, when I got her as an eight week old pup, she was totally clueless about this game.  It took quite a long time to get her to chase after the brightly colored disk.  Then it took time to get her to pick it up and bring it back to me.  With more practice, she figured out she could catch it. Thank goodness, because my arm was getting tired!

The reason for sharing this story is simple.  Dogs are domesticated animals, meaning they have been kept as pets for thousands of years.  They are bred to be human’s best friend (just trying to stay politically correct here!).  You would not expect your new puppy to be the perfect companion right away, would you?  After all, puppies require lots of potty training, they need to be taught not to chew everything up, not to bite, not to jump on their master(s), etc.  And even though dogs are domesticated, this training takes time.

Now our little friends, sugar gliders, are exotic animals.  Exotic is a fancy word for wild.  They have not been bred over a long period of time to interact with humans.  In fact, captive breeding programs are quite new by pet standards.  But captive breeding programs do produce the best companions.  I can see from our years in this business that the longer we do this, the better our babies become.  Many of our parent gliders were born and raised in our facility, so they know no one other than us, which enables us to handle babies at young ages, which helps tremendously with taming the joeys.

This is the opportune time to make a comparison between getting your gliders from an established breeder or a pet store.  I believe it is very important to “know” where your babies came from.  The typical pet store structure is to buy from a broker, who has in turned purchased from a wholesaler or another broker/importer.  Importer? Yikes! That’s a scary word to us.  Yes, it is still common practice in the U.S. for business people to pay other people to go the sugar gliders’ native countries and capture them for resale as pets.

Some pet stores will also get their sugar gliders from small hobby breeders.  Because this is a part time effort for these very small breeders, the babies may, or may not, have been handled prior to placing them in the shop.  A lot of pet stores will not even disclose their sources.  Without knowing the source information of your sugar glider, you may end up with a very challenging situation.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Have you ever met anyone, or personally, had the opportunity to raise a baby squirrel because it fell out of its tree?  Living in hurricane country Florida, we hear stories like this all the time and have even done some of our own raising to help Dr C when her hands get too full with rehabilitation efforts. If you raise a baby squirrel from infancy, you can develop quite a close bond.  But on the flip side of the coin, imagine capturing a fully mobile squirrel and trying to make a pet of it.  Good luck, my friend!  If you want to develop an attachment with an exotic (think wild!) animal, you need to start off very young.  Bonding with older exotic animals may never happen!

If you want to develop the best bond with sugar gliders, you should start off young and purchase them from an organization that handles the babies.  And even after all that, still be aware that it will take some time to get to the promised land.

I get dozens of calls monthly from folks who start the conversation by saying something like this. “Lisa, I know I didn’t get my glider from you …. but PLEASE HELP!”  Hopefully, this newsletter will help.  Make sure to do your homework.  Know exactly where your sugar gliders are coming from and make sure you get them when they are young.

Now don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that older sugar gliders deserve good homes too, but they will not make the ultimate bonded friend that a young glider will.  We hear stories of people bringing in older gliders and making remarkable headway.  And kudos to all of those wonderful folks for their incredible time and devotion to caring for older sugar gliders.  But keep in mind, these situations are the exception, not the rule.  Those people who make major bonding progress with older gliders – particularly those animals that have been abused or neglected – work extremely hard at it.  You must be patient, persistent and fearless.

Now I would like to summarize a few basic rules to get you started once you’ve selected your gliders.  Bonding is another word for trust. Please remember this. Once your gliders learn to trust you, they will want to spend time and interact with you.

How long should the bonding/trust process take?  This is a great question.  When a family acquires SunCoast sugar glider joeys, we ask people to commit one month to the process.  Typically, most of our customers have made great progress in the first week, but we would rather have folks prepared and committed to the process taking longer.  Each glider has its own unique personality and will respond to different people and changes in environment differently.

So if you are getting a baby that is just weaned and has been handled, loved and protected, how long should it take if you get an older sugar glider that has not been previously handled?  I wish I had a firm answer for you, but it could take several months. Persistency and consistency will always pay off, but the older the sugar glider and the less it has been handled, the less likely you will be to have that awesomely bonded pet you read so much about on the internet.

Daytime is the best time to bond.  Remember that we said bonding is about trust.  If you can handle your babies one at a time and get them to go back to sleep (which is exactly what they are inclined to do during the day), then there builds the trust.  Overly frightened babies will not want to go back to sleep.  Babies who feel safe and secure will go back to sleep. And that is what your job entails. Try to get your joeys to go back to sleep and know that you are taking great steps toward bonding.

With more than one glider (and you really should have more than one), work with each one individually.  This is very important.  If you are bonding with multiple sugar gliders at one time, then physically separate them.  They can live in the same cage, but when working on bonding time, physically separate them.  You can, of course, carry them at the same time, just do so in separate bonding pouches, pockets, or one in your cupped hands and one in a pouch.  If you keep them together in the same pouch, they are likely to cling to each other to feel safe and secure.  You want them to learn that you are safe and their cage is safe. This will incline them to seek one of these two places if startled.

Of course, multiple gliders will bond to each other, but this in no way precludes them from bonding with you and other members of your household as well.  I keep four of my sugar boogers in one cage. They are ALL well bonded to me, well bonded to each other, and of course Arnold likes the dog too!  Be very careful with other household pets because sugar gliders typically have no natural fear of other animals and may actually put themselves in the line of danger with dogs, cats, ferrets, etc.

If they try to bite, don’t pull back.  Frightened gliders will act in the manner instilled in them by nature.  When scared, they make the bizarre crabbing noise, may stand on the back feet or lay on their back with arms waving in Mr. Myagi fashion.  You remember the movie Karate Kid?  Wax on, wax off?  Well, sugar gliders have this move down pat.  They may also strike their heads at you wanting to bite.  What they are saying to you is “You are scaring me and I want you to get away from me!”  You need to hold firm.  If you pull back, you have just reinforced this behavior.  If you hold your hand flat and taut right in front of the glider, and they do try to bite, then they can’t really hurt you in this position because their mouths are too small to chomp down on a flat taut hand.

As they learn that they cannot intimidate you, they will cease trying. Some sugar gliders will cease after a few thwarted attempts; others may take weeks to get the message.  But your message must be clear: “Listen up, li’l ole scared baby gliders, I am not afraid of you.  I want to protect and care for you.  You won’t scare me away, so just give up trying because I am going to be your friend!”  Your confidence in this process is critical.

And, of course, bribery works!  Get out those treats!  With most animals, rewarding with food is a positive event.  A lot of people promote the use of “licky treats” with sugar gliders.  Many gliders will love to lick yogurt, applesauce or other types of softer foods from your fingers.  But some gliders don’t use only their tongue, but also their teeth.  If this is the case, use a treat they can bite into so your finger doesn’t become part of the offering!  Arnold is one of these type of gliders, so I don’t offer him regular yogurt, but I do offer himyogurt drops.  Then he can chomp down to his little heart’s content without making my fingers his finger food!  If you are still having problems getting your gliders to calm down even with the treats, you may want to try our Original Bonding Potion to relax them.

Be sure not to allow them too much independence early on.  When you first start out, you want to bond with them out of the cage during the daytime.  Keep the sugar gliders under your control.  Do not expect them to just sit on your shoulder and hang with you right away.  Keep them cupped in your hands so that they cannot run away, but do not put pressure on their body.  They do not like to be “squeezed”, but cupped in your hands in a little “hand cave” works very well.  If they do get away, then just slowly get them back to the place you want them.  You need to control the process in a way that ultimately comforts them.  Do not let a young, scared critter control the process.  If they squawk, talk to them soothingly and patiently. Your job is to make the sugar gliders trust you.

You can indeed bond at night.  Initially you may want to leave them in the cage and put your arm or hands in the cage to touch them, pet them and offer them treats. If you take them out of the cage at night, their nocturnal high metabolism nature will kick in and they will want to run around.  Revisit one of our earlier articles on tent bonding if your schedule requires mostly night time bonding:

Click here for Bonding with New Gliders – Part Four

This will force them to stay in very close proximity to you, which is important early on if you want to have the super-duper bonded glider. Once they are well bonded, you can give them more freedom, as their tendency should be to return to you.

Be consistent – sugar gliders are very responsive to routine.  Ideally, try to spend the same amount of time with them each day at the same time.  Sugar gliders respond very well to routine and this should enhance the efficiency of your bonding experience.

Know that determination and commitment ALWAYS pay off.  All sound efforts in the bonding process will be rewarded.  If you feel there is a setback, don’t get discouraged because they do not usually last for more than a couple of days.  Be consistent and patient.

Parting thought: If your sugar glider is not yet bonding to you, it is NOT because he or she doesn’t like you.  Remember, it is all about trust.  Gliders are incapable of HATE, but are very capable of feeling scared.  So make them feel safe and secure and see what happens.

Because of the depth and breadth of this topic, we’ll continue more next month with answers to your questions about knowing when your sugar gliders are bonded. So if you are interested in learning what bonded sugar gliders act like, tune in again next month for another issue of GliderVet Newsletter!

‘Til next time, in good health for you and your gliders, we sign off in appreciation of all of you who share great glider adventures with us!