Dear Arnold
By Arnold

Hello Arnold,

As the father of a proud glider owner ( Lauren ), I’ve become more aware of all things even remotely “glider” and so I was intrigued today by this news item.  I think we all know what kind of animal they’re *really* talking about!

Best to you and yours,

Brian C

Dear Brian!

Wow!  Tanks sooooo much for this link!  At last, I’ve found me great, great, great (etc etc) Uncle Fang!  So fer those of you who ever wondered who taught the birds to fly, check this out!  Us suggies have been around a looooooong time!  So next time someone asks you “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”, you will know the real answer is the “sugar glider”!  Rock on!

Love Arnold

Some Stuff about Gliders and Biting
By Lisa

Dear Lisa,

Is it common for sugar gliders to bite fingers and other parts of your body?  It’s not a very aggressive bite.  Is there any way I can get him to stop or is it just in their nature to do that?


Justin’s question is very common indeed.  A summary of reasons why sugar gliders bite is below.  And a detailed explanation of each is provided subsequently.

1.  They are scared.
2.  They are testing you.
3.  You smell funny (to them).
4.  They are tasting you.
5.  They sometimes use this as a sign of affection (like love bites).
6.  They are grooming you.
7.  And the least common reason is they are aggressive.

Please notice that nowhere on this list does it say sugar gliders bite because they hate you.  Animals are not like people.  They are not capable of the emotion we know as hate or dislike.

So let’s take a look at each of these one by one and discuss some possible solutions to the problem.  Let’s face it, even bites that are intended to be nice are still a bit rough on us humans – and can often be startling.  Handling bites appropriately will go along way toward curbing this undesirable behavior.

Reason 1: They are scared

So first up is gliders bite because they are scared.  This is what most people often encounter when bringing new gliders home for the first time.  You should expect sugar gliders to be scared when they are first brought into a new home.  Gliders bond by scent and are territorial.  And when you change the people they are used to and the home in which they live, they must get acclimated to their new surroundings.  The time this takes will depend on the age of the sugar gliders (younger is usually a lot easier), the way they were handled as joeys (or not handled) and their individual personalities (which we have no control over).

Scared gliders need to be handled with tender, loving care.  Let’s put this in perspective.  If you have a little human baby that is scared, do you ignore it, give it time to cry itself out, put it back in its crib because it is crying and scared?  Or do you hold the baby gently, talk to it softly and try to coax the baby into feeling comfortable and safe?  I hope you chose the last suggestion, as this is exactly what you need to do with scared sugar babies.  The only thing that is going to make the bond (trust) happen is handling.  Giving them space, putting them back in their cage or otherwise leaving them alone is never going to get you to the place you want to be with them.

So how do you handle them and not get bitten?  I have some suggestions, but the first and most important thing to remember is don’t pull back.  It’s a reflex response you must overcome if you are going to break the behavior.  You see, when gliders are scared, they often get into a defensive posture (on their back or hind legs) that we affectionately refer to as the Mr. Miyagi position (from Karate Kid fame).  They will crab and strike at you.  Some will actually bite and others will simply make the gesture.  They are trying their hardest to intimidate you, and for most people the intimidation tactics work.  It is our reflex response to pull back.  However, when you do so, you have just reinforced the biting / striking behavior pattern.  The sugar glider is saying “Get away from me, you big ole lug – I’m scared of you”.  So if you “get away”, then the behavior just will continue until you can break the pattern.

Now I have found that if you hold your hand in front of the scared glider in a flat taut position, they cannot bite taut flesh.  This can be very effective (and very scary for newbies).  So here is a simple tip you can employ to protect your hand and still get that desired direct contact.  Cut up some fleece fabric (if you don’t have any fleece fabric, an old sweatshirt or baby blanket will do).  The important thing here is that you use a fabric that will not unravel, so towels, socks, and other fabrics that fray or unravel should be avoided.  Cut the fabric a little smaller than a face cloth.  Put this “bonding blanket” in the sleep pouch with your gliders. Now when you go to hold them, use the bonding blanket over your hand. This leaves one hand free to use to pet the sugar glider and comfort it to make it feel safe.

I typically don’t recommend gloves because this will cover your natural scent and that is one way a glider comes to know you. Leather gloves have a distinct scent of their own and while leather gloves would certainly protect you, they will not only hide your scent, but put a new scent around the gliders that does nothing to facilitate their getting to know you.

Another technique you can use is to keep an extra sleeping pouch around.  Turn it inside out and use it over your hand to gently capture your glider (if it is running around the cage) and then flip it right side out).  Keep the top of the pouch closed with your hand and pet the glider from the outside.  Continue to do this until you are comfortable with putting your hand in the pouch with the glider to hold it, pet it, let it sleep in your hand inside the pouch.  Put in your time and you will be rewarded!

Reasons 2, 4, 5 and 6: Testing, Tasting, Love Bites and Grooming

Sugar gliders will also bite to either test you or test boundaries.  There is phenomenon in the glider community many refer to as “teenage nippiness”.  This happens when you have made great bonding progress with your gliders, they are handling well, there is no biting, and then things seem to go in reverse gear.  All of a sudden, the bites start again.  We hear about this fairly often with gliders that are going through the age of puberty.  This may be a time when lifetime pecking orders are established and personality development is maturing, along with the animal’s physical traits.  Teenage nippiness is not usually done with a Mr. Miyagi posture and there is often no crabbing.  You’ll just be holding your glider and all of a sudden, the glider will just chomp down.  This can be annoying and I find most gliders just grow out of the behavior.

It is also hard to draw distinct behavior lines between teenage nippiness, tasting, grooming and love bites.  The definition of all four of these biting patterns are so close in my mind, that I handle them all identically.  I will try one of two things.  The first thing I will try is giving a treat.  Yeah right, Lisa, you mean reward them for a bad behavior?  Well this may sound bizarre, but gliders don’t see it as a bad behavior.  Tasting you is a form of identification; grooming and “love bites” are natural activities between animals in a colony – they are a show of affection.  So while “teenage nippiness” may be better classified as a form of rebellion, the other three types are more affectionate and show up in a similar manner.

I find that the treat will often distract the glider from biting.  Arnold did this for years and I almost felt that I taught him to chomp on me when he wanted a treat.  He’s pretty much fully outgrown the behavior by now, but we had several years of obnoxious little guy behavior that was never malicious.  I’m not a big fan of licky treats for this reason.  As some gliders will bite, rather than lick, I opt to use treats like the dried papayamango or pineapple.  Even hand feeding some of the regular meal like small pieces of fruits, veggies, mealies or crickets can be effectively used for distraction.

I’ve also had some success with blowing on the back of the head. With this tactic, I try to be discreet.  Gliders don’t like to be blown on, so I don’t want them to “see” me do it.  I don’t want them to associate me with something they don’t like.  Instead, I want them to associate something they don’t like with something I don’t like.

Reason 3:  You smell funny (to them)

Sugar gliders will bite because they don’t recognize your scent.  When I started working with gliders, I gave up something I used often, which was wearing colognes.  I have since given up on all the great-smelling girlie stuff, including scented soaps, scented lotions or anything that can change my smell.  I’ve mentioned this in a past newsletter, but it is worth mentioning again to drive home this point.  I lost some of my recognition value with my most bonded gliders when I quit smoking.  Why?  Because I smelled different and they had to get used to the new, improved Lisa.  Now I’m not suggesting that you go through life never smelling good again, but you may want to shower before you handle your gliders, especially if you’ve indulged in some nice smelling products since your last shower.  It could go a long way to more consistent behaviors between you and your gliders.

Now I have not personally tried this, but I have no reason to believe it could not work.  If you must have colognes, lotions or soaps in your life, try sticking to one brand in each category.  That way, your smell will be consistent and that will help a great deal in your relationship with your fuzz buddies.

Reason 7: Aggression

The most common email we get from the community about biting is regarding the “aggression” of these animals.  Aggressiveness is not a trait we typically see in sugar gliders.  This is not to say that gliders cannot be aggressive, it’s just not that common.

Remember above, we were discussing the Mr. Miyagi position.  This behavior is completely defensive.  It is a warning to stay back and if you calmly push those boundaries, you will break through to a great relationship.  Here is my definition of an aggressive glider:

If you open the cage door, and the glider wakes up immediately, flies out of the bonding pouch or nest box right at you, chomps down and doesn’t let go, then you can safely say you have an aggressive glider. If this is not what happens, please do not see your animal as aggressive.  Aggression and fear are on two opposite ends of the biting spectrum.  But even true aggressiveness can be overcome.

I rarely see babies show signs of true aggressiveness.  I have seen it more often with adult gliders that have come from abused or neglected situations, and you can hardly blame the critter for developing bad behavior patterns from being exposed to people who have mistreated them.  To rebuild trust in these situations can be very challenging and this is something you should not undertake if you are not willing to commit many, many months – or even years – to the process.  This is a rescue effort and with that comes the likelihood that your are now primarily a caretaker.  The ultimate pet situation may never develop under these circumstances.

Baby gliders that show these tendencies are more than salvageable as great future friends.  They may take more time and more patience, but if they haven’t had any good reasons to learn to distrust people, you have a very workable situation on your hands.  The techniques are no different from what has been discussed with scared gliders, but the commitment is bigger and the time frame may take longer.  But persevere, because you will ultimately be rewarded.

When you have the opportunity to handle as many gliders as we do, and you know they are all treated equally throughout their time with us, you really get a chance to see just how broad the range of personality traits can be.  But so far, I’ve not met a baby that I’ve been unable to make friends with.

One situation I have not yet mentioned on the topic of biting is the increase in protective behavior when sugar gliders are breeding.  This may show itself as a more aggressive position with human caretakers when gliders have young.  Normally easy-to-handle gliders can get more protective when they have young about to emerge from the pouch, or babies that have newly emerged.  They may not want you around during these times.  Since I personally feel the commitment to keep stress levels low with breeding animals, I acquiesce to their behaviors in these situations.  This is one reason why breeding animals may not give you the best pet experience.

But it doesn’t always happen this way.  Most of my breeding gliders are quite fine with my hands in the cage, petting them, petting and holding the babies and otherwise being a part of their colony.  But some of them let me know – with very distinct behaviors – they would rather me leave them alone at certain times.  So if you see this happening, and you really can’t handle the mood swings, consider having your male neutered and discontinue the breeding.  If you want your gliders to simply be your pals, breeding is not always supportive of that goal.  You do have options.

‘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!