Sugar Glider Nutrition – It’s Not Hard,
Just The Most Important Thing You Can Do
by Dr. C, the Exotic Pet Vet
Many common disease conditions in sugar gliders are the direct result of improper diet. Their name “sugar glider” suggests that sugar and fruit make up a large portion of their diet, however, this is not the case. Sugar gliders are omnivorous meaning they eat a variety of foods. You will also hear sugar gliders referred to as insectivore/omnivore indicating that insects make up a large portion of their diet in the wild.
In the sugar glider’s natural domain insects are primary to the diet, and when insects are abundant is generally when most of the breeding will occur. Insects are very high in protein, so it stands to reason that breeding gliders require a significant amount of protein in their captive diet when breeding is taking place.
Sugar gliders will rely on other food sources as the abundance of insects decrease in the colder winter months. Plant products such acacia gum, eucalyptus sap and other nectars make up the majority of this seasonal diet.
Sugar gliders eat manna in the wild. Manna is a crusty sugar left from where sap flowed from a wound in a tree trunk or branch. Gliders also consume honeydew, which is an excess sugar produced by sap sucking insects. Honey and fresh fruits are considered good substitutes for the sap, manna and honeydew free ranging sugar gliders eat naturally in the wild.
I am offering a suggested diet plan that has been refined as a result of my close working relationship with SunCoast Sugar Gliders. I can say from firsthand experience that this diet is highly successful as SunCoast has experienced impressively low disease and death rates, as well as high production rates. The joeys born at SunCoast are healthy and weight sufficient, which are great indicators of a good diet plan. This diet includes all fresh foods prepared daily and offered at time intervals that will prevent sugar glider access to foods that may have spoiled.
Now I am compelled at this point to tell you that there are many paths to good nutrition if you have a sound understanding of the sugar glider’s nutritional needs. Balance is very important and avoidance of foods that could ultimately be disease supportive is important. If you are well versed in what these issues are, then variance from this diet can be acceptable.
As we proceed to the specifics of the recommended diet plan, keep in mind the importance of environmental enrichment. The subject of environmental enrichment covers a lot of topics, but for the sake of this article we will focus on the nutritional enrichment issues. Major zoos, the world over, are very focused on nutritional enrichment. This simply means that variety in the diet is important to the overall well being of the animals being cared for.
Let’s face it, would you like to eat the same thing everyday? By varying the foods offered, you are creating stimulation for your pet that produces several benefits. Amongst these benefits are the prevention of boredom, and food variety also enriches the overall health as each item offered will have varying values as they relate to nutrition, vitamins and minerals.
For example, carrots and corn are both vegetables, but they have significantly different food and vitamin values when consumed. Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which is very good for your sugar glider when offered in the right form and amounts. Corn, on the other hand, has a high phosphorus ratio and too much of this vegetable can actually elevate disease opportunity in your pet.
Now let’s get into the specifics of the diet plan I’ve developed for SunCoast Sugar Gliders. A primary objective in developing this diet was to come up with universally accepted foods that over 95% of the population will consume heartily. You can feed a great and nutritionally balanced diet, but if the animals don’t like it, then they will feast on individual components of the diet which will cause a lack of nutritional balance. A “weekly menu” version of the diet is here.
The diet is a three part feeding routine, plus the administration of
vitamins and minerals with the second part:
1. A fresh protein source.
Both of the fresh components should be fed in the evening with uneaten portions removed in the morning.
3. A staple food available all day, everyday to make sure that adequate food amounts are offered. You will likely find that your sugar gliders will eat the fresh foods first and will nibble at the staple food throughout the day and night. It has been our observation, particularly with breeding animals, that they will wake up during the daylight hours for a snack. It’s the sugar glider’s version of what we call the “midnight snack“.
Offered on a four day rotation with one item offered from the following list daily:
Gut loaded mealworms – Feed 10-12 small, 7-10 medium, or 3-5 large mealworms per glider
Gut loaded crickets – Feed 3-5 crickets per sugar glider
Boiled eggs (without shells) mixed with high protein/low sugar cereal (like corn flakes or Special K) and mixed with either honey or apple juice. One heaping tablespoon is offered per 2 sugar gliders.
Yogurt (blueberry or peach) – 1 heaping tablespoon is offered per 2 sugar gliders
Special Note: Just weaned joeys are not quite ready for the mealworms or crickets yet, so substitute Gerber chicken baby food mixed with applesauce or sweet potatoes for the protein portion of the diet. Offer small mealworms weekly until the joey learns how to eat them without any trouble.
June bugs and grasshoppers are also good insects to feed your sugar gliders. While SunCoast does not feed either of these insects, I do recommend them as good protein sources. Never feed lighting bugs to your gliders.
Offered in single portions daily and varied from day to day depending on the time of year and availability of these items. This is merely the list that SunCoast uses and is not intended to be all inclusive. The amount to feed is about the amount that would equal one apple cut into 8 pieces with one piece fed to 2 sugar gliders.
Apples – Pears – Sweet Potatoes – Watermelon – Honeydew – Cantaloupe – Carrots – Kiwi – Mango – Oranges (only once a week and never to joeys) – Blueberries
Vitamins and calcium should be given daily. I recommend Blueberry Fortifier as a well rounded vitamin designed for small animals. To supplement calcium levels, I recommend Vionite, the phosphorus free without Vitamin D3 added version. Vionate already contains Vitamin D, so you don’t need it in the calcium. The vitamins should be sprinkled on the offering of daily fruits or veggies. You will just add a pinch of both Blueberrry Fortifier and Vionite. Do not overdose the vitamins. Too many vitamins can be just as harmful as not giving them at all.
I also suggest a third supplementation for breeding sugar gliders. We’ve found that using a milk replacer product like Arnold’s Choice Possum Milk Replacer, sprinkled on the fruit and vegetables has shown beneficial effects to the lactating female. 1/8 teaspoon every day is the amount used by SunCoast. During pregnancy, it is advisable to gear the diet more towards the needs of the female and its OK if the male is indulging in the same foods. If you find the male is getting overweight from this diet, I suggest that you purchase a Wodent Wheel or some other device that will give him access to good exercise.
Offered in the cage at all times, Wholesome Balance Chicken & Brown Rice Blend is the staple food used at SunCoast; it is a balanced formula and sugar gliders really like it. This protein rich dry food product is a great supplemental food to your gliders fresh diet. (Note to readers: ZooKeeper’s Secret was our staple food for 7 years; like Wholesome Balance, animal protein is the main ingredient but it’s a moist food so a bit harder to deal with.) It is very important that small animals have access to food continually throughout the day. This is particularly important for breeding animals. There is no commercially available food that I would recommend as the single source of nutrition for your sugar glider.
I do not recommend that you substitute cat food as your choice of staple diet for your sugar glider. Cat food is designed for cats and cats are strict carnivores. To put this in perspective, many years ago when ferrets were becoming popular, ferret owners fed cat food, and over time it was discovered that this incorrect nutritional balance was ultimately bad for the ferrets. We have no reason to believe this is not the case with sugar gliders as well.
Fresh, clean water should be accessible at all times!
If you plan to give additional treats to your sugar glider, do so after they’ve eaten a significant portion of their meal. You can also use ordinary meal items as treats, for example, hand feed your pet its mealworms. You enhance your bonding and friendship and are feeding your pet what it already needs. If other treats are offered, the quantities should be very small in relation to the whole diet consumption. Think of it as dessert! And too much dessert leads to obesity. Obesity in any animal leads to significant health problems.
Dr. C’s Top 10 Nutrition Tips
1. Fresh water should always be available.
2. Never add vitamins to the water supply.
3. Offer meals that are at least 40% protein for non-breeding gliders and 50% protein for breeding sugar gliders.
4. Supplement proteins with a variety of fresh fruits & vegetables.
5. Keep a high quality staple diet in the cage at all times
6. Feed fresh portions of fruit and veggies in the evening and remove any foods that can spoil in the morning.
7. Avoid preservatives and pesticides in the diet.
8. Avoid excessive fat in the diet – meat products should be lean.
9. Maintain positive Calcium/Phosphorus ratios.
10. Gut load your bugs before feeding to the sugar gliders.
The Most Frequently Asked Food Question!
What is your recommendation on Leadbeater’s formula?
The original Leadbeater’s formula was, as I understand it, was developed by the Taronga Zoo as just part of a rather extensive feeding schedule for captive sugar gliders. Here is the total Taronga Zoo diet as published in one of my veterinary handbooks.
3 grams apple
3 grams banana/corn
1.5 grams dog kibble
1 teaspoon Fly pupae
3 grams blueberries / kiwi fruit
2 teaspoon Leadbeater’s mixture **
4 grams orange with skin
2 grams pear
3 grams sweet potato
On Wednesdays: feed day old chick when available
or large mealworms.
** Leadbeater’s mixture
150 milliliters warm water
150 milliliters honey
1 shelled hard boiled egg
25 grams high protein baby cereal
1 teaspoon vitamin supplement (Vionate)
Mix water and honey, blend egg in separate container, add water/honey mix, vitamin powder, and baby cereal, blending each until smooth. Keep unused portion refrigerated.
OK, now back to the question. My first thought on this is that Leadbeater’s mix was designed as just a small part of an overall feeding plan. I am aware of several variations of this mixture designed to make it more complete, however, I have some reservations. My primary reservation is based in how the necessary vitamins are administered. If the product is refrigerated, or frozen as suggested by some recipes, I am concerned that the vitamins may lose some potency.
Look at it like this. Have you ever read your own vitamin containers and noticed that it may contain language like “keep in a cool, dark place” or “store between 65 and 80 degrees”? Have you ever noticed that certain vitamins are packaged in brown or some other dark packaging? While I do not purport to be a nutritionist, common sense tells me that certain vitamins will change or lose value if kept in a way other than as recommended by the manufacturer.
In closing, I am an advocate of feeding fresh foods to exotic animals. I see a great number of exotic animals in my practice, and because exotics are relatively few in number as compared to the more traditional domestic pets, I am not yet convinced that there is an adequate pre-packaged food product available that meets all the needs of the sugar glider. If you want to keep an exotic pet, you should be willing to feed it an exotic diet. If you want easy, then get a more traditional pet that you can feed once a day in a bowl on the floor. It is difficult as a professional in my position to see that the demise of most exotic pets is due to the owner’s lack of knowledge on proper nutrition and environment.
This is a diet plan that I can endorse as I’ve seen firsthand the success of this program. I would prefer not to comment on the many variations that are published as I do not have good firsthand experience with them. If you believe that you have a program is that is healthy for your sugar glider, I suggest that you review the plan with your veterinarian to insure that it is appropriate. Remember, there is more than one path to good nutrition, this is just the path that I recommend to my clientele.