Hand Rearing Orphaned / Abandoned Joeys –  Part I

By Lisa
Sugar Glider

Part 2 of this series is here.

It’s always a sad moment for me when I get that urgent phone call or email from a devoted glider keeper that finds themselves suddenly faced with having to hand raise baby gliders.  I will take you through a step by step process on how to accomplish this task, but first we should take a few moments to examine when this should be done.

When should babies be taken when you suspect abandonment and when babies should stay with the parents and only supplemental fed?  Like most things glider, we can only share general experience as each situation is unique on its own.  This decision is one that should not be made lightly and before pulling baby gliders from the parents prematurely, just remember one thing.  

We can NEVER do the job as well as Mother Nature!  If you are not certain you are doing the best thing by pulling babies early, then you are best advised to let Mother Nature do her job, because she is always the absolute best at it.  Hand reared joeys miss out not only the experience of learning how to be a sugar glider from sugar gliders, but their whole immune system is passed on via the act of nursing.

Hand reared joeys can end up being smaller and less immune resistant than parent raised joeys.  This is why we discourage the act, but sometimes there is no choice.  Those who choose to do this because they think it will make for better bonded sugar gliders either don’t understand sugar gliders as well as they think they do, or they just don’t care!  I hate to think that all animals don’t get the best possible start to life that they should have and deserve to have.

Let’s start this discussion at the very beginning.  It is not uncommon for glider keepers to go into a complete panic when they first realize that their sugar gliders have joey(s) in the pouch.  It’s a very exciting time, but also a time when nerves can get a bit frazzled hoping that this event will go smoothly without any unpleasant surprises.  It is very rewarding to raise young sugar gliders and that whole marsupial experience is an incredible wonder of nature.  We’ve addressed the whole breeding event in several past issues of GliderVet Newsletter, so I’m not going to reiterate all you should expect during a normal birthing event.  I will, however, answer that one recurring and super big question, “what do we do now?”  The answer is simple.

If you have a non-neutered male and female living together, then you should stick to a diet supportive of breeding animals, even if they’ve never bred before.  If you don’t have them on a supportive diet (meaning 50% protein) then it may too late to do anything by the time you realize that there are joeys in the pouch.  Good husbandry starts before the animals breed!  It’s very important that once you discover joeys in the pouch, or in some cases, make the discovery that there are babies out of the pouch you never expected to show up, you do not want to make any changes in the gliders’ typical routine.  Making changes to the diet, upgrading cages, moving them to another room, or any other type of change is not recommended.

Remember, that change equals stress and it’s vitally important that you keep their stress levels as low as possible.  In addition to avoiding any changes in routine, be more aware of keeping sound levels low, disturbances to their sleep patterns low, and avoid any other thing that could “upset” them.  It’s tempting to want to look at them more and handle them more when they have new babies.  Please try and avoid this temptation.  The best way to avoid abandonment is to not make any changes to the routine.  Sugar gliders are sensitive creatures and if they feel threatened, they can sometimes do unpleasant things to their young.  This is a Nature response and one we will get into more detail in a future newsletter explaining the possible causes of cannibalism.  While cannibalism is not common in gliders, it does happen, so do not tempt fate!

By following proven practices, you can hopefully avoid the unpleasant situation of having abandoned or cannibalized joeys.  In some situations, even with following the best dietary advice, keeping stress levels low, and avoiding changes to routine, bad stuff can still happen and this article will lay out the process we use here at SunCoast.

It’s obviously quite simple to make a decision to hand rear a joey when it becomes orphaned.  And it’s a good idea to have the proper supplies on hand as soon as you know your gliders have young in the pouch.  Usually when an event happens, it happens without much warning, so best to be prepared!  You may not be able to find all that you need on short notice, particularly if this happens in the middle of the night.

It’s not a very easy decision to make on exactly when joeys are abandoned by the female glider.  This is where you really need to consider the consequences of your actions before making a premature decision to hand rear the joeys.  So let’s examine what events should happen to help you determine if the joeys are indeed being abandoned by Mum.

First of all, it is not at all unusual for the female glider to leave her out of pouch joeys in the nest box / sleeping pouch even at a very young age.  Usually what happens is the Papa Glider will stay at home with the young while Mum stretches her legs, has a nice healthy meal and perhaps a good run in her Wodent Wheel.  While Papa Glider will “usually” stay behind, sometimes he will join his mate and both will leave the babies behind and take a bit of a break.  If both are gone from the joeys, it is usually only for five or ten minutes and this time period will extend as the joeys get older.  So let’s say that the babies are only one week out of pouch and the parent gliders leave their offspring for a half hour.  Should you worry or not worry?  I would worry, but I would not react just yet.  If the joeys are four weeks out of pouch, I would not really worry much about this time of absence.

OK, so now we are in worry state.  Take a good look at the joeys. Do they look boney and skinny?  This is a rather hard call for someone who’s never had the baby glider experience before, but if you see the ribs clearly from underneath, again this is a sign to worry. If they do not look boney or skinny, take a sigh of relief as this is a good sign that they are getting sufficient nutrition from their mother.

Now don’t fall into the trap of assuming that if one baby has been deemed “abandoned” or worse yet, one baby has been cannibalized, that this is what is going to happen to the other(s).  I think you should look at each joey individually to make this decision.  This situation may be a bit more obvious when you have one joey that is clearly bigger and plumper than its litter mate.  There may be something wrong with one of the joeys and nature has its survival of the fittest mentality, a necessary event for animals in the wild.  

When you encounter this situation, you have a really tough call to make.  You can spend countless sleepless nights raising this scrawny joey only to have it survive for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or perhaps longer, yet to pass on prematurely.  This is truly a heartbreaking event, because one thing I can share without reservation is that when you hand rear a joey, the bond between you and this little one will exceed anything you’ve ever known.  I’m not at all discouraging you from trying, but I am encouraging you to be realistic about the possible outcomes.  Sometimes Nature must simply take its course and our intervention may not be able to alter that course.

If you see a scab on the joey(s) nose or really anywhere on the face, you have a potential cannibalization on your hands.  This situation will cause me to react quicker than any of the other signs we may encounter.  This does not usually bode well for the joey(s) and your immediate intervention may be required to save its life.

Joeys are usually abandoned or cannibalized within the first week to ten days of coming out of pouch, but it can happen later.  It’s very sad to lose a joey that is four to five weeks out of pouch (OOP) when all indications were that all was well.  While this is less common, it can happen.  But if you can make it through the first several weeks, you should feel pretty good about it all.

Once you’ve made the decision that you must take some steps to intervene, remember that the younger the joeys are that you are planning to hand rear, the harder they are to keep alive.  And if you feel that the joeys are a bit nutritionally deficient (indicated by an apparent skinny look), but the parents seem to be doing an otherwise terrific job, then consider only supplemental feeding of the joeys.  It will benefit them greatly in many ways to stay with the parents as they learn social skills, eating skills, are kept warm, clean and stimulated by their parents.  It’s a challenging task to take over all these responsibilities and some things you simply can’t do for them, no matter how well intentioned you are and how hard you try.

Mother Nature does it best!

If you find that a young joey seems to continually crawl out of the sleep box or nest pouch, or you feel that its being kicked out, this is another situation that should probably give you pause to make a quicker decision on hand rearing.  Usually babies that fit this category  seem a bit more hyper than similarly aged joeys.  

I suspect it’s because they are really hungry and either set out on their own to satisfy their cravings or the parents are indeed kicking them out and the hunger makes them a bit hyperactive.  This is another one of those situations that you should see as Mother Nature doing her job.  There could very well be something not obviously wrong with this joey, but a defect nonetheless.  I am more inclined to think the joey has an issue moreso than the Mother Glider when there are two joeys and one is treated and acts normal and the other seems to be out of the nesting area more often than normal.  So again, this is a higher risk situation.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s been my experience that orphaned joeys are easier to save than abandoned joeys (due to the higher likelihood that abandoned joeys have some sort of defect than orphans do).  And while this may seem obvious, older joeys are easier to save than younger joeys.  Please keep this in mind, because if the joeys can stay with the parents even a few days longer, you greatly improve you ultimate odds in saving that young life.