Hand Rearing Orphaned / Abandoned Joeys –  Part II

By Lisa


Last month we started this topic with discussion on how to decide when is the right time to interrupt Mother Nature and step in to hand rear baby sugar gliders.  It’s never a cut and dry decision, but I hope some of our advice will help you make the best decision for the long term health and well being of your baby critters.

Once that decision is made, the most viable option you have is to make your own formula and start those round the clock feedings.  I briefly want to mention the opportunity for surrogacy here.  If you have an established colony and have young that become orphaned, we have seen a single instance of another female in the colony taking the responsibility of raising those young.  But we strongly recommend that you NEVER try and place baby sugar gliders in another cage with a nursing female in hopes that she will adopt those young as her own. That is an extremely high risk, and the odds are that the adult female will either ignore or harm the orphaned/abandoned joeys.  If there is another willing female in the established colony, you will know right away if she has taken in those young as her own and will not need to do anything.  But you cannot really encourage that situation, it just has to happen on its own.

OK, let’s now start with the formula.  The best success we’ve had with formulas is a slightly modified version of a formula called Joey BML.  We’ve tried several different approaches over the years, and this formula has yielded the best results for us.  Using a milk replacer only, such as Arnold’s Choice Possum Milk Replacer, yielded poor results as free-standing products.

Hand Rearing Formula recipe:

In a blender, combine the following:

  • ½ cup Honey (with the exception of honeycomb, raw or unfiltered, most store bought honey is fine)
  • 1 peeled boiled egg
  • ¼ cup Apple Juice

Blend well, then add:

  • 1 four ounce bottle pre-mixed Gerber juice with yogurt (if you can’t find this, then substitute two ounces of plain yogurt and two ounces of mixed fruit juice)
  • 1 teaspoon of Vionate vitamins

Blend well, then add:

  • 2 teaspoons of Rep-Cal calcium supplement non phosphorus without Vitamin D-3
  • 2 jars of Stage 1 or 2 chicken baby food (2.5 ounce jars)
  • 1 jar of Stage 2 sweet potato baby food (2.5 ounce jar)
  • ½ cup dry baby cereal (we prefer the rice, but others may be used as well)
  • 2 tablespoons of Arnold’s Choice Possum Milk Replacer

Blend well.

You will need to freeze this formula in either a freezer proof plastic container or ice cube trays.  The formula may spoil if left in the refrigerator too long, so freeze it and only take out what is needed for semi-immediate use.

In addition to making this basic formula, I also suggest that you get some bottled water.  When you actually use the formula, I suggest taking the mixture that you just made and watering it down 50/50 with spring water.

I use a clean baby jar.  And I remove one part of the formula from the freezer, place it into the baby jar and then water it down by half.  I recommend keeping it refrigerated for no more than 12 hours.

With joeys one week out of pouch or younger, I will start the feedings every two hours, using a syringe with a “bird tip” for feeding.  Baby sugar gliders will not suckle from a bottle.  You will have to get formula into their mouth without force feeding.  It is very easy to aspirate baby gliders.  If you force feed them, they can get fluid in the lungs and this will likely render your efforts unsuccessful.

Take your time during feeding.  It can take a good fifteen to twenty minutes per joey to feed them a sufficient amount of food.  According to our vet, when joeys are this young, you do not need to worry about overfeeding.  I am sure you are wondering what minimum amount of formula should be consumed.  While there is an amount relative to the joey’s present weight that would be ideal, from a practical standpoint, 1 or 2 cc’s would be great.  Sometimes only ½ cc will make me happy if the joey is otherwise eating more.  However, if the joey is consistently eating less than ½ cc, this is not a good sign.  The point is that joeys will eat different amounts at different feeding times, so just be consistent with your schedule and know you are doing the best you can do.

The temperature of the formula is important.  If it is too hot or too cold, the joeys will eat less.  You want to try and warm the formula to body temperature.  Sugar glider body temperature is not that much different than our own.  I recommend using two syringes when feeding – I have one cup of body temperature water close at hand, so that one syringe full of formula is warming, while I’m attempting to feed with the other syringe.  You may have to swap back and forth to keep the formula at the right temperature.

Raising joeys is not only about feeding them.  The mother glider will also clean and stimulate them.  If you are doing only supplemental feeding, you may now return the joey to the nest box and let the parents clean and stimulate the joey.  If you are taking over full rearing responsibilities, you will have to clean them and “piddle” (stimulate) them to urinate / defecate.

You will know they are done feeding when they have more formula on them, compared to what is going into them.  They will spit it out and it will get their little faces all sticky looking.  

Sound like some other animals we know?!  I use Puffs tissues as my baby wipes.  Dip one end in some warm water and wipe the baby down as well as you can.  Keep in mind, they are now damp and will get cold easily, so you want to get them as dry as possible.  You will also need to lightly and quickly rub them on the cloaca, which is the tiny bump by the base of the tail.  They will urinate and defecate from the cloaca.  They should “go” after each feeding.

Pay attention to the consistency of the feces.  If the feces are hard and dry, they need more fluid.  You can offer water after each feeding and/or water down the formula even more.  If the stools are watery, then reduce the amount of water in the formula.  Runny stools will dehydrate a baby glider quickly, so keeping a close eye on the feces will help you regulate the proper consistency of the formula.  Be gentle when stimulating the babies.  Their cloaca can get irritated just as easily as any baby’s bottom can get irritated.

Another important consideration in successful hand rearing is to create an incubator to keep the baby warm.  Very young sugar gliders cannot yet regulate their own body temperatures and will get cold very easily.  I use a small plastic aquarium as my incubator, placing a heating pad under one side of the aquarium.  Using lots of cut up T-shirts and/or fleece scraps, I build a warm, soft nest.  It is important to note that the heating pad should be placed under half of the aquarium, so there is both a warm and cooler side. This way, the joey can decide where it’s most comfy.

While it takes longer to feed two baby gliders than it does one baby glider, I would rather have two I’m working with because that physical contact seems to be a crucial factor in successful hand rearings.  If you have two joeys, they can snuggle up together at night while you get your rest (and you will need it because this schedule can be grueling).  If you have only one joey, it is important that you carry it with you as much as possible.

For you women out there, I find a sports bra works best.  Holding the joey(s) in your “pouch” during the day will keep them warm, give them the physical touch they need and allows them to feel your heartbeat, which helps them feel more secure.  It also makes it easier for you to know when the joey is waking up.  The joey will often prompt you for the next feeding time, but you should still keep an eye on the clock – after all, this is just a baby.

And for the guys, a shirt with a pocket works well.  You may want to put a small piece of fleece in your pocket to nestle the joey into your shirt pocket a bit better.  Since it may not be as easy to feel the joey’s movements, just be sure to keep an eye on the clock for the next feeding time.

As the joey(s) get older, you can extend the feeding times approximately one additional hour per week.

Now the next thing I’m going to share with you may seem a bit radical because I have never seen this in any books or websites on raising young sugar gliders.  We have personally seen – on quite a few occasions – extremely young sugar gliders (as in one to two weeks out of pouch – OOP) attempting to eat on their own.  We will leave a very tiny amount of formula in the incubator in a baby food lid.  The overachiever joey that starts eating on its own is one that is highly likely to make it!  Give them a chance to do this.  I will warn you that joeys who manage to learn to eat on their own very young tend to get in the lid, so they will be covered in formula, requiring you to be there to help them clean.  But this is an extremely encouraging sign and something I would suggest you try.

Hand reared joeys will often experience hair loss.  It is really hard to hand feed them, or to have them eat on their own, without getting food on them.  Just do your best keeping them clean (and dry) and don’t worry about the hair loss.  The hair will grow back!  Keeping the joeys alive and well should be your number one concern right now.

You will also want to keep vigilant watch for signs of dehydration.  It is so sad to have things moving along well and then find the joey has suddenly become dehydrated.  Dehydration will lead to demise if you do not act quickly.  Offering half water / half Pedialyte after each feeding can help prevent dehydration.  To test for dehydration, lightly pinch the skin on the back or hind quarters.  The skin should fall back into its normal placement.  If the skin does not fall readily back into place, you have a dehydrated joey.

Hand rearing baby sugar gliders is a pretty tough gig.  If you’ve had the opportunity to hand rear puppies or kittens, don’t expect it to go that easily.  Puppies and kittens are more inclined to nurse from a small baby bottle.  Baby squirrels also will typically nurse from a bottle.  Sugar gliders are not as cooperative in this regard, and you have to let them lick the food off the tip of the syringe and hope that they will swallow the formula you get into their mouth.

Be patient.  Those who have successfully been through this process have some of the most awesome sugar gliders ever!  Bonding works both ways, and while you will have become the surrogate parent forever, they will forever be your baby.

Best of luck!  It can be done and if Nature does take a course contrary to your desires, just know that you did your best. Sometimes we can help Nature along, but we can’t really control the outcome.  So many variants will affect the final outcome.  As you may recall from last month’s article, there may be existing health issues with those joeys that have been abandoned and some things we just can’t control.  Just do your best and enjoy the process.

Before we close on this topic, I do want to share some words of experience.  When dealing with abandoned joeys, this event tends to happen consistently with certain females.  If a female abandons only one of two joeys, there may be realistic future hope for her.  But if she abandons all joeys in a litter, consider that she is very likely to do this again in the future.

Make a decision and act quickly toward resolving the ultimate issue. You might decide to let her try again, and if it happens twice, then immediately cease her breeding activity.  Our policy is to retire a female once she abandons any joeys.  But with sugar gliders, she may already have new joeys in the pouch or may already be holding fertilized eggs, so immediate intervention may not preclude a future birth event.  We will discuss these things in more detail in future articles, but for now, just be aware this can happen.

We are in the fortunate position of having many sugar gliders, so when we retire a female, we can always do so in a manner that ensures that she continues to have glider companionship.  You do not want to simply separate the male and female as a method of birth control.  Most households have two sugar gliders and this may seem to be the obvious way toward future birth prevention.  Not only will this NOT necessarily prevent future birth events, but you have just created a lot of stress on both the male and the female by forcing them to live alone.  So consider having the male neutered.  Or, if you have more than two sugar gliders, let the females live together in one cage and the males together in another cage.  Regardless of what you choose to do, I really encourage you to take the steps to stop any future birth events to avoid the heartache of more abandoned or (worse yet) cannibalized joeys.

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