Myth Busters: Do sugar gliders need horizontal bars in their cage?  What about shelves, ramps and ledges?
By Arnold

Dear Arnold,

I am confused.  I’ve read on some websites that sugar gliders MUST have horizontal bars on their cages.  Sugar gliders can’t climb on vertical bars.  They also need ramps, or shelves or ledges to eat on and to sit on.  Bird cages are not suitable for sugar gliders.  What is your take on this?


Dear Paige,

You gotta question bout a cage?
This information makes me rage!
Cuz I’m the glider sage.
And at my wise age
Can tell ya this is just wrong toots!

Nearly all of my sugar glider friends here at SunCoast live in habitats with vertical bars.  And we don’t need no shelves or ramps or whatchamacallit there ledges!  Pourquoi pas, you ask?  That’s French for “why not?”

OK, let’s take this one at a time.  Now take me for an example.  I am known as the three legged wonder boy.  I’m missing me back foot from a terrible terrible accident a long long time ago.  Now, I’ve had other emails like this and peeples try and tell me – ME of all gliders – that sugar gliders can’t climb on vertical bars.  Hmmmmm – well I sure can!  And so can Buddy and Janine and Naomi and ALL of the sugar gliders here at SunCoast!

Now fer these other things you call ledges and shelves that some peeples think we need to sit on while we eat.  Huh?  Ya think we lazy like two leggers?  Food time is not a time to sit and eat – food time is time to grab and go!  Some of us will sit by the food bowl and chow down, but many of us will grab a tasty morsel and take off so none of the other gliders will steal our grub.  And some of us like to hang upside down when we eat.  Now if ya wanna talk about who can’t do what, let’s see one of you hoomans hang upside down when you eat!

Here’s the skinny me pals.  It doesn’t matter if the cage is called a sugar glider cage, a marsupial cage, a bird cage or a small animal roomy habitat.  The important thing is that it has the right features. For example, enough space (minimum 3 feet by 2.5 – 3 feet), with half inch or less bar spacing and all open inside.  And remember, bigger is better!  We like space and we like tall space more than wide space.  Other important things are stuff like good big doors, doors that lock well (cuz we can be pretty sneaky) and quality construction. Ya also want a nice finish like powdered coating (that’s French for painted, but its not just any kind of paint, it’s special critter safe paint) or vinyl coating is good too.

Plain ole wires are not a good idea.  Don’t go with ramps or levels like a ferret cage cuz we like the interior open and roomy.  Jes remember, it’s about the features and not what it’s called.  Me and Lis were looking at what some companies call sugar glider cages and we saw one really famous and big pet supply company that offers a sugar glider cage that is teeny tiny.  We won’t mention any names, but what is in a name?  Just because they call it a sugar glider cage doesn’t mean it has the right features.  I’m telling ya, I wouldn’t put my least favorite hamster acquaintance in a cage so small!  Yet this really big and famous company will try and convince ya that this is just fine.  Well, they don’t specialize in gliders, so I guess how would they really know as much me?

Now back to our original question.  As a mythbuster, it is me duty to tell ya where we think the myth came from that gliders can’t climb on vertical bars.  If a suggie lives in a mesh house or a home with horizontal bars, and you try to make a switch to a vertical bar habitat, they don’t know how to navigate it right away.  When they jumps to the bars, they go a-slidin’ down the side.  But in a week or two, cuz suggies are smart, they figure out the new digs just fine.

Now on the flip side, if ya take a suggie used to vertical bars and put them in a habitat with half inch mesh, we have a hard time adjusting to that kind of change as well.  If you change us from a style we are used to, to a new style we are not used to, it may take us a little time to learn.  But learning is fun and trying new things is fun.  Vertical bars are just fine and dandy in my book.

And thanks Paige, for givin’ me a chance to bust another move – eeerrrrrr – I mean, myth.

Love, Arnold


By Lisa

The saddest correspondence I can ever get is from someone who’s recently lost joeys to parental cannibalization.  Most people tend to beat themselves up and question themselves as to what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent this behavior.

Let me share some things that we’ve learned about cannibalization, as well as a list of the reasons confirmed by vets and animal researchers as to why we sometimes encounter cannibalization in captive breeding programs.

First and foremost, I will tell you that this is uncommon behavior for sugar gliders.  Some animals like hamsters will eat their young if you touch the babies or disturb the nesting habitat.  Sugar gliders will not likely eat their babies because you touched them too young.  I often handle the babies when just out of pouch.  If I have parents that are more skittish or more protective of very new offspring, I will wait until the new joey’s eyes have opened before handling at all.  And with some parents, I will wait two to three weeks before actually holding their babies.  My rule of thumb is simple.  If the parents are getting overly stressed by your presence, back off.  One thing we can do to reduce cannibalization is to pay attention to the parents’ response to our presence.  As you read on, you will see that increased stress is a likely variable increasing the risk of cannibalization.

Most people I correspond with on this topic assume that the male glider is the culprit.  This assumption leads people to make on the fly decisions to remove the male from the nest and isolate him in another cage, alone.  This is not the course of action I recommend.  

I was discussing theories of cannibalization with another large breeder awhile back, and shared with her that the consensus opinion leads many to believe that the male glider is the instigator in killing and eating the young.  Now I have limited experience with cannibalization, because once a joey is lost in this manner, I try and “retire” that female rather quickly.  But the fact is, once the deed is done, she may already have new young in her pouch.  So we remove the male and keep the female alone for a month or so in order to ascertain whether or not she has young in the pouch.  When it is determined that she does not, then we introduce her into an all female colony.  

If she does have young in the pouch, we do something we hate to do, and that is leave her alone to raise her next batch of young.  Guess what typically happens?  In most cases, the next baby gets cannibalized; or it shows the telltale signs that the female is likely to cannibalize if we do not intervene.  So what does this prove?  I tend to take this as evidence that the male is, in most cases, NOT the culprit.  (NOTE: Signs that the baby may soon be cannibalized are scabs on the face and nose from the female biting at the baby when it tries to nurse.  We choose to pull these joeys early and hand feed them because chances are they won’t make it without intervention.)

This large breeder I referred to above had done her own experiment which corroborates the same results.  It has been our unfortunate experience that female cannibals tend to repeat the offense over and over again.  Frankly, I don’t give them much of chance to prove me wrong on this.  It is an event you don’t want to experience and once it is going on, there is not really anything you can do to stop it.

I have also caught male gliders in the act, but the baby was already dead, and I think it’s a grotesque aspect of nature to recycle.  Please do not take any of this to mean that a male will never be the aggressor in this situation.  Our experience simply leads us to believe that in most cases, the female is the primary perpetrator.  Now let’s move on to the primary theories as to why cannibalization occurs.

Whenever I get a call from a distraught glider keeper, the first question I always explore is one of diet.  An incomplete, non-supportive diet will increase risk of losing joeys.  We have spent a lot of newsletter space discussing many aspects of diet, so if you need more information on this topic, please review the many articles in the newsletter archives.  For the sake of this discussion, we feed protein of 50% to our breeding glider population and protein of approximately 35% to our non-breeding population.  The vitamin and calcium supplements are critical to all sugar gliders, but even more so to nursing females.  Do not increase the supplements.  If there is any possibility that your gliders might breed, we suggest feeding 50% protein all the time and the recommendations for supplement dosages should always stay consistent, regardless of the animal’s age, breeding status, etc.

If you are confident that you are feeding a supportive diet for breeding sugar gliders, the next avenue to explore is the stress level.  We tend to give our breeding gliders wide berth when we know the joeys are close to emergence.  We continue to give them wide berth for at least a week after emergence.  You can hear the joeys squeaks and chatters when they are nursing.  Sugar gliders make unique sounds when nursing and if you were to sneak a peak at the mother, you will likely see her on her back and quivering a bit.  We suspect this helps her drop her milk to facilitate nourishing her young.  Sugar gliders can feel very vulnerable at this stage and for keepers who are going through a first time experience, it will be awfully tempting to pay even more attention to the new parents and their young.  This may not be a wise thing to do, especially with first time parents.  Keeping the stress levels low will greatly decrease the risk of tragedy.

If a female is not on a supportive diet, she may instinctually sense that her body is not capable of supporting both herself and her young. Sugar gliders are survivors by nature, and will sacrifice their young in order to save themselves.

Other stress factors include such things as a change in habitat, keeping the gliders in a noisy or active place in your home, introducing the gliders to new people or introducing new pets into the household. In other words, any significant changes to the life they are used to will cause some stress on the sugar gliders.  Change equals stress, even if it is good change.  Again I will remind you to not remove the male from the female’s habitat.  Male gliders are typically good fathers and part of the process of rearing the young.  The separation anxiety and loss of mate will induce a large stress situation on your female.

Here is a case in point.  Several years ago I was speaking to a small breeder who had maybe twenty cages of sugar gliders.  She had moved into a new home and dedicated a room just to her colony. She was very proud of their beautiful new environment and every time she had company, she invited anyone wanting to see the gliders’ new home to come into the room.  All of sudden, she started experiencing cannibalization.  She never had this issue before.  As we examined the changes in the gliders’ life, I suggested that she not allow anyone in the glider room except herself and other family members that her colony was used to.  Her problem stopped instantly.  We do not allow visits to the Sugar Shack for this reason. Even something as seemingly harmless as hiring a new helper causes us angst, because we know we are going to have some instances of lost joeys due to change in personnel.

Our next theory concerns “rogue” babies.  Some babies will find their way out of the nest pouch or nest box and end up on the bottom of the cage.  Very young sugar gliders are unable to regulate their own body temperatures and it does not take long for the baby to get cold to the touch.  Now did the baby wander off on its own volition (without the parents realizing) or was the baby kicked out of the pouch?  This is difficult to discern.  The important thing to know here is that the baby cannot keep itself warm.  If you find such a baby, try and get it back with the parents as soon as possible.  If it happens again, I would assume that parents are abandoning the joey and take steps to intervene.  I encourage you to not rush to conclusions as babies will be better off raised by parents in the long run.  But as signs of impending risk increase, be prepared to intervene. If you find a cold still baby, don’t assume it has already died.  Sometimes the act of warming them up will “bring them back to life”.  Cold babies will be very, very inactive and may mislead you at first.  We have experienced a couple of these joyous events when we thought all had been lost.

Sickness or deformity is another factor in nature’s own cleansing process.  If a joey gets to enough maturity to emerge, it may still not be a viable, healthy little animal.  Nature does have her own way of weeding out the sickly and frail in the animal kingdom.  A female glider may sense that something is not right with one joey and may abandon or cannibalize that offspring in order to save another.  This is something that is extremely difficult to determine simply by physical examination.  It is worth mentioning, however, because the experts we have discussed this with all agree that this is a very viable reason as to why offspring are sacrificed.  

We have experienced cases of loss of one joey and picture perfect parenting with the surviving offspring.  Don’t assume that if the parents cannibalize one of their offspring, that others in that litter will be treated the same.  I think it is safe to say that you know the risk is going up at this point, but experience proves a point to us here.  I would suggest keeping a closer eye on the process, but only intervene if other signs such as scabs on the face and nose suggest you should.  Do not jump to conclusions instantly if one joey is lost and there is no previous history of cannibalization.

Sickness is not only a baby issue.  If the female glider has an undiagnosed illness or other medical condition, she may be physically unable to properly raise and nourish her young.  She may have problems with lactation, or have some deficiency within her resulting from poor diet, poor genetics or some other medically related cause. These issues are not easily diagnosed.  Just be aware that this is another possible explanation as to why joeys are lost.

Lastly, we have one more theory to offer, which I personally think may be a major causative influence on female cannibalization of their own young.  There is compelling evidence that sugar gliders taken from their parents too young are at a higher risk of becoming bad parents in the future.  As we all know, sugar gliders are highly social creatures.  The time between out of pouch emergence and full weaning is a time for young animals to learn all sorts of things.  It is obvious they learn to walk, and to eat, and to drink on their own.  But there are social behaviors learned during this time as well.  And good upbringing from their own parents may very well be one of those important life lessons that sugar gliders need in order to develop into good parents themselves.  This is one of the primary reasons we suggest you don’t rush the process and remove offspring from their parents too soon.  Bottle fed sugar gliders often grow up to be parents that simply don’t know what to do.  I do not breed any animals that we have been forced to bottle feed.

This is not an issue isolated to untamed or aggressive gliders.  I personally think it is even more heartbreaking when you have sweet parents and they end up killing and eating their young.  The gliders do not sense they have done anything wrong.  I know it can be tempting to feel differently about your sugar gliders when you know they’ve done this thing that we feel is horrible.  Please do not take it out on them.  Your best bet is to have the male neutered, assuming you have a single pair of gliders, and enjoy them for who they are.  While gliders are typically good parents, we meet some pairs that just are not cut out for this sort of thing.

‘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!