Sugar Glider Diets … Revisited

By Lisa

There is a world of difference between keeping an animal alive and maintaining your pet at optimal health.  From the abundant number of questions we receive, many folks out there are still confused about glider diets.  Since we began this newsletter, questions about diet have remained the number one topic amongst our readers.  So let’s dig a bit deeper into this subject, and hopefully by the end of this article you will better understand why Dr C recommends feeding sugar gliders a very specific plan.  Click here to review Dr C’s nutritional  recommendations for a sugar glider’s optimal health and well being.

First off, I will share with you a conversation I had with Dr C awhile back.  I asked her how many gliders she had seen in her practice over the years that were ill due to poor nutrition (which could have possibly been avoided if the glider keeper had followed a better plan of nutrition).  Her response was in the neighborhood of 70%-80%, which is an astoundingly high number for a husbandry skill that is so easily controlled.  So as we proceed with this topic, please keep in mind that there is a world of difference between keeping an animal alive and keeping an animal in optimal health!

I have asked myself on a number of occasions, why is this number so high?  And I think the answer to this is twofold. First off, there is a tremendous amount of information disseminated by small hobby breeders and posted on the internet by individuals that simply do not have the experience or educational background to make certain claims.  We’ve been sent many “care sheets” over the years that people received when they first brought home new sugar gliders.

On the extreme side of poor husbandry practices, we’ve seen such claims as feed your glider bird seed and peanuts and it will do great!  For those of you who have been with us for awhile, you know this is not only incorrect information, but extremely detrimental to the good health of any sugar glider.

So the first thing you can do to help cut through the confusion and clutter of good vs. bad information is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the source of this dietary plan?
  • Is it recommended by a veterinarian who is experienced with sugar gliders?
  • Is the plan recommended by an animal nutritionist who has worked with sugar gliders?
  • Has the plan been used successfully for many years with many different sugar gliders?
  • Has it been nutritionally tested and does it fall within our present realm of understanding glider nutritional needs?

I’m sure that many of you who read this newsletter have spent a lot of time researching sugar gliders on many websites.  Most of the larger sites that we read ourselves will often give you links and information on a whole bunch of diets.  We are one of the few websites that only suggests one diet and the reason is simple: it is the diet that we use.  It is the diet that we’ve been highly successful with for many years with many sugar gliders. And it is the diet that Dr C brought to us when she first came on board with us here at SunCoast. We simply will not express opinions on matters that we have no firsthand knowledge of.

Prior to becoming a full time sugar mama, I spent 23 years in the corporate world in roles of Accounting and Finance, so to say I’m particular about record keeping is an understatement!  When we first started breeding sugar gliders many years ago (several years before we launched our website or newsletter), we started with a commonly accepted diet plan.  But when we needed a new USDA vet, we found Dr C, and she advised us to do something quite different diet wise than we had ever done before!  It was actually a condition of her coming on board, as she had quite strong feelings about the whole issue of diet.

So we took several weeks to wean all of our gliders to her suggested guidelines.  And then for a couple of years after that, I decided to use my background to do an informal study on the over 400 sugar gliders we were breeding here at SunCoast.  The bottom line is that all objective measurements improved under Dr C’s suggested diet plan.

It’s not that we were having any apparent problems, to the contrary.  But we still saw statistical improvements in sugar glider mortality rates, morbidity rates, joey production levels, joey weights and improved averages on our adult glider weights as well.  Stuff like this really means something to me and makes me thankful that Dr C is around to help us continually improve our efforts at SunCoast.

I mentioned earlier that I saw the reason as twofold why so many people seem to have issues related to diet.  The second reason is that gliders hide illness well.  When gliders have nutritional issues, you typically don’t see a gradual decline in appearance, activity, reproduction or any other sign that the diet may be less than adequate.

In fact, when the signs of poor nutrition show up, it’s more like a sledge hammer.  Gliders can live two or three years on a rather poor diet, yet exhibit all the signs of a healthy and happy animal.  I think this is the main reason people get sucked into a false sense of security about the diet plan they have chosen.  In many cases, when a glider starts to show signs of malnourishment, you may only have 24-48 hours before death!  This may be shocking to some of you, but it is a well-documented fact.  Even immediate veterinary care may not be successful in reversing the damage done.  The best way to prevent such occurrences is to follow a plan of nutrition that you know has been successful for many, many years with many, many gliders.

Now let’s get into some of the specifics on diet that top the incoming question list.  Dr C’s suggested guidelines are really intended to be quite simple.  You offer one meal per day, in the evening, and remove any uneaten fresh foods the next morning.  A typical meal will consist of three courses:

  • A soft pellet staple food,
  • A single serving of a fresh fruit OR veggie
  • A protein

Let’s start with a review of staple foods.  Dr C has reviewed just about every staple food diet available on the commercial market today.  Just as we only recommend one plan of nutrition on our website, as it’s the only one we use here, we also only recommend one staple food.  The staple food we use is called Wholesome Balance and is a pellet food.

Another consideration in the texture of the pellets. Consider if the pellet is soft or hard, because some say that hard crunchy pellets may increase risk for disease in sugar gliders.  If you’ve ever observed the movement between a sugar glider’s teeth and gums, you may have noticed that sometimes the teeth look long and other times they look short.  The reason for this is that the gums move up and down over the teeth.  And because the gums are looser, they allow this type of movement, making it very easy for food to get stuck in the gums.  

Now while the consistency is important, so is the nutritional content, and this food is the one that Dr C is inclined to believe is superior to all other brands on the market.  Many exotic feed companies produce feed products based on “common breeder knowledge”, without investing time or money into research for that particular species.  The company that manufactures Zookeepers Secret specializes in diets for the zoo community, which is why you will not find this product in pet stores.  Zoos employ people with PhD’s in animal nutrition, so highly knowledgeable people direct the development of species-specific products.

The second course in Dr C’s suggested guidelines is a single serving of a fresh fruit OR vegetable.  Notice the word “OR” in this sentence!  We feed one fruit OR veggie serving in a portion controlled quantity and change what the choice is each day.  The reasoning behind this guideline is directly related to the topic of enrichment.  By changing the choice each day, you are enriching overall nutrition as each fruit/veggie will contain different levels of vitamins and other nutrients.  Also of importance is that by changing the choice on a daily basis, you are preventing boredom.  Sugar gliders can become picky eaters very easily and with a varied diet plan, you can prevent the gliders from becoming food picky and spoiled.

Giving your gliders multiple choice fruits and veggies every single night is not variety.  And if you give them multiple choice every night, they are going to typically eat the same thing every night.  Like little kids, they will eat their favorite foods, fill up and ignore the rest.  Portion control is important. If you offer a staple food, four or five fruits and veggies and a protein each night, that is a lot of food!  Most of us probably wouldn’t be able to manage a six or seven course meal every single night!  So just keep it simple, being mindful of the fact you will make better diet decisions for your pets than they will make for themselves.

When choosing your fruit or veggie offerings, keep an eye on the calcium/phosphorus ratios.  Next month, we will be bringing you some links/lists to lookup these ratios easily.

The third course is a protein and should be low in fat.  We work off a very short protein list here, rotating between boiled chicken, boiled eggs, chicken baby food, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers and yogurt.  We will use different varieties of chicken baby food, like chicken and gravy, chicken and applesauce, chicken and sweet potato, etc.  Again, these are just new opportunities to offer variety in the diet.  We do the same thing with yogurt and use different flavors for variety. 

OK, before the question comes up, we realize that yogurt may not be considered a “traditional” protein, but the sugar gliders do seem to do well with yogurt rotated through the diet program.  However, it is the only dairy product we feed them. Since some gliders seem to tend toward lactose intolerance, we avoid all other dairy foods. Dairy foods, such as cheese, can also be quite high in fat.  Each night we choose one item from our protein list and vary it every evening.

Items we avoid in our feeding program are nuts.  Nuts are very high in fat and sugar gliders do not seem to have the ability to metabolize too much fat in their diets.  We encourage you to avoid nuts.  There are many treats available that are actually good for sugar gliders, so why give them something like nuts that is high in fat and also of a texture that could get caught in teeth, gums or throat?

On the topic of treats, you should keep the level of treat intake to 5% or less of the total daily food rations.  A lot of people tend to “treat” their gliders to the same treats each day.  We even encourage you to change the treats.  Many people use mealworms as the daily treat.  I often hear of people who give 3-5 or more mealworms to their gliders each day.  Well friends, this is not really a treat, this is a full protein serving!  Once again, I encourage you to rotate the foods.  Mealworms are a good diet item to feed in a rotational food plan, but feeding mealworms every day may put a bit too much fat in the diet and will likely make your gliders much more food picky and spoiled.  The whole process of varying the meal plans is an important aspect of Dr C’s recommendations.

So, to summarize this whole topic, we’ve been asked on many occasions to share with you a typical weekly menu here at SunCoast, which we will do, but you will have to wait until next month, as we are just about out of space for this month!

But before we sign off, we want to share one “trick of the trade” we’ve been employing over the years regarding the administration of daily dosages of vitamins and calcium.  The only methods of vitamin / calcium dosage we’ve really discussed in the past is the “sprinkle” method of sprinkling or hiding the vitamins and calcium in favorite food offerings or calcium loading live bugs prior to offering.  

A couple of years ago, we starting mixing our vitamins and calcium in with Arnold’s Choice Possum Milk Replacer in a ratio of 1:1:3. This assumes, of course, that you are using Blueberry Fortifier.  Do not assume that any brand vitamin or calcium should be served in identical ratios, as not all products are created equally.  We mix this batch, put it in a cheese shaker and then sprinkle the formula over either the fruit serving or the protein serving – whichever has the higher moisture content so the supplement mix absorbs into the food.

We wanted to track this method over a period of time, as we had some concern that the Milk Replacer may increase the glider weights, which did not happen on average.  The initial thought on using this supplement was to help boost the breeding females nutrition level and help with lactation, but all of our gliders get this, whether they are males, females, breeding or non-breeding.  They like the taste of the Milk Replacer and it seems to mask the not-so-appealing taste of just offering straight up vitamins and calcium.  So for the many of you who have gliders that won’t touch food with vitamins or calcium on it, you may want to try the Milk Replacer mixture.  We actually have gliders that go to the sprinkled food first and lick the supplement off.  Try it, they may just like it!

Join us again next month as we wrap up this detailed topic of diet and nutrition. We plan to share more of the specifics of our diet plan and send our wishes for great health and happy gliding to you all!