Introducing Dr. Ellen Dierenfeld

By Lisa

We are grateful to all of the doctors and scientists we’ve had opportunities to work with over the years.  Their willingness to share their knowledge, insight and experience has given us a way to share verifiable sugar glider education with the community.  And this month, we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Ellen S. Dierenfeld.  

Dr. Dierenfeld received her PhD in animal nutrition from Cornell University and has an impressive track record in both the business and academic sides of animal nutrition.  For example, while with the St. Louis Zoo, she assisted in planning construction of a new LEED certified (green) nutrition facility.  As Dr. Dierenfeld’s background is SO impressive, we could spend the next 5 newsletters just reviewing it! But instead, we encourage you to review the credentials and experience in her LinkedIn bio here.


Sugar Glider Nutritional Study

By Lisa

Quite a few years back I got a call from Ellen Ross, the owner of theGlider Central message board.  For several years preceding the reason for this call, the Glider Central membership had been raising funds and seeking expert assistance to perform an actual study on sugar glider nutrition.  Such a study had never been done prior to this effort, and as far as I’m aware, there have been no other clinical studies done specifically on sugar glider nutrition since.

The reason for the call was that the group designated to perform the study had been assembled, the funds raised and they just needed one more thing.  Volunteers were needed for the study, in the form of sugar gliders.  The lead scientist volunteering for this study was Ellen S Dierenfeld, PhD.  Dr Dierenfeld thought the study would be best managed if the volunteer group of sugar gliders were of the same sex and same age.  For the benefit of the study, it was also preferred that each group of sugar gliders had been raised in a consistent manner and environment.  By equalizing all of these factors, it’s easier to isolate the effects of different diets than when using sugar gliders of different ages, different sexes, and different backgrounds.

Our role in this study was to lend a group of juvenile males to the study group in order to support this very worthy effort.  Of course, we asked for assurances that the animals would be treated with care and respect, and maintained in a humane and safe environment. Upon completion of the study, the plan was for our boys to come back home to us.

The attending veterinarian for the study was Dr. Debra Thomas in Virginia.  At the end of the study, all of our males were safely returned to us except one, who had developed an infection in his tail.  As Dr. Thomas had expressed an interest in keeping him and tending to his medical needs, we agreed it would be in his best interest to stay with her and benefit from her very capable care.  The rest of our gang came back to us, heroes in our eyes!  Dr. Dierenfeld published her results in July of 2006 in the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine.  The study was then made available through Glider Central.

As is the case with many studies, more questions often arise than are answered.  In particular, this clinical case study generated questions that could lead to new studies to answer these questions more directly.  One of the challenges of this study was getting large enough blood samples to run the full extent of testing originally anticipated. The study had to be modified in order to complete tests on a “pooled results” basis, as the blood samples had to be limited in size with sugar gliders because of their diminutive size.

There were three diets tested in the study, two of them popular diets and one diet used as the control and under the design direction of Dr Dierenfeld.  The dry kibble used in Test Group B (Dr Dierenfeld’s dry kibble) was consumed at a higher level than the other two diet treatments (the gliders liked it better).  Diet treatment A was a very similar diet treatment to what we’ve always used here at SunCoast.  Diet C was similar to BML (Bourbon’s Modified Leadbeater’s).

We were pleased to play a role in this work.  If you would like to read the complete study, here is a link (PDF).  

New Food: Super Nutritious and Tastes Good Too!

By Lisa

I’ve been waiting a long time to share this news!  Wow, food development doesn’t happen overnight and there are good reasons for this.  I always chuckle when I see products advertised as “new and improved”.  So which is it? New, OR improved?!

New, in and of itself, does not always mean better.  Particularly in the arena of food products, new products should be examined over a couple of generations (not a couple of months) of feeding.  And we’ve done just that!  For two years now, we’ve been feeding half of our colony this new food and the other half were kept on Zookeepers Secret.  We basically just divided our colony in half.  Gliders on one side get Zookeeper’s Secret and gliders on the other side get Wholesome Balance.  We made a couple of interesting discoveries.

First, both foods kept our sugar gliders in terrific health, and both foods supported healthy parents and offspring.  But what we’ve found that I think is significant is that the sugar gliders on Wholesome Balance ate more than the gliders on Zookeepers Secret did.  We took daily measurements of the amount of food placed in random samplings of different sugar glider colonies and then measured what was left the next day.  We took into account how many of the food morsels were used as baseballs (and tossed out of the park!) and came up with a table of numbers showing actual consumption. While we are not scientists, we sure can count and add; and the numbers tell it all.  Wholesome Balance is more palatable to gliders than Zookeepers Secret in most (not all) cases.

Some of the stats from this trial of ours are:

The sugar gliders tested consumed this food in a range of 2.81 to 7.76 grams per glider per day.  That is a large spread, but looking at the age and breeding status of each of these groupings:

*  Older non breeding gliders consumed the least amount of staple food averaging 2.81 grams per glider per day.  The age range of these gliders was 8 years old and up.  This seems to indicate that gliders in the latter part of the life cycle need fewer calories to support their activity, which is lower than the activity level of the youngsters.

*  Younger, non breeding gliders (yearlings) consumed an average of 4.86 grams per glider per day

*  Younger, breeding gliders (without joeys out of pouch) consumed 4.96 grams per glider per day

*  Breeding gliders of various ages with joeys out of pouch consumed the most, weighing in consumption at 7.26 grams per day

We fed all gliders regardless of age or breeding status the same amount of dry food per day.  This test was repeated three times over equal time lengths as we’ve seen gliders go through eating phases as a total colony, so we wanted to make sure that no weather conditions, moon phases or other external possible influences were skewing our results.

We also found that compared to Zookeeper’s Secret, Wholesome Balance lasts longer for a simple reason.  Zookeeper’s Secret will dry out over a 24 hour period and the gliders are less likely to eat the food the longer it sits out.  We’ve not had the same experience with the Wholesome Balance.  Food that was uneaten one night, we’ve topped off and left for consumption the following night with no decline in the average amount eaten.  This means less food is wasted.

We had feelings about certain ingredients and have made a concerted effort to avoid any ingredients that were controversial.  We also avoided including ingredients that have no proven science of being beneficial to sugar gliders.  Let me explain further.

First and foremost, we knew that animal protein is a better choice as a primary ingredient than vegetable protein.  Diets using animal protein as the primary ingredient (as opposed to vegetable protein like soy or corn) contain a better balance of essential amino acids that help gliders maintain health and thrive.  Vegetable protein is a lot cheaper and many manufacturers will use it to reduce the cost of product, but it does not offer the same benefits as animal protein.  We knew this not because we are animal nutritionists, but because we have been through this before.  It’s a primary reason ZooKeeper’s Secret was chosen as our staple food 8 years ago – it was the only glider food available where animal protein was the primary ingredient.

We chose to use premium ingredients for Wholesome Balance, including human grade chicken, mindful of the fact some people prefer to know exactly what kind of meat is used in an animal food.  We chose to use rice for similar reasons, and natural food preservatives knowing some people are concerned about chemical preservatives in animal food.  And we managed to invest in these premium ingredients without driving up the price to end consumers.  In fact, because we have the food made directly for us, we have kept the price of a 2-month supply of this new premium food down at the same level as a 2-month supply of ZooKeeper’s Secret.  And because it’s a dry food with a longer shelf life of 6 months, we can offer discounts on quantities that will save you money on shipping costs.

When designing this food, we reviewed all the detailed information we could get our hands on concerning other sugar glider staple food products.  We saw lots of staple foods (even foods for other pets) seem to be promoting “special” ingredients in their food with the implication this makes it better.  For example, taurine is a big buzz word in the pet food industry right now.  Chicken, which naturally contains taurine, is the main ingredient in Wholesome Balance.  But there is no scientific evidence showing taurine to be of benefit to sugar gliders, so we’re not going to hype it.  Wholesome Balance simply contains the best ingredient mix the limited science we have on sugar glider nutrition allows us to put forth.  Plus, thanks to extensive testing, gliders really seem to love the taste!

Over the last two years, we’ve also done some random field testing of this product.  It did go through several iterations as we tested the palatability.  In our field testing, we’ve asked different customers to try the food alongside any other free choice staple food they may have been using.  I’ll be honest with you, the first batch was not as palatable as the version we are now publicly offering and these enhancements were made as a direct result of community feedback.

Speaking of community feedback, community feedback was the impetus for the new food.  While lots of sugar gliders love Zookeeper’s Secret, some don’t like the taste.  A glider that refuses to eat its food will not have enhanced personal nutrition.  I believe many people tend to overfeed fresh foods, which often reduces how much staple food the gliders will eat.  A simple test to see if your glider doesn’t like the taste of its food is to feed it only that food for one night, which will do no harm. You may learn an important lessen on portion control of fresh foods!

We have also received a lot of correspondence about how the Zookeeper’s Secret tends to dry out over time thus rendering it less tasty.  Many people prefer to use a softer pellet food like Zookeeper’s Secret, but the drying out issue has been one we’ve hoped to address for a very long time and now we have an answer.

We are still fans of Zookeepers Secret.  It is a gold standard in the zoo community.  But because of the results of our own in-house review of the Wholesome Balance product over the last two years, we’ve decided to go with Wholesome Balance as the food for all of our sugar gliders (breeding, non breeding, young and old) across the board.  We’ve also been using it over the last six months with half of our weaning joey population with very pleasing results.  We are in the process of now switching everyone over to Wholesome Balance.

Zookeeper’s Secret lovers, don’t worry.  We will continue to carry this food as an option for you.  If what you are doing works, no need to change it.  It is a very high quality food that we’ve had great success with for over 8 years now.

Now, I feel I have to address the “hard pellet” question.  Zookeepers Secret has been embraced by the community for a long time because it is a soft textured food.  Last decade, as gliders became more popular as pets, there was cautious concern about the possibility of lumpy jaw in sugar gliders as a result of feeding hard pellets.  

Over the years, I’ve asked several veterinarians to address the lumpy jaw question on our website.  Several had agreed to do so, but none have come through for a simple reason: there really isn’t any reliable (scientific) information in the vet community about sugar gliders having high incidents of lumpy jaw.  If you would like more information on our investigation of this issue or would like to report a confirmed case of lumpy jaw in sugar gliders.

Due to the lack of evidence concerning the lumpy jaw issue, I made an informed decision to feed the Wholesome Balance without softening with water first.  As stated earlier, I’ve had a significant number of gliders (half of our population) on Wholesome Balance for two years now with no evidence of lumpy jaw or other jaw or gum problems of any kind.  I can make no statement on the use of other hard pellet foods, but all indications lead me to personally believe that Wholesome Balance will not increase the risk of lumpy jaw or other non-specific jaw or gum disease in sugar gliders.

Manufactured with integrity and high quality ingredients, Wholesome Balance Chicken and Brown Rice Blend is the only dry sugar glider food using animal protein as the primary ingredient.  While your sugar gliders will savor the taste, they won’t care about the human grade animal protein, the finest grains, all natural preservatives, and no meat byproducts – that’s for you!

For more information on this food and full ingredient list, see here.  If you will be placing an order in the next 30 days or so, you will receive a sample of Wholesome Balance with your order.  Please let us know what you and your gliders think of this new sugar glider food!

‘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!