Sugar gliders are popular exotic pets. Not only are these compact, extremely soft pets super cute, but they are also prone to a myriad of diseases. Thankfully, with years of research by many people and through captive breeding programs, we have learned more about these diseases and how to better treat or prevent them. Let's take a look at five of the most common sugar glider diseases.
- Metabolic Bone Disease in Sugar Gliders - Also referred to as nutritional osteodystrophy, metabolic bone disease is very commonly seen in pet reptiles but it is also a major problem in pet sugar gliders. Both reptiles and sugar gliders need calcium in their diets in order to maintain proper bone strength. When sugar gliders do not get enough calcium (and Vitamin D3) in their food their bones become soft due to the imbalance of vitamins and minerals in their tiny little bodily systems. Secondary problems, including heart disease, seizures, pneumonia, and of course broken bones, are major concerns for sugar gliders diagnosed with metabolic bone disease. Thankfully this disease can be diagnosed by your exotics vet by obtaining radiographs (x-rays) to check bone density and through a nutritional consultation. It can also be reversed with calcium and Vitamin D3 supplementation and diet correction. Cage rest is recommended for all sugar gliders with metabolic bone disease to help prevent broken bones until the bone density has improved. Medications to treat secondary problems may also be prescribed. Prevention of this disease is extremely easy by simply feeding a balanced, appropriate sugar glider diet supplemented with calcium and Vitamin D3.
- Ick in Sugar Gliders - Well known as ich, ick, or white spot disease among seasoned aquarists (a person who cares for fish), ick in sugar gliders is a little different than the aquatic version. Both versions are due to tiny parasites called protozoans but the sugar glider ick is most likely due to Simplicomonas while the fish version is due to Ichthyophthirius. Simplicomonas is found in the intestinal tract of sugar gliders (compared to the protozoan in fish that burrows through the skin and feeds off of dead tissue) and in combination with stress, causes diarrhea and poor coat quality in our little marsupial friends. While we do not know much about this disease, we do know it can be treated. Aggressive treatment should be delivered by an exotics vet as soon as ick is suspected. Malnourishment and dehydration occur quickly in these tiny animals that stop eating and drinking so any diarrhea or change in the coat quality of your sugar glider should not be ignored. Diagnosis can be done using a fecal (poop) sample to look for the microscopic parasites or by sending it out to a laboratory for special testing. Preventing this disease is difficult since we do not know exactly where sugar gliders get this protozoan from and it is very contagious between sugar gliders. What we can do is wash our hands before and after handling any sugar glider to lessen the likelihood of transmitting the parasite from glider to glider.
- Skin Infections of Sugar Gliders - Sugar gliders are susceptible to many different kinds of bacterial skin infections but Mycobacterium is the most common type of bacteria that infects sugar glider skin. Infections can be secondary to other diseases (such as self-mutilation) or they can be acquired from dirty enclosures, fecal matter buildup or substrate/bedding harboring bacteria or fungal spores (corn cob bedding is a major culprit of fungal infections). Debris can easily get stuck in a sugar glider's soft coat but they often bathe themselves or other members of their colony to help keep it clean. Making sure your sugar glider's enclosure is clean, bedding is washed, and their food and water are changed daily will help prevent any type of skin infection. Antibiotics or antifungals prescribed by your exotics vet may be given to help treat the infection. If your sugar glider is starting to look unkempt or smell consider misting them with warm water or using a grooming wipe meant for pets to help them bathe. Also, double check that their sleeping area is clean since it is usually hidden inside a sleeping pouch.
- Self-Mutilation of Sugar Gliders - Some people forget about mental health when it comes to diseases but sugar gliders are affected by a mental disease just like many people are. Self-mutilation is usually caused by extreme stress in our pet sugar gliders and can cause tremendous damage not only cosmetically to your pet (like feather plucking in pet birds) but it can also cause open wounds and infections. It may start as simply as over grooming or excessive licking to pulling out hair and then eventually turn into chewing skin off to create open wounds. These wounds can get infected and if left untreated can cause your sugar glider to become septic and even die. Self-mutilation is a serious mental disease but it can be prevented by offering an appropriate home with as little stress as possible to your sugar glider. Gliders live in large colonies of other gliders in the wild which offer sources for communication, bonding, foraging, sexual activity, and other activities that cannot be recreated for them without there being other sugar gliders around. Pet sugar gliders should always be housed with at least one other glider, if not a group of them to help limit the likelihood of behavioral problems, stress, and development of diseases from these things.
- Fractures in Sugar Gliders - Sugar gliders naturally love to jump and glide from place to place but our homes don't always allow safe places for this behavior to be fully exercised. Curtain rods are popular places for sugar gliders to perch and survey their world if they are given free run of a room but the places they choose to glide to and land aren't always forgiving on their little bones. Fractures, or broken bones, occur far too often in our pet sugar gliders because of their curious behavior and natural instincts to glide. Creating a safe place for your glider to explore and glide is critical to preventing leg fractures but still allow them to play and jump. Soft landing areas like pillows, blankets, and tumbling mats are great options for rooms that have already been sugar glider-proofed for exploration. These things will aid in a soft landing for your glider but you should also be aware of what is available in that room for them to climb onto and jump off of. Inside your sugar glider's cage make sure there are no items that your pet can get their leg stuck in. Also, a diet with appropriate calcium and Vitamin D3 will make sure your sugar glider has strong enough bones for playful activity. As mentioned earlier, sugar gliders with metabolic bone disease are extremely at-risk for breaking their bones, and they're not always just legs that break. More serious injuries including broken pelvic bones and spinal breaks can do serious permanent damage. If your sugar glider isn't using a body part like they normally do they should be seen by their vet immediately.
While there are many other kinds of potential disease that your sugar glider can get, it is a good idea to know which common ones you can watch out for. By staying proactive and trying to prevent the problems you know about you can help keep your sugar glider healthier and happier for longer. The other key to a healthy sugar glider is having a good exotics veterinary team caring for your pet. Consider taking your glider in for annual check-ups so you can catch any diseases you may have not seen coming sooner rather than later. Small pets like sugar gliders often hide their illnesses from us until they are very sick so any early detection of disease might be a life saver for your pet.