Self-mutilation is often observed in pet birds such as African greys and cockatoos, pet cats, pet dogs, and even humans - and sugar gliders are no strangers to this disorder either. In some species there are many reasons for this self-inflicted trauma to start but in sugar gliders it is almost always due to one reason.
What Is Self-Mutilation in Sugar Gliders?
Normal sugar gliders groom their soft fur regularly but if this routine grooming turns into excessive over-grooming you'll be able to notice.
You may notice bald patches on your glider begin to appear, tufts of fur in the cage, and eventually chewing of various body parts including their own tail, feet, hands, arms, and even genitalia. Blood may be noticeable on the cage bars, on your sugar glider, or on their favorite hammock from these self-inflicted wounds. Male sugar gliders may leave their injured penis exposed if they have been chewing on it also.
What Causes Self-Mutilation in Sugar Gliders?
It's the most common reason for self-mutilation in birds and sugar gliders - it's stress. We all know what stress is because we all experience different kinds of it on a day to day basis. We get stressed in our jobs, with our families, in traffic, and homework. When this stress becomes too much for us to handle we usually resort to relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, go on a vacation, work on a hobby, read a book, enjoy a favorite beverage, or do something else we enjoy.
Sugar gliders don't have all the stress relieving options that we humans have therefore they often decide to self-mutilate to relieve their stress. It's an idea that doesn't make sense to some but in humans it is thought that self-mutilation is a way that they can express themselves without words or take control of their body when they feel like they don't have control elsewhere in their lives, according to Mental Health America.
Sugar gliders may feel the same way if they experience uncontrollable amounts of stress in their daily lives.
What Stresses Out Sugar Gliders?
Sugar gliders are meant to live in a colonies made up of one male, one female, and the offspring (joeys) they produce from the year before and the current year. In captivity we often house multiple gliders in large cages and "force" them to get along by giving them no other option in a home. If these gliders don't like each other or feel threatened (multiple adult males living together is one example where a threat may be perceived) they will experience stress. Other reasons for stress in sugar gliders include small enclosures, noisy environments, poor air quality (owners that smoke indoors), sexual frustration, and perceived predators in their environment such as a dog or cat.
Can Your Sugar Glider Hurt Themselves While Self-Mutilating?
Yes. Your glider may go from pulling hair to creating wounds on themselves. These wounds will need medical attention from your exotics vet to avoid infection and to obtain safe pain control. Sometimes wounds are so bad that amputations need to be performed on toes, the tail, and male genitalia. Elizabethan collars (e-collars) may be recommended to keep your sugar glider from continuing to hurt themselves.
Antibiotics, pain medications, anti-inflammatories, fluid therapy, and other medical support could be necessary depending on the severity of the wounds. Sometimes behavior modifying drugs may even be used. Be sure to do a visual inspection of your sugar glider daily if they are showing signs of excessive grooming to make sure you aren't missing any wounds they may have created.
Can You Stop Your Sugar Glider From Self-Mutilating?
The best way to stop the self-mutilation is to do away with the stressor. This may mean getting a larger cage, separating individual sugar gliders, moving the cage to a location that the dogs or cats can't get to or see, or even perhaps getting your sugar glider a mate. Every glider has their own stressors and it may take a little detective work to figure out what is stressing yours out.
Regular play times, new toys, and enrichment activities such as hiding food to make your glider work to find their meals may help take their mind off of what is stressing them out as well.