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Sugar gliders are fascinating creatures, and we are still finding new ways to better care for our sugar gliders every day as more research becomes available and more sugar glider owners share their thoughts and experiences.
Sugar gliders are instinctively prone to stress. Signs of stress include hiding, biting, reduced appetite, and stereotypical behavior. You can help calm a sugar glider by providing them with a safe, quiet and dark space with food and water. Sugar gliders should not be kept alone, and their environment should be conducive to their natural instincts.
This article aims to provide sugar glider owners with more information on what sugar gliders might perceive as stressful, the symptoms of stress, and what steps owners can take to help calm a stressed pet sugar glider.
Do Sugar Gliders Stress Easily?
Sugar gliders are wild animals that are tamed to live with humans. They will never be domesticated like dogs or cats who have evolved along with humans. Therefore a sugar glider will always retain their natural instincts.
It is this natural instinct that makes them prone to stress as pets. They are shy animals that live in large colonies in the wild. They have many predators, and they eat primarily insects and some plant material. They love to forage, climb and glide and are active at night. If any of these natural behaviors are not appropriately met by a sugar glider owner, it will cause stress.
What Causes Sugar Gliders To Be Stressed?
Being Separated From Familiar Humans And Colony Members
Sugar gliders live in colonies of 10-18 individuals in the wild. They are dependent on their colony members to be on the lookout for predators, help forage for food, and help provide warmth when it is cold (have you ever seen a bunch of sugar gliders sleeping together? It’s hard to see where one glider ends and the next one begins!).
A lone sugar glider is exceptionally vulnerable in the wild, and they usually do not survive for long if separated from the colony. This is why sugar gliders should ideally not be kept alone as pets.
Not Being Able To Sleep During Daytime
Sugar gliders are nocturnal, meaning that they are most active at night and sleep during the day. Sugar gliders that are often woken up during the daytime are known to show symptoms of stress such as increased incidence of illness or stereotypical behavior.
A study by Hillman (2021) showed that blue light could be disruptive to sugar gliders, causing them to show signs of stress such as altered behavior patterns and decreased activity. Blue light emitted by electronic screens seems to be the main culprit for pet sugar gliders.
A Cage That Is Too Small
Sugar gliders need to be able to climb, jump, forage and hide in their cage. So thinking that you will take your glider out during the day is not enough.
A sugar glider’s most active hours are typically when you are fast asleep in the middle of the night. Your sugar glider needs room to play and forage for their mental and physical health.
When a glider cannot jump or climb, they become frustrated and develop steriotypical behavior such as overgrooming.
Unfamiliar Or New Things:
Unfamiliar Humans Or Animals
Sugar gliders need to get used to new animals and humans to trust them. Suddenly having unfamiliar humans in their environment, for example, introducing your sugar glider to all your friends, will be stressful.
Depending on the dog or cat’s temperament, sugar gliders typically can get along with dogs and cats. Still, the initial introduction to an animal species that could be considered a predator by your sugar glider will inevitably cause stress initially as they will likely fear for their life at the first introduction.
When a sugar glider is moved to a new environment, for example, adopted by a new owner or moved to a new cage, this can initially cause stress.
Again, singleton sugar gliders are more prone to this type of stress as they are vulnerable in a new environment where they are unfamiliar with safe hiding spots and the potential perceived dangers in that environment.
Unfamiliar or Loud Noises or Smells
A sugar glider’s sense of hearing is acutely fine. Wild sugar gliders often use their sense of hearing and smell to locate insects. Loud music or other loud noises such as hammering will cause them stress. Similarly, the scent of a predator could cause stress (however, it is questionable how big of a role this plays in pet sugar gliders).
Unexpected Rapid Movements
A sudden unexpected movement will often trigger a sugar glider to flee and hide. In the wild, a sudden and unexpected movement may just be a predator trying to hunt them, so the response is instinctive.
Sugar gliders should not be exposed to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for extended periods. Due to their small body size and large body-surface-to-weight ratio, they quickly lose body heat in cold climates.
As long as your glider is otherwise healthy, small fluctuations in temperatures or mean deviations from 60°F – 90°F (15°C – 32°C) will not cause your glider any harm; however, prolonged exposure to temperature extremes will cause physiological stress which leads to immune system suppression.
For more tips on keeping your glider warm in the winter, have a look at this article.
Even though sugar gliders are happiest living in groups, not all sugar gliders get along very well.
There is an increase in social tension when the youngsters of a group reach sexual maturity (around 8-12 months for females and 12-14 months for males). As the young gliders figure out their spot in the rank of the group, there might be some social tension.
Another time of social tension is when a female is in heat, and multiple males in the colony will compete to cover the female.
Female gliders who are pregnant may also be less friendly to her cage mates. Similarly, a female glider weaning her joeys will also cause some stress as both mom and joeys adapt to the new life stage.
Despite their name, sugar gliders do not do well on a high sugar diet. They eat a diet consisting primarily of insects, tree sap, and some nectar in the wild. This diet can be hard to replicate in captivity. Still, by feeding a base insectivore diet and supplementing with fruits, vegetables, proteins, and calcium supplements, you can prevent nutritional stress due to not feeding a species-appropriate diet.
The article on what to feed sugar gliders contains more details on the subject, a sample diet plan, and tips on which supplements to give.
In addition to physiological stress caused by an inappropriate diet (think of how sluggish and foggy you might feel after a weekend of eating take-outs and sweets) and the nutritional deficiencies this causes, sugar gliders are prone to obesity.
Obesity will shorten your sugar glider’s life expectancy due to increased susceptibility to certain health conditions and limit their ability to do activities that will improve their mental well-being and overall welfare, such as climbing, playing, and gliding.
Many other vets and I believe that ensuring that your pet does not gain excessive body weight due to a poor diet is just as important as making sure their basic needs are met. For more tips on how to help an overweight sugar glider, have a look at this article.
Lack of Mental Stimulation or Boredom
Sugar gliders are very active and curious. A sugar glider that does not have access to toys or areas to climb or forage will become frustrated by the inability to express natural behavior and will likely start showing signs of stereotypical behavior due to stress.
Signs That My Sugar Glider Is Stressed
It is imperative to note that many of the symptoms of stress in sugar gliders may mimic the symptoms of illness. Sugar gliders are very good at hiding signs of disease until it is almost too late. If your sugar glider shows any abnormal behavior or other symptoms, you will need to have your sugar glider checked by a sugar glider savvy vet.
In the face of a potential threat, the first instinct of a sugar glider is to flee and hide. However, if a glider hides in their pouch for more time than usual or refuses to come out, it might be due to them perceiving something in their environment as a threat.
Of course, this is not the only reason why a sugar glider will spend more time than usual in their pouch. Hiding can also be a symptom of pain or disease.
Sugar gliders can move very fast if they want to! However, if a sugar glider is excessively jumpy and constantly tries to flee, it is a sign that something in their environment might be making them feel threatened.
Sugar gliders will sometimes shiver when scared. Sugar gliders shiver often, but newly adopted sugar gliders, for example, shiver even more often! This is due to the normal stress of adjusting to a new environment and owners.
To learn more about when and why sugar gliders shiver, have a look at this article.
Sugar gliders will bite out of fear to defend themselves. Anyone who may have tried to bond with a glider who is not very familiar with humans will know this.
If pushed too far into a stressful situation, sugar gliders will bite. You can’t really blame them for biting you when they are scared, as this is the only self-defense they have in a frightening situation.
Stereotypical behavior is repetitive, non-sensical, or compulsive behavior that is often linked to poor welfare in animals. This behavioral abnormality is closely associated with frustration due to the inability to perform natural behaviors or boredom.
In sugar gliders, the most common stereotypical behaviors include overgrooming to the point of causing bald patches or repetitive climbing or jumping.
Stereotypical behavior is more often the result of long-standing or chronic stress (for example, a cage that is too small or a lack of social interaction) and may progress to self-mutilation.
Self-mutilation is, unfortunately, rather common in sugar gliders. Sugar gliders will often chew at painful body parts, causing further harm. Sugar gliders are also known to overgroom to the point of breaking the skin when they are frustrated or stressed due to a lack of environmental enrichment (an environment that is mentally stimulating and encourages natural behavior).
How To Calm A Stressed Pet Sugar Glider
The following tips are useful for calming an acutely stressed sugar glider (for example, short-term or sudden stress). All long-term stress is best alleviated by removing or resolving the cause of stress.
1. Place Them In a Dark, Quiet Environment
If a sugar glider is extremely fearful (fleeing, hiding, and biting when approached), it is best to leave them in a safe, quiet, and dark space to calm down. Do not force interaction or try to pick them up.
If possible, leave the stressed sugar glider in a safe, quiet, and dark space for a few hours with food and water. The aim is to give the sugar glider some time to realize they are not being hunted and that their current environment is safe.
2. Give them Access To A Familiar Sugar Glider
If at all possible, sugar gliders should always at least be kept in pairs. This becomes all the more important when they are stressed.
In the wild, sugar gliders rely on their colony members to help spot and alert them to dangers. Therefore, gliders kept in groups have a sense of security that a single sugar glider will never have.
If your sugar glider is stressed, the first and the best thing you can do is to place them with a familiar sugar glider in a safe, dark, and quiet environment.
3. Have Them Comforted By A Familiar Human
If you only have one sugar glider and provided that you are not the cause of stress (for example, you accidentally frightened your sugar glider with a loud noise), you can keep your sugar glider in a pouch close to your body for some time.
This is an alternative option to allowing them to be with a familiar colony mate.
4. Natural Calming Products
If a stressful situation is unavoidable or you cannot remove the stressor, a natural product such as Pet Remedy, Rescue Remedy for Pets, or CBD can be considered.
Pet Remedy is a blend of essential oils that work alongside the brain’s natural neurotransmitters to help send a ‘calming’ signal to the brain. The great thing about this product is that it works immediately and calms animals without sedating them. It is available in a spray form that you can use to spray on bedding or a plug-in diffuser.
The main ingredient in Pet Remedy is Valerian which you might recognize as an ingredient in some natural human sleep aids. But unfortunately, humans can not enjoy the effect of pet remedy alongside their sugar gliders as the scent is captured by a special sensory organ called Jacobson’s organ that most amphibians, reptiles, and mammals have, but humans missed out on.
Pet remedy has various studies on their product and is something many of my patient’s owners and I have found effective. You can check the current pricing on Amazon here. There’s an informational video in the product description on how pet remedy works in the product description that you might find helpful as well.
Rescue Remedy for Pets
Rescue Remedy is a homeopathic remedy with some pretty decent scientific studies backing its effectiveness, more so in humans than in small pets, but I have found this to be effective for mild to moderate stress in small exotic mammals.
The dose remains four drops per animal, no matter the size, as it is a homeopathic preparation. Just get the pet-specific remedy as the human preparation contains alcohol, and four drops of an alcohol-based remedy will do far more than provide light sedation. You can have a more in-depth read on the use of Rescue Remedy in Pets on their website and can check the current price on Amazon here.
Cannabis oil has been taking the world by storm, with most medical practitioners on both the human and animal side erring on the side of caution due to the lack of high quality, long-term studies, and the many potential side effects.
I know of many pet parents who are very happy with the effect of CBD on their animals, and it might be worth a try. Just a few pointers from a vet’s perspective: firstly, get the highest quality CBD oil you can find, at minimum, one without THC; secondly, start with the lowest recommended dose and monitor closely.
If anything seems off, discontinue use immediately. Since our sugar gliders can’t tell us if anything feels off, we need to be super vigilant in monitoring them for anything abnormal, especially if administering a drug that still needs the in-depth research to back it that most veterinary other medicines have.
This Hemp Oil by PG Pets available on Amazon is THC free and can be given at a dose of around one drop per sugar glider once per day.
Can A Sugar Glider Die From Stress?
Stress alone will not cause a sugar glider to die. However, behavior or symptoms caused by stress can secondarily cause mortality. For example: if a sugar glider stops eating en becomes hypoglycemic, or if self-mutilation wounds become infected, leading to sepsis and death if left untreated.
A Note On Behavioral Issues In Sugar Gliders
How well a pet sugar glider copes with living in an environment created by humans depends on how well they were socialized as joeys.
Typically, sugar gliders from reputable and experienced breeders will be exposed to different environments and humans. This helps them adapt to new environments far easier and may help them be less prone to long-term stress and the behavioral issues associated with that.
Luckily for us, sugar glider stress is much easier to understand and rectify than human stress. If you know your sugar glider’s basic needs and know that when those needs are not met, they will experience stress, it is easy to identify stress.
Prolonged exposure to stress can be detrimental to your sugar glider’s health. The quicker your respond to signs of stress, the better. And as always, if something seems off and you are not sure, do not hesitate to contact your vet. Sugar gliders are excellent at hiding disease, so if you are concerned, rather have them checked out by a vet.
Stress is part of life, and you might not be able to protect your sugar gliders from all the potential stressors. As long as the duration of stress they experience is short, and stress alleviating methods are timeously applied, they should have the happiest little sugar glider lives you can possibly provide them with.
- Banks, R., 2013. Exotic small mammal care and husbandry. Hoboken: John Wiley, pp. 157 – 168. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781119265405
- Dierenfeld, E., 2009. Feeding Behavior and Nutrition of the Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps). Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, 12(2), pp.209-215.
- Hillman, Elisa, “SUGAR GLIDER (PETAURUS BREVICEPS) BEHAVIOR IN RED VS BLUE LIGHTING” (2021). Honors Thesis. 127. https://red.library.usd.edu/honors-thesis/127
- Meredith, A. and Redrobe, S., 2002. BSAVA manual of exotic pets. 4th ed. Quedgeley: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, pp. 102 – 106 25. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240493099_The_BSAVA_Manual_of_Exotic_Pets_4th_edn
- Saunders, R. (2015, April). What is a sugar glider and how do I nurse it?. In BSAVA Congress Proceedings 2015 (pp. 372-373). BSAVA Library.