If there ever was a controversial subject concerning Sugar Gliders, it is overwhelmingly the question of how to best properly feed your Sugar Gliders in captivity. There are as many opinions as there are possible combinations of foods. Everyone seems to think that they have the only answer, apparently “handed down to them from God”.
If you have ever tried to research this subject on the internet, you know what I mean. Everywhere you go, someone is giving you conflicting information, and fighting like animals to defend their position. If you have been crazy enough to get on most Sugar Glider chat rooms, you come away feeling confused, bullied, intimidated, and certainly no better informed to make a proper decision than when you started 3 hours earlier (with much lower blood pressure). Now if you are really a glutton for punishment, just make a few comments on those same chat rooms and you will remove your hands from the computer key board with two bloody stumps. Why? Because you will be inundated with hate, vitriol, and extreme hubris like you have never experienced, and all from Sugar Glider “experts”
My advice is don’t go there. Ignore them. Keep your sanity in tact and your blood pressure within bounds.
In this article I am going to attempt to explain the three main diet types that are being fought over, then describe our diet plan, and then try to explain a 3 month study done by the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, Dept of Nutrition. This study covered all 3 diets side by side for 3 months in a clinical setting. This study was published in the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine in July 2006.
First however, here is a little about me. I am a Sugar Glider expert only by experience and research. I never refer to myself as an expert because an expert should know virtually everything there is to know about his subject and have an answer for almost every question. I don’t and I don’t. My expertise is only based upon trial and error, study, and experience: lots of experience. I started raising Sugar Gliders within weeks after the first ones were made available in the United States to the public. At that time there were only a few colonies in the US, in some zoos. I had been raising various other exotic animals for years before gliders became available. I raised Kinkajous, Wallabies, Lemurs, Giant Flying Squirrels from China, and a host of small animals such as Prevost Squirrels, Southern Flying Squirrels, etc. But when I saw my first Sugar Gliders I was blown away. The imported ones were right out of the jungles of Indonesia, and as mean as snakes, but I immediately fell in love with them and due to my previous experience, I knew that if they would breed in captivity, the babies would be absolutely incredible. Well, they turned out to be 10 times greater than I ever imagined. I started breeding them and learning more and more. As I increased my glider collection I began divesting myself of my other animals so that I could devote full time to this endeavor. Thanks to my local veterinarian who went out of his way on numerous occasions to do research for me, we became very successful at having very healthy, tame, hand raised babies early on. Now, 18 years later I have raised thousands of gliders and placed them in thousands of good homes.
There are three primary ways to feed your gliders. There are many variations on these three as well.
The first one is to feed a main diet of an insectivore fare. This is normally a semi-wet, diet of insects with other protein ingredients and probably some filler.
The second is to feed the protein by means of a dry kibble food. This is a dry food that is extruded into pellets.
The third method is to feed the protein by means of a homemade version of a diet called Bourbon’s
Modified Leadbeater’s diet, or Modified BML. There are many varieties of this diet, but they usually
include: Honey, boiled egg, apple juice, juice with yogurt, Rep Cal calcium, chicken baby food, wheat
germ, and oatmeal or baby cereal.
Now, with each of these main courses (the protein source), it is well agreed that the gliders also need fresh fruits, and fresh veggies (frozen is also ok). Most people then also add some mealworms as well throughout the week. It should be no more than a couple for each animal about 2-3 times a week. There you have it. That is the great argument, with each proponent believing that their chosen diet is best.
The following is how we feed our breeders, our personal pets, and how we teach our customers to feed their gliders when they buy them. By the way, once you own your gliders, if you want to feed them differently in the future, or vary our diet slightly, that is your business. My obligation, as I see it, is to give you the benefit of my experience and teach you what I would do if I had your animal. I want to teach you the best I know.
We recommend that you feed the dry pellet food made by Purina. We repackage it (because they only sell it in 25# bags), and we call it Glider Grub. It is a soybean based kibble that is a great source of protein. Normally a box of 4.5 lbs is a year’s supply for two gliders. It is fed free choice. In other words, you just fill a small bowl about half full and leave it in the cage for them to eat at their own pace. Check it every day and add if necessary, or dump out the crumbs when empty, and refill. Since the protein comes from soybean, it eliminates the very strong odor that gliders have when they eat meat protein on a consistent basis. I have fed my animals this base diet for their protein for about 12 years now. Before that we fed cooked chicken, mealworms, etc. A month or two after we changed over, the odor went away, the gliders seemed healthier, and almost all of the babies started surviving and thriving much better than before. In addition, the gliders love it, and even little 5-6 week old babies pick it up and eat it. They hold it in their little hands like an ear of corn. This is good because growing babies and nursing moms need about 4 times as much protein as during other times in their life. We don’t feed any meat protein to them. You could probably give each one a meal worm or two once or twice a week without
developing the odor, but we personally don’t.
In addition to the Glider Grub, they need their fruits and vegetables. We offer our gliders apple every night, along with 2-3 chunks of other fruits and vegetables. We normally offer up to a half of a small apple (less if they leave a lot by morning). We don’t slice or dice the apple, because if you do, it dries out too soon. Be sure to remove the seeds because they contain arsenic. Give them their fruits & vegetables in chunks as well so that they also retain their moisture content. For two gliders I might give them their apple and a chunk of cantaloupe (about 1 cu. In. in size), a baby carrot, or a green bean, etc. It is fine if you want to cut their items other than the apple into two pieces so they can each carry their tidbit off to a corner. Sugar Gliders can eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. As we will see in the study that we will review in the next section of this link, they should maintain calcium to phosphorus ratio of about 2 to 1.
If a Sugar Glider is severely Calcium deficient, it can develop tetany, which is a toxic spasm of the muscles, and they can go paralyzed in the rear legs and tail. This condition is not easily reversed and is often fatal. If not fatal, your glider may have permanent rear leg damage at the very least. So don’t repeatedly give them a high phosphorus fruit or veggie, even if it is one of their favorites. Just as in humans, moderation will take care of most things in life. We will next discuss the vitamin and mineral supplement that we recommend, which will help keep their ratio in balance.
That brings us to their Vita Glider. This is their vitamin and mineral supplement that we recommend. It comes in a shaker bottle and should be applied to their apple, or other fruits and vegetables every other day. Just sprinkle it on like sugar and spice on an apple pie. Don’t overdo it, but lightly cover the surface. Gliders don’t have to have a lot to stay very healthy. However, they do need it in order to keep the calcium and phosphorous levels in balance, etc. In addition to all of the vitamins and minerals Sugar Gliders are known to need, Vita Glider has a safe sweetener in it to make them like it, and a cherry smell to attract them to it. Most gliders like it. I have had this product for about 14 years and we almost never have a glider develop tetany or rear leg paralysis.
Of course your gliders should always have a good source of fresh, clean water. Avoid tap water unless you have a filter that takes chlorine out. Bottled-water or well water is fine. You can also let tap water stand for 24 hours in an open container to eliminate the chlorine. The danger is that if the chlorine levels spike on a given day, it could be dangerous or possibly fatal to your glider.
Let your gliders have their feast all night long. They will eat off and on most of the night. On the next morning I usually remove the left over fruits and veggies and give them a small piece of wheat bread, a little bowl of Cheerios, or any other good source of a whole grain product. They nibble on it throughout the day. If the glider is going with you for the day, take the Cheerios with you for treats.
This is our diet and it is extremely easy (any child can care for their glider), and it is inexpensive. But the best reason for feeding it is the results. My gliders live much longer and much healthier on this diet than when we fed other ways. We use it and recommend it because it works!
Now finally, let’s look at the study.
The study was set up like this. Nine young male Sugar Gliders (4-9 months old) were used in the test. All appeared to be healthy at the pretrial inspection. All nine of the gliders had been eating diet #1 prior to the trial.
They were divided into 3 groups of 3, and caged in these trios. Each group was fed one of the 3 diets mentioned above.
Group 1 was fed the insectivore fare diet, 15 gm. per evening.
Group 2 was fed the pellet diet, 15 gm. per evening. (They softened it with water, which I don’t do).
Group 3 was fed the BML diet, 15 gm. per evening.
Each group received 15 gm. of mixed frozen vegetables, and 15gm of fresh fruits & berries per evening.
Each group was given 20 mealworms per week as extra protein. Group 1 also was given cooked chicken mixed with Special K cereal twice a week.
Group 1 was given Rep Cal as a calcium supplement.
Group 2 was given a vitamin and mineral supplement called Frugivore Salad Supplement.
Group 3 was given no supplement, but RepCal is part of the recipe for the BML.
Many things were studied and discovered through their pre and post blood-work, but we will confine our observations to the most important and less esoteric findings.
First, there were two anomalies that occurred. One animal in Group 1 had to be eliminated due to self mutilation. Also, two of the gliders in Group 3 lost weight, (as much as 5 gm.) and the third put on too much weight (12 gm.).
Results of Consumption:
Of the base diet, Group 1 ate 41%, Group 2 ate 95%, and Group 3 ate 89%. Of the veggies, Group 1 ate 41%, Group 2 ate 51%, and Group 3 ate 38%.
Of the fruits, Group 1 ate 76%, Group 2 ate 97%, and Group 3 ate 77%.
Of the additional protein (mealworms and chicken), Group 1 ate 100%, Group 2 ate 75%, and Group 3 ate 100%.
My Observations: Group 1 only consumed 41% of their Insectivore diet and all of their extra protein treats such as mealworms. They ate only 41% of the veggies and only 76% of the fruits. These gliders will have a high meat protein level in their diet and will have the smell associated with that condition. The study said that gliders do not need a lot of protein and that all 3 diets provided plenty of protein. The gliders in this group gained an average of 8.2% of their original body weight. This is fairly heavy growth.
Group 2 consumed 95% of the Kibble diet. They obviously like it. But they also ate 51% of the veggies and 97% of the fruits. Notice that they only ate 75% of the mealworms offered to them. If that kibble diet is a soybean protein like Glider Grub, they will have little odor, except for the mealworm protein. I contend that if the mealworms were eliminated and replaced occasionally with nuts or some other source of treat that contains protein, they will be just as happy and have almost no odor. Even though the gliders in this group ate very well they stayed lean. They gained an average of only 2.3% of their original body weight. This is slow but steady growth. Group 3 fared the worst. They ate 89% of their BML diet. They obviously like it. They only ate 38% of their veggies, and 77% of their fruits. They chowed down on their mealworms however, eating 100% of them. They will also have a lot of animal protein in their system and will have a strong smell. It is deceiving to say that they gained an average of only 2% of their original body weight however, because one gained 12 grams while the other two lost up to 5 grams of body weight on this diet. This explains to me why so many of the gliders that I see that are on a version of the BML diet are obese. Prior to this study I always stayed away from this diet due to the animals odor, and because I kept seeing this obesity phenomenon.
Vitamin and Mineral Analysis
A Sugar Glider’s optimum Calcium to Phosphorous ration is thought to be 2 to 1.
In this trial the resulting Ca to P in Group 1 was 6.5 to 1. Group 2 was 1 to 1. Group 3 was 7 to 1.
Obviously, if you feed the group 1 or 3 diet you need to find foods that have a high phosphorous content to try to bring those levels into balance. If you feed group 2 (the Kibble), you can easily add the additional calcium by means of the Vita Glider every other day.
Also both diets 1 & 3 were supplemented with RepCal (supplemented in group 1 and in the food itself in group 3), containing vitamin D. The blood-work at the end of the trial showed that the vitamin D was quite elevated in group 1 & 3, compared to group 2 which fell within proper guidelines. Group 1 at 28 IU/g, Group 2 at 1.3 IU/g and Group 3 at 34 IU/g. The trial also stated “In addition, we were able to estimate protein digestibility on all 3 diets, ranging from 67% (diets A and C) to 70% (diet B)”.
Conclusion and Recommendation:
We recommend that you make your life easier and your glider healthier by sticking with the Glider Grub and Vita Glider. Provide a variety of fruits and vegetables and fresh water. Get creative with your treats for the gliders and let them eat them in your open hand or in your pocket. Try Pine Nuts, almonds, dried pineapple, mango, papaya, apricot, coconut, raisins, Cheerios, other grain products, etc. If you are eating a peppermint or Life Saver, give it a little piece to lick on.
Never give them seeds like is in a bird food diet. Never let them have any chocolate (it can kill them). Be aware that they are much safer with your cat than with a Catnip toy. They are deathly allergic to Catnip. Always be protective of your glider from chemicals. They are very susceptible to toxic chemicals.
Most of all, lighten up, enjoy your gliders, and don’t be on pins and needles, afraid that you are going to do something wrong. This is not brain surgery. Common sense and a little knowledge will make your glider a healthy and happy animal which will bring you countless hours of joy.
By the way, to my critics who will still say that I only recommend Glider Grub and Vita Glider because I sell them, I say that I sell them only because I can recommend them. I won’t lose any real money if my customers use another food item. The Glider Grub is only $39.95 for a year’s supply for two gliders, and Vita Glider is only $19.95 for a year’s supply for two gliders. Obviously, that is not the main source of my income.
By the way, if you want to see the complete study, click here.
Source: Ellen S. Dierenfeld, PhD, Debra Thomas, DVM, Robin Ives, BS, Comparison of Commonly Used Diets on Intake, Digestion, Growth, and Health in Captive Sugar Gliders (Petaurus breviceps), www.researchgate.net, Publisher W.B. Saunders Company, Elsevier, 06/2009