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Disorders and Diseases of Sugar Gliders

By Rosemary J. Booth, BVSc, Principal Conservation Officer, Department of Environment and Resource Management, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services

Many disorders and diseases that occur in sugar gliders are related to dietary imbalances, including malnutrition, obesity, and vitamin and mineral imbalances. Others are related to infection with bacteria, fungi, or parasites.

Aflatoxicosis

Aflatoxicosis is a liver disease caused by toxins produced by certain fungi in or on foods and feeds. Corn, peanuts, and cotton-seed are the most likely to be contaminated with aflatoxins. Sugar gliders can get aflatoxicosis by eating contaminated peanuts or by eating crickets that have been fed contaminated corn. Therefore, it is important not to feed your sugar gliders peanuts and to know what kind of feed your insect supplier feeds its insects. Signs of aflatoxicosis are loss of appetite, anemia, jaundice, lack of energy, and diarrhea. Sudden death may occur. If diagnosed in time, aflatoxicosis is reversible. Take your sugar glider to a veterinarian immediately, and change its feed.

Constipation

Small, hard, dry animal droppings, or none at all, may be a sign of constipation. Possible causes of constipation are not enough liquids or fiber in the diet, poor overall diet, stress, lack of exercise, or digestive system problems. Some medications can also cause this problem. A medical examination by a veterinarian to determine the cause should be performed as soon as constipation is noticed.

Diarrhea and Vomiting

Several microscopic parasites, including Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Trichomonas can cause diarrhea and occasional vomiting in sugar gliders, along with abdominal cramps, weight loss, and dehydration. Your veterinarian can perform tests to determine the cause of these signs and prescribe the appropriate medication. Because several of these parasites can also infect humans, it is important to use care when handling sick sugar gliders and to wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning the cage and before touching any food or any item that will be near your mouth. Until a followup test shows that the parasite has been eliminated, the sugar glider should be quarantined from other pets. The cage should also be thoroughly cleaned to reduce the possibility of reinfection.

Eye Disorders

Sugar gliders may be aggressive and can cause severe trauma to each other, particularly during mating and the introduction of new adults. These injuries often occur around the face and may include eye injuries and corneal scratches. Corneal scratches may develop slow-healing sores and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the tissue around the eye). Cataracts (white spots in the lens of the eye) also occur in sugar gliders. As in humans, this can lead to blindness.

Leptospirosis

Sugar gliders may become infected with this disease and pass it on to humans if they come into contact with water or food that has been contaminated with Leptospira bacteria. Signs include fever, kidney and liver problems. A veterinarian can test for the presence of these bacteria. Strict attention to thorough cage cleaning, food dish and water supply sanitation, and careful hand washing following contact with your pet or its environment are important to prevent both reinfection and transmission to you or other humans.

Lumpy Jaw (Actinomycosis)

Lumpy jaw (actinomycosis) in a sugar glider

Lumpy jaw is a condition in which the bacteria Actinomyces israelii infect the face and neck, creating a slowly enlarging, hard lump. The bacteria can also infect the lungs, intestinal tract, and other parts of the body. Discharge from the eyes and weight loss are other signs of infection. The facial tissues can become infected with the bacteria after surgery, trauma, or another infection. A common cause in sugar gliders is an abscess in the mouth. Lumpy jaw is deadly if left untreated; therefore, you should contact your veterinarian immediately if a hard lump appears on the face or neck of your pet or if you notice eye discharges or sudden weight loss. Treatment to get rid of the infection requires a prescribed medication. Because several disease-causing organisms may be involved, your veterinarian will perform tests to determine the most effective medication.

Mineral, Vitamin, and Protein Imbalances

Hypocalcemia is an abnormally low level of calcium in the blood and is due mainly to an imbalance of dietary calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. Not getting enough dietary protein causes hypoproteinemia and anemia (too few red blood cells in the blood). All of these conditions may be caused by longterm malnutrition and can lead to liver and kidney problems. Malnourished sugar gliders are weak and slow to respond, and usually thin and dehydrated. Anemic and hypoproteinemic sugar gliders may also have bruising, abnormal swelling, and pale mucous membranes. Weakened animals may develop additional infections. Treatment requires correcting the underlying dietary problems and providing general supportive care. Follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding diet, supplements, water supplies, and environmental conditions.

Metabolic bone disease, also known as nutritional osteodystrophy, is a condition in which there is a softening of the bones due to an imbalance of the minerals calcium and phosphorus. The first signs are a weakening of the muscles in the sugar glider’s hind end that progresses to paralysis of the hind legs. This can seem to happen very quickly. Pneumonia, heart problems, seizures, and broken bones can also occur as a result of this condition. X‑rays reveal a loss of bone from the spinal column, pelvis, and long bones in particular. This disease, if treated quickly, can be reversible with proper diet and care. Treatment involves cage rest, giving calcium and vitamin D3 supplements (which your veterinarian may give by injection), and correction of the diet.

To help prevent vitamin and mineral imbalances, insects in the diet can be gut-loaded with calcium or sprinkled with a calcium powder before being fed to sugar gliders. The practice of gut loading is a common technique that involves providing insects with a nutritious mixture of cereals and vegetables immediately before being fed to the sugar glider—thus loading their gut with nutrients. Another common practice is the use of powdered vitamin/mineral supplements. Crickets brought home from a pet store and never fed have little nutritional value. Placing them in a bag with vitamin and mineral powders and shaking the bag will coat the insects with the powder. Although some of the powder will fall off, the newer microfine powders adhere remarkably well.

Mites and Fleas

Wild sugar glider nests generally contain a range of host-specific mites and fleas, but these parasites that live on the outside of the body are uncommon in sugar gliders raised in captivity and indoors. Dusting with an insecticide recommended by your veterinarian is effective for controlling fleas and mites. Both the nesting box and the animal should be treated.

Obesity

Obesity can occur in captive sugar gliders that are fed a diet too high in calories. Lack of exercise also adds to the problem. Obesity can lead to heart and liver disease. Treatment of obesity requires a change in diet and an increase in exercise.

Pasteurellosis

Pasteurellamultocida bacteria may spread from rabbits to sugar gliders. This infection is deadly for sugar gliders. Pus-filled, inflamed sores form on various organs, including the skin, causing sudden death.

Polioencephalomalacia

Polioencephalomalacia is a neurologic disease that causes deterioration in parts of the brain. Possible signs are loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of energy, weakness, dizziness, lack of coordination, disorientation, tremors, and gradual paralysis. It has been suggested that nutritional deficiencies may worsen this disease because some sugar gliders appear to have improved when given Vitamin B1 (thiamine); however, the cause of this disease has not yet been determined. A severe case may prove deadly. A balanced and proper diet is most likely the best way to prevent this disease.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease often found in cats. Sugar gliders can get toxoplasmosis if they come into contact with cat litter or feces that have been contaminated with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii or if fed undercooked meats. Signs include lack of coordination, tremors, head tilt, diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight, loss of energy, below normal body temperatures, trouble breathing, and sudden death. This parasite can also be passed to humans; the signs include fever, sore throat and muscles, and loss of vision. The parasite is particularly dangerous for pregnant women; infection can cause miscarriage or birth defects. People with weakened immune systems are also very susceptible to becoming ill after contact with this parasite. To control this parasite, do not allow your sugar glider(s) to come in contact with a cat’s litter box, provide only thoroughly cooked meats, and use gloves and thorough hand washing when handling cat litter.

Tumors

Tumors, particularly lymphoid neoplasia, are common in opossum and glider species. Tumors have been found in the spleen, liver, kidney, pouch, jaw, and lymph nodes of sugar gliders.

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