The sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps) is a small, omnivorous opossum that can glide through the air like a flying squirrel, although they're not related. Small but big-eyed, these nocturnal creatures are available from some breeders as pets. They can eat a varied diet, but some foods are unhealthy, even toxic. If there's any doubt about the safety of a food, owners should not include it on the glider's menu.
Natural Habitat vs. Captivity
These arboreal marsupials are native to Australia and nearby islands and were introduced to Tasmania in the early 19th century. Omnivorous, they prefer sweet foods, feeding mostly on insects in warmer months and plants when temperatures drop. In their native habitat, their plant diet includes eucalyptus and acacia. In captivity, their food supply must be monitored carefully -- they need sufficient calcium to avoid developing hind leg paralysis and should receive a balanced diet, half of which should be fruits and vegetables. However, some plants can cause reactions ranging from skin irritations to death due to poisoning. These reactions can be caused by the natural characteristics of a plant or by chemicals added along the way.
Fresh fruit seeds, like those in apples, and pits are naturally toxic to sugar gliders and must be removed before feeding. Fruits with high levels of oxalate -- such as blueberries, strawberries, figs and plums -- are unhealthy to gliders because they affect calcium absorption. Some breeders caution against grapes and raisins, which they link to kidney failure. Monitor the quantity of citrus fruits in the diet because they can cause diarrhea, which can be a serious health threat to gliders, even though the fruits are not innately harmful.
Onion, garlic, scallions and chives, all of the Alliaceae family, are toxic to sugar gliders. Millet and lima beans are also toxic. Iceberg lettuce offers very little nutritional benefit and is therefore not recommended. Canned vegetables are unhealthy for sugar gliders because of the additives from processing. While not vegetables, it's important to mention that rhubarb and chocolate are also very bad for them.
Trees and Other Plants
Common trees that are toxic to sugar gliders are pine, cedar and fir, because the phenols or oils from these woods can cause lung irritation. Don't use materials from these trees as bedding material. Cherry, almond, laurel, apricot, avocado, nectarine, plum and peach trees are toxic as well -- basically, any trees that bear fruits with pits are unsafe. The list of harmful trees also includes box elder, boxwood, oak, red maple and walnut. Nuts in general are not advised for your sugar glider's diet; while not innately toxic, over-consumption can cause serious health issues, including obesity and inability to absorb calcium.
The list of toxic bushes includes holly and azalea. Other plants that will have a detrimental effect are mistletoe, catnip, rhubarb and sweet peas.
A rule of thumb: avoid all plants treated with pesticides. Even if the plant is considered safe for sugar gliders, the pesticides can be fatal. It's also recommended not to give them houseplants because of potential chemical treatments, fertilizers or toxicity.
- Sugar Gliders (Complete Pet Owner's Manual); Caroline Wightman (Barron's Educational Series; 2nd ed. 2008)
- Pet Info Packets: Sugar Gliders
Kathleen March has been a writer for 40 years. A professor and translator of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician, she has studied several languages and uses them for travel and research. She enjoys medieval architecture and avant-garde poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous critical journals in the U.S. and Spain.