I want to talk a little about a very important element of diets that that is rarely discussed on the popular groups—the connection between diet and dental disease in gliders. This blog post will discuss presentation, treatment, and most importantly, prevention of dental disease by choosing a diet that promotes dental health. First, I want to note that I am not an expert on sugar glider diets or sugar glider dental health, and I am not a veterinarian. My qualifications to write this post include closely observing hundreds of sugar glider owners and their husbandry practices, following the trends in their diets and dental disease, having more than 7 years of experience in glider ownership and rescue, and creating one of the first widely-used diet plans that is based on a kibble. This post reflects my opinions on glider dental health.
Within the past several years at least, we have been seeing many gliders and even whole colonies die from dental disease. As far as glider health and aging, dental health seems to be the biggest challenge facing many glider owners. While dental disease is said to be non-transmissible, it is often the case that once one glider in a colony presents with severe dental disease, the rest of the colony soon follows, even while the other colonies in the household, who are fed the same diet, do not readily show the same signs.
Dental disease can present when a glider is relatively young, but is more prevalent as gliders age. It can present as one or multiple tooth abscesses, poor grooming, bad breath, loss of teeth, loose teeth, bumps under the chin or lower jaw, excess plaque, separated or crooked incisors, and yellowing/browning and wet belly fur on the glider. Other signs include grabbing at the nose and mouth, shaking head excessively when eating, loss of appetite, weight loss, and constantly tilting head backwards when chewing. You can check your own glider’s teeth very easily, by gently pulling down their bottom lip to expose the root of their lower incisors. While this isn’t as thorough as a veterinary dental exam, you can certainly get a good idea of their overall mouth health by looking at the roots of their bottom incisors. If they are yellowed and covered in plaque, you should get your gliders a teeth cleaning and consider making changes to the diet you feed. You can also try cleaning the plaque off yourself in between dental cleanings with a Q-tip. While there is little discussion about it, I believe that many gliders should get the occasional dental cleaning, especially if they or others in their colony have ever exhibited signs of dental disease.
Treatment for advanced dental disease can be very costly, with multiple surgeries needed for many sessions of tooth extractions over the remainder of the life of the glider, which is often significantly shortened by the dental disease. Medications can sometimes stave off infection, but this should be considered a very temporary solution. Toothaches suck, and we all know it. I don’t imagine that it is any less crappy if you are a sugar glider. In fact, since gliders also use their mouth for grooming, keeping their mouth healthy and pain-free is essential for their quality of life. If you suspect your glider has dental disease, you need to get them to an experienced veterinarian so they aren’t living in pain. Pretty much the only treatment for dental disease is removal of the affected teeth, in combination with pain meds and antibiotics to help the glider heal while reducing the risk of infection. Teeth cleanings can be helpful for gliders who have significant plaque buildup. The below photo is a before and after photo of a glider with dental disease who underwent a teeth cleaning performed by a veterinarian.
My Experience with Dental Disease
I recently noticed that my glider, Poppy, had a black spot on her tooth. Being very aware of the prevalence of glider dental disease, I made her an appointment for a dental cleaning at my vet, and expected a hefty bill. Poppy is at least 9 years old, and I was certain that this would be my first encounter with severe dental disease in my own gliders since starting to own them in 2014. Several hours after I dropped Poppy off with my vet, he called and, to my utter shock, stated “Poppy’s teeth look great, I could not justify doing a cleaning because it would not improve her overall mouth health.” It turns out that she just had one black spot, which was a stain that he was able to easily scrape off.
After seeing so much dental disease in other people’s colonies, colonies that were much younger than mine, how is it that I had gotten so lucky that I haven’t encountered a single instance of even one bad tooth in any of my gliders, who were all 7+ years old?
I have fed a diet that is based on kibble for most of the time that I have owned gliders. I started feeding this diet 5 years ago and have never looked back. After doing some research, I discovered that anecdotal evidence in gliders, and evidence from other species, suggests that crunchy foods play a role in teeth cleaning. With gliders, where teeth cleaning options are more limited than those for dogs or cats, I believe this is especially true. While I cannot know for sure, I credit my gliders’ excellent dental health to what is now called Alea’s Happy Glider diet plan.* (Below is a photo of extracted teeth from a glider belonging to a friend).
From my experiences with my own gliders’ excellent dental health, and with rescues who have come in with horrible teeth, I have come to believe that when making decisions regarding sugar glider diet, dental health is as important a consideration as nutrition. Put another way, we need to be considering not just the nutritional benefits of the diet, but also how it will affect our gliders dental health. Dental disease is a leading cause of death of gliders in captivity. And at the same time, we see relatively few gliders dying from what we can identify as nutritional deficiencies. The only aspect of dental health that many owners (only tangentially) consider is calcium. Calcium is very important to bone and tooth health. But aside from considering calcium levels, I believe that dental health is often an afterthought, if it is a consideration at all, when owners choose a diet. And unfortunately, when owners do consider the dental health of their gliders, it is often too late – they have already encountered severe dental disease. Treating severe dental disease is so much more difficult, painful, and costly than choosing a diet that promotes dental health. In this case, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
If a diet plan includes kibble as a small part of the plan, or allows it as a snack, the issue is that usually, some or all of the gliders won’t eat the kibble. They will almost always choose the sweetest food that is available to them. The kibble only helps teeth if they eat it often. Generally speaking, offering kibble as a side is not enough to promote dental health, in my opinion.
Aside from nutrition and ease, dental health is yet another reason why I will choose to stick with the Alea’s Happy Glider diet plan. This diet plan is one of only two diet plans that are (or can be) based on a kibble. While there are many diet plans that are nutritionally adequate, most diet plans are soft or liquidy, and very high in sugar (containing large amounts of honey and/or fruit). These types of foods, if eaten exclusively or even in high amounts, by humans, would most certainly lead to tooth decay, especially without daily teeth cleaning. I have no reason to believe that this is any different in gliders. The other diet plan that can now be based on kibble is the BML diet in kibble form. This kibble is relatively new, but was created by the creator of the original BML diet. The BML kibble is available exclusively from White Oak Gliders.
While a soft diet can be helpful after extractions, after they heal, most gliders, even those with very few teeth, can eat kibble with no problem. Happy Glider kibble soaks up water readily, so putting a bit of water on the kibble can help soften it for those gliders who are recovering from dental procedures. Dental disease is often recurring, with more extractions needed months and years down the road. Be vigilant and learn the signs of your glider being in pain and having dental disease.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Please take the time to consider, examine, and if necessary, treat your gliders’ teeth, and if you can, make sure you are feeding a diet that promotes dental health. Dental disease is often deadly, and is miserable for gliders and owners who encounter it. Please reach out if you have any questions.
When choosing a sugar glider diet, here are my top 5 factors that I think should be considered:
Adequate nutrition, including plenty of calcium
Low in sugar
Consistent with an element of variety
Appealing to gliders
*It should also be noted that while the diet plan is named after me, I do not profit one cent from people using the diet or purchasing Happy Glider kibble from Pet-pro.com. I recommend the diet because I believe it is excellent for both gliders and owners. My commission from pet-pro.com is donated directly to Sugar Glider Guardians, and then 100% of those funds are donated to the Sugar Glider Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization with which I have no affiliation. The Sugar Glider Foundation funds sugar glider nutrition studies. You can read more about their work here.