Should You Become A Breeder?
Breeding takes a lot of time. While the female is carrying joeys in her pouch, you will have to make sure that she has plenty of protein and you may need to provide her with a milk supplement to ensure her milk supply will be adequate for her joeys. You will also have to ensure that your breeding gliders’ environment is stress-free. Once the joeys come out of pouch (o.o.p.) you will need to spend time with the joeys multiple times each day so that they become used to humans and to ensure that they are being adequately cared for by their parents. You may have to hand-raise or supplement-feed the joeys if the mother rejects the joeys or doesn’t supply enough milk for them. You will need to spend time advertising the joeys and finding potential buyers. If you plan to have four or more breeding females, you will need to take the time to get a USDA Class A Breeder’s License (contact your local USDA office for more information).
When breeding sugar gliders, you will need to have an excellent veterinarian available that has specific experience with sugar gliders. This sounds like it shouldn’t be hard, but sugar glider experienced veterinarians can be difficult to find. During mating, a male sugar glider will sometimes bite down on the back of the female. Most of the time, this is a light bite and does not do any damage. However, some males become quite aggressive during mating and will bite a hole into the female’s flesh. This wound can quickly become infected, needing immediate veterinary care. Another health hazard of breeding sugar gliders is that the female’s pouch can become infected needing veterinary care. An experienced veterinarian who is already familiar with your sugar gliders will be able to provide treatment to them if the need should arise.
There can be a lot of stress involved when breeding sugar gliders. There is a high risk that at some point, at least one joey will be rejected by its mother. Sometimes, supplement-feeding a joey that has been rejected will be enough to enable the joey to survive. At other times, you may have to entirely hand-raise the joey. At still other times, no matter what you do, you may not be able to keep the joey alive. Having a tiny joey die in your hands is stressful enough, but if not found in time, you may discover that the parents have cannibalized the joey. Any of these experiences is very stressful and can even be traumatic.
Finding buyers who will be lifelong companions for your joeys can be difficult. Many people discover sugar gliders and fall in love with them immediately. However, they don’t always do adequate research before making the decision to buy. A responsible breeder will make sure that any potential buyer has done enough research on sugar gliders and that he or she is fully aware of the commitment of owning sugar gliders, knowing about healthy diets, environment, care, bonding, etc. Meeting with and talking to potential buyers can be very time consuming but it is an important component of a good breeding program.
Another factor to consider about whether or not to become a breeder is money. Breeding sugar gliders is not likely to be a “cash cow”. In fact, it can be quite expensive. You will need to be financially prepared for extra foods, veterinary bills, housing, accessories, supplies for hand-raising joeys, advertising, licensing fees and breeding stock. Even in a small breeding operation, these expenses can compound quickly and can far outweigh any potential income. It is best to remember the old adage, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” In fact, in the 5 years that I bred gliders, I never did make a profit on them - as can be evidenced by my income tax returns each year.
So, before you make the decision to become a breeder, consider all of these factors in great detail. Do plenty of research about breeding. Then, ask yourself why you want to become a breeder and consider if your reasons for becoming a breeder truly outweigh these factors. If they do, then make sure that you are prepared for any possibility.
Sadly, these dehydrated joeys did not survive...
Once you have made the decision to become a breeder, you will need to have a sound understanding of the sexual development of sugar gliders. Sugar gliders develop at different rates, but generally become sexually mature at about one year old.
For females, sexual maturity can occur between five and eighteen months old. In females, there are no obvious physical manifestations to let you know that she has reached maturity. Therefore, it is always best to err on the side of caution. If she is housed with a mature, intact male, assume that she can become impregnated at any time once she is about five months old. For her health, it is best if she is not able to breed until she is at least 10-12 months old. Younger females that become impregnated have a higher risk of joey rejection and/or cannibalization - she is just not mature enough to handle the responsibility of having joeys. Another problem with them breeding before 9 months out of pouch is that their bodies are still growing and they are still needing nutrients to help their bodies grow in a healthy manner. However, if they are breeding then they are producing milk to feed their joeys which robs their bodies of the nutrients needed for proper development which can lead to Hind Leg Paralysis or other nutritive imbalance problems. If you do not want her to become pregnant, it is best to either separate her from any mature, intact males once she is four months old or to have the male neutered.
Some people have argued that owners should just "allow nature to take its course" and not worry about how old a female is before being allowed to breed. While this seems to be a good theory, it is just not really true. If you think about it, simply by having gliders in captivity we have altered "nature's course". In the wild, gliders have a breeding season which only lasts for about 3 months once a year. This is due to environmental factors including weather and food availability. So, in the wild, a joey from one year's breeding cycle wouldn't be able to breed until it is at least 9 months out of pouch. However, in captivity, the "weather" and food conditions are at a constant, so we have gliders breeding year-round (up to four times per year). Since we have created an unnatural environment for them, we need to take other measures to prevent them from breeding too young.
Females can have offspring from the time they become mature until they are about eight years old. There have been some documented cases of females still having joeys at 11 years old.
For males, sexual maturity can occur between three and twelve months old. In males, the indications as to when sexual maturity has been achieved are fairly obvious. As a male matures, he will develop scent glands that appear as bald spots on the center of his forehead and at the center of his chest. In addition, the scrotal sac will drop and hang about a centimeter down from his abdomen. Neutering a male before he becomes mature will prevent the scent glands from developing*. If he is neutered after he has already become mature, his scent glands will gradually diminish until they are no longer visible at all. Intact males can mate and produce offspring throughout their entire lifespan once they have reached sexual maturity.
*Please note that the scrotal sac must be dropped away from the male's abdomen before neutering can effectively occur - usually by about 4 months o.o.p.. Otherwise, it is possible that the testicles will not have dropped into the sac yet.
The breeding cycle of a sugar glider in captivity is quite different from that of a sugar glider in the wild. In the wild, sugar gliders will mate and have young once a year. In captivity, mating can occur year-round with as many as four litters of young being produced. The difference is probably because in captivity the diet and climate are more stable and constant throughout the year.
A female sugar glider’s estrous cycle is about 28 days. Ovulation will occur approximately two days after the onset of estrous (also known as heat). While a female is in heat, she may become slightly more agitated than normal and she may make a distinct calling sound to her mate that is a cross between an elongated hiss and a bark. If you are very familiar with your female sugar glider, you may be able to determine when she is in heat. However, most owners can not tell the difference. If she is housed with an intact male, it will become very obvious when she goes into heat because he will take a sudden interest in her that is quite noticeable. You will probably see him climbing onto her back, licking her cloaca and following her everywhere. When this behavior starts, mating will probably occur within 24 hours.
Once mating begins, your sugar gliders will not have much interest in food for about 24 hours. Some males become very aggressive while mating and may nip at the female’s back while mounting her. In retaliation, your female may crab a lot and try to walk away from him. This is normal behavior. You should not worry that the male is hurting her or raping her. Upon occasion, the male may actually wound the female during mating. If this occurs, you will see an open sore on the female’s back, usually near her shoulders. Open sores should be treated by a veterinarian to prevent infection. Also, you may need to separate the female from the male for a few weeks in order to allow full healing of the wound. If the male continues to reopen the wound, separation until the fur begins to grow back in will be necessary, which may take up to three months.
After mating, if the female is impregnated, gestation in the uterus lasts for approximately 16 days. At the end of the gestation period, one to four immature joeys will be born and make their way into the mother’s pouch. Most sugar gliders only have one or two joeys at a time, but three or four joeys can be born upon rare occasion.
During birth, the mother will lick a trail from her cloaca to her pouch. The underdeveloped joey, that is only about one centimeter long, will crawl up the trail, then drop into the mother’s pouch where it will find a nipple. Once the joey finds a nipple, it will place its undeveloped mouth around the nipple and the nipple will swell inside its mouth so that the mouth becomes attached to the nipple. The joey will remain in-pouch, attached to its mother’s nipple for approximately nine weeks.
It is very rare to actually witness the birth of a joey. It is more likely that you would notice the mother cleaning herself after a birth has occurred.
Once your sugar glider has given birth and has one or more joeys in-pouch, you may notice a slight swelling in the lower abdomen of your female sugar glider that will appear as one or two small lumps. You can gently feel your sugar glider’s belly to find out whether or not there are joeys inside the pouch. This must be done very gently or you may accidentally dislodge the joey from the mother’s nipple. If your female sugar glider is comfortable with you, hold her on your chest, then using one hand, slip your thumb under her arms and gently lift her chest away from yours, exposing her belly. Using the other hand, gently rub your thumb over her lower abdomen, below her pouch slit and above her cloaca. If she has joeys in-pouch, you will feel small solid bumps (one or more) to either side of her abdomen. Depending on how far along she is, they may feel like small, hard peas or larger. If she is not yet bonded enough to allow you to do this, you can check her with another person's help. Put her in a pouch, head down, then have the other person hold her. Gently fold the pouch down, exposing her lower body. Have the other person hold the part of the pouch that her head and arms are in, then you can gently pull her tail and legs out of the way so you can check her belly.
As the joey develops inside the pouch, it will become more noticeable. By the time the joey has been in-pouch for about four weeks, there will be a very obvious lump that is about the size of a peanut shell. When the joey is about a week or two away from coming out-of-pouch, you may start to see parts of the joey coming out of the pouch opening. It is not unusual to see an arm, leg, tail or ear poking out. You may also hear your female sugar glider start to sing to the joey. This is a loud chittering sound that is often accompanied by hard shaking that appears as if the mother is having a seizure. If you look inside your sugar gliders’ nest, you will probably see the mother laying on her back and her legs will be convulsing. This is normal and should not cause alarm on your part. (Jump to the section on Joey Development for further information on that topic.)
Most breeding sugar gliders will mate again within a few weeks of the time the joey comes out-of-pouch. It is not unusual for a nursing mother to have one or more joeys in-pouch along with the joey(s) that is out-of-pouch. My sugar gliders tend to produce one or two joeys every three months or so. The mother will produce different types of milk for the different-aged joeys. Make sure that she is being provided with extra portions of her entire diet to ensure that she be able to continue to supply enough milk for the multiple joeys.
Feeding your gliders a proper, nutritionally complete and balanced diet is crucial to the well-being of lactating females. If the female is not getting a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, the risk of rejection and/or cannibalization is highly increased. (For further information about proper nutrition, go to Feeding Your Joeys & Adult Gliders.) There are also two milk supplements available that some people recommend giving to a lactating mother. They are Wombaroo Milk Replacer and Brisky's Booster Milk. If you are already feeding your glider a nutritionally complete and balanced diet, these are not needed to help with your glider's milk production. However, it is a good idea to have the Wombaroo Milk Replacer on hand in case of joey rejection. (More can be read about that by going to the article about Hand Raising A Joey.)
Some breeders give their female sugar gliders a hiatus once a year from breeding so that she does not get overly fatigued from the stress of constant breeding. Separating her from her mate during the 2-3 days of her heat cycle over the course of 1-2 months is one way of providing this hiatus. However, careful observation of your gliders will be necessary so that you know exactly when the female's heat cycle begins so that you will know the proper time to separate them. Also, keep in mind that this may be difficult to do if she has newly o.o.p. joeys since the father is needed to help care for them.
Some females will instinctively give themselves a hiatus by avoiding the male while in heat. It is important to provide multiple nesting areas in the cage (if there are not newly o.o.p. joeys) so that she can easily do this, if she wants to. One of my females used to make a nest inside her exercise wheel for two nights while in heat. Any time the male approached her, she would literally kick him out of the wheel-nest. However, not all females will take this proactive approach, so physical separation may be necessary if the female seems to be getting fatigues by multiple breedings.
If the fatigue seems to be ongoing, then you should consider having the male neutered to permanently "retire" the couple from breeding. This is what I did with my Pepe & Bittah in 2008. Pepe was twice Bittah's size and the constant demand of supplying milk for his large joeys was taking a toll on her, in spite of her self-imposed hiatuses (she is the female cited above). Her overall health was much more important to me than her continued breeding, so Pepe was neutered. It is interesting to note that Bittah refused his advances entirely from July, 2007 until September, 2008. Each month while in heat, she moved to another pouch and refused him admittance until her estrous cycle was over. She then had one last joey in November, 2008. Overall, Pepe & Bittah had 23 joeys between September, 2003 until November, 2008.
Colony of Six Gliders: Pepe & Bittah with two litters of joeys
Some have questioned whether it is okay to use male gliders as a "stud" to females they are not normally housed with. Using males for stud service is definitely NOT recommended with gliders. Although a male/female pair will readily mate with each other if the female is in heat, it is very difficult for us to determine when the female IS in heat and therefore to know when it's okay to "temporarily" introduce them to each other. Therefore, if they were introduced to each other at the "wrong" time of the month, it could be very dangerous to one or both of the gliders involved since gliders that are not properly introduced can and will fight with each other to the death. In addition, the males are very important in the role they take in rearing the joeys once they come oop. If the male is just used for stud service, then he would be removed from the female before the joey(s) went into pouch, much less came out of it. Therefore, the male would not be present to help with rearing the joey(s). This would increase the likelihood of joey rejection - either on the way to the pouch, at some point in pouch or once the joey(s) came oop. So, please, don't ever consider using males for "Stud Service" - it's just inadvisable all the way around.
At about ten weeks after birth, the joey will come out-of-pouch (o.o.p.). For the first day or two, the joey will still be attached to its mother’s nipple. The joey is not officially considered out-of-pouch until it is fully detached. Once released from the nipple, the joey will still spend the majority of its time nursing. If there are multiple joeys, they may not come o.o.p. on the same day. For the first week or two, the joey will still go back into the mother’s pouch a lot of the time until it is too large to fit inside anymore. You may even notice the mother tucking the joey back inside when you approach her.
Sugar glider fathers have a very important role in raising their joeys once they come out-of-pouch (o.o.p.). Since the joey is so small, it can not regulate its own body heat yet. This is one of the reasons why the father’s role is so crucial at this stage. The mother will leave the joey in the nest with the father for short periods of time in the evening when she needs to come out of the nest to eat, play and exercise. The father will be the one taking care of the joey during this time. Even when the mother is in the nest, the father will take care of the joey when it is not nursing by keeping it warm and by cleaning it. Until the joey is about one or two weeks o.o.p. the father will stay with the joey whenever the mother is out of the nest. If the joey wanders out of the nest looking for food, the father will probably be the one to go get the joey and bring it back to the nest.
Once the joey is fully out-of-pouch and detached from its mother’s nipple, you can determine whether it is a male or female. Both genders will have a cloacal extension that at first glance appears to be a penis. This extension enables the parents to stimulate the joey to defecate and urinate. However, since both genders have this, further observation is necessary for determining gender. Female joeys have a small slit at about the point where you would expect to find a belly button. This slit is the pouch opening. It runs vertically and will only be about three millimeters long. Male joeys have a small scrotal sac that is only about three millimeters in diameter. The scrotal sac is located on the joey’s abdomen just above the cloaca.
Female Joey versus Male Joey Anatomy
Once out of pouch, all extra nesting areas within the cage should be removed so that there is only ONE area for the parents to sleep. This is very important as otherwise, the parents may leave the joeys in one pouch and then go to sleep in another one. Since joeys can not regulate their own body temperature, they can get hypothermia quickly if left alone for too long. In addition, some breeders like to lower the nesting pouch or box within the cage to help prevent traumatic falls. Another option is to put shelf hammocks in the cage, just outside of the nesting area, to give a soft landing spot in case the joey does fall out. Do not put a piece of fleece directly on the bottom of the cage. Joeys may end up being abandoned by their parents under such pieces of fleece where they quickly become too cold and get dehydrated.
It is very important that you keep a close eye on the family to make sure the joey is not being left alone for more than a few minutes (10-15) at a time. If you ever find a young joey that is cold, outside of the nest and/or crying by itself, you should check on the joey to make sure that it is warm and has a full belly. If the joey is cold or its tummy is empty, try placing the joey on the mother IF she is in the nesting pouch. She should immediately start to clean the joey and guide it to her pouch. If she doesn’t, then it is very likely that she is rejecting the joey for some reason. Only close observation will help you to determine if this happening. Intervention may become necessary if the parents do not return to the joey to care for it. If the mother is out of the nesting pouch, then place the joey onto the father's back. He should immediately carry the joey back to the nesting pouch and start caring for it. This is very important because if the mother is out of the nesting pouch, then it is her "free time" and if you place the joey onto her, she may become very frustrated and start to nip at the joey in aggravation.
To socialize the joey and get it used to be handled by humans, you should start holding the joey right away. The easiest time to do this is in the evening when the mother is having her "free time". It is easier to take the joey away from the father when he is joey-sitting. During this time, you should weigh the joey on a jeweler's scale that weighs in increments of 0.01grams. Daily weighing is important to make sure the joey is consistently gaining weight and not losing at all. Here is a basic guideline for how long to hold the joey each day:
Day 1 - 7: 5 minutes, in sight of parents
Day 8 - 14: 7-10 min., in sight of parents
Day 15 - 21: 10-15 min., near parents, not necessarily in sight
Day 22 - 28: 15-20 min.
Day 29 - 35: 20-25 min.
Day 36 - 42: 25-30 min.
Day 43 - 49: 30-45 min.
Day 50 - 56: 45-60 min.
Day 57 - 63: up to 3 hours
Day 64 onward: should be ready to be weaned completely
Once the joey is about 10-14 days o.o.p., it will open its eyes. At this stage, you will notice that it is starting to grow fur on its belly and the fur on the rest of its body is filling in more. By this time, the parents will be leaving the joey alone in the nest for short periods of time. As soon as the joey starts to cry, one of the parents should return to the nest to check on it.
By the time the joey is about five weeks o.o.p., it will start the weaning process. Since the joey will be eating as well, make sure there is enough for all of them. Once the joey starts the weaning process you will begin to notice that its tail will start to get fluffier and it will look more like an adult glider in miniature.
When the joey is about eight to ten weeks o.o.p., it should be ready to be separated from its parents. Some parents seem to be relieved when the joey is separated, others will get visibly distraught with you. Either case is normal and should not cause any undue alarm on your part.