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Lumpy Jaw in Sugar Gliders

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When we first started our raising sugar gliders 10 years ago, many of the websites and chat rooms warned against feeding hard pellet foods because the risk of lumpy jaw in sugar gliders.  This was never really an issue for us, because we were committed to feeding a staple diet based on animal protein, and all the hard pellets were based on vegetable protein, primarily soy, corn, or wheat.  

We field a large number of phone calls and emails on a daily basis about sugar gliders, and in all this time, I have yet to hear of a confirmed case of lumpy jaw in sugar gliders.  And during all  this time, many more foods specifically designed for sugar gliders have become available and are fed by many glider keepers.

The lumpy jaw claim is based on a premise that the condition results from feeding a hard pellet food.  We have been using a soft pellet food for many years now, because it was the only glider food available based on animal protein.  But what you probably don't know (unless you participated in the test) is that we’ve been testing a new hard pellet food we have had in development for over two years, because some gliders don't like to eat ZooKeeper's Secret.

As part of this test, I decided to try and get to the bottom of this lumpy jaw issue.  Since we're well into the results phase of the food test now, I thought I would share all of this information with you, because there has been no change in the incidents of gum problems or facial abscesses as a result of feeding this new hard pellet food.

There are really two separate issues in the lumpy jaw question:

1.  Is the disease known as lumpy jaw present in sugar gliders?

2.  If so, does feeding hard pellet foods facilitate the development of the disease known as lumpy jaw?

Over the years, I’ve asked several veterinarians to address the lumpy jaw question on our website.  Several had agreed to do so, but none have come through for a simple reason: there really isn’t any reliable (scientific) information in the vet community about sugar gliders having high incidents of lumpy jaw.

I decided to take a different tact on addressing this question, because I believe an answer to this is long overdue.  I decided that we should do our own research on what is out there about lumpy jaw and have a couple of our vets review this information to see if we’ve done a good job on this topic.

Before we begin, let me take a moment to explain the concern that has been proliferated on the internet for many years as it concerns sugar gliders. The assertion is that if you feed a hard pellet food to sugar gliders, it will irritate the gums and sugar gliders will develop a condition called lumpy jaw. Simply put, lumpy jaw signs can be an abscess type lump or series of lumps that can get quite large, be painful and induce swelling.

Like I said earlier, there is not much at all coming from a veterinarian or research perspective on the topic for sugar gliders. But you can find a whole lot of information about kangaroos and cattle.  Holy cow!  What do cattle and kangaroos have in common?  They both graze.  This is not a sugar glider natural behavior.

Our starting point is information gathered from the website belonging to the Marsupial Society of Australia.  The article is entitled Jaw Disease in Macropods.  I start with this article because there is a lot of information about lumpy jaw in macropods, which are marsupials. The article is written by I J Hough B.SC., B.M.V.S.  The important distinction here is that not all marsupials are macropods. Sugar gliders are not macropods.  Macropods are vegetarian.  They are grazing animals.  Just as macropods are grazing animals so are cattle, which can be at risk for lumpy jaw.

Sugar gliders are omnivores and not grazing animals.  Our research indicates that the risk for lumpy jaw seems most prevalent amongst grazing species.  The article also talks about the bacteria isolated out of these infections, with the primary culprit being an organism that lives in soil.  That's kind of strange, I think.  Here's why.

Sugar gliders live in treetops in the wild.  They do not typically eat “from the soil” and in captivity, they most assuredly do not eat from the soil.  One doctor gave me a quick explanation of how lumpy jaw develops.  Basically, when grazing, animals may pick up a small stick or sharp object which can injure the gums.  This allows entry of the bacteria and leads to the condition known as lumpy jaw.

I have seen quite a few cases of facial abscesses in sugar gliders, but in every single case we had, the veterinarian could clearly identify a bite wound on the outside of the face, which seems to clearly indicate that the abscess was a result of the bite.  Breeding gliders can be a bit rough when in the act of mating.  All of our cases except one involved female sugar gliders, strongly supporting our theory that the injuries are often related to breeding activities.

The sugar glider community has often associated the risk of lumpy jaw with the feeding of cat food, because many cat foods are hard.  Cat food is readily available and many people over the years have chosen this as a suitable food for animals such as sugar gliders, ferrets, and other more unusual pets.  Over the long term, this can be problematic because the nutrition balance of cat food is not correct for a sugar glider.  There are excellent options for sugar glider specific diets now that didn’t exist a decade ago.  Fifteen years ago, few people, including veterinarians, even knew what sugar gliders were.

So, based on the research available to the vet community, combined with the information above, it seems highly unlikely that sugar gliders suffer from this specific disease called lumpy jaw.  There do not appear to be any documented cases, and the lifestyle of a sugar glider does not support the assertion - they are not grazing animals.

Then how did this lumpy jaw thing get started?  I'd guess at some point in time, people connected the fact sugar gliders are marsupials with the fact some marsupials are susceptible to lumpy jaw.  This part of the story was born as folks tried to explain the reason for gum disease and facial abscesses in sugar gliders.

However, that still leaves us with the question, do hard pellet foods irritate or damage the gums of sugar gliders?  Well, I have not tested every hard pellet food available, but I have tested the one we have had in development, and I can tell you this: I know our hard pellet food doesn't cause any problems for sugar glider gums.  And given how many of these foods are in use by sugar glider owners, you'd think if there was a gum problem from hard foods out there, somebody would have rolled out proof of it by now.

That's not to say that you should feed any hard pellet food, because the nutritional values of many of them are terrible for sugar gliders.  Many of the hard pellet foods developed for sugar gliders are based on vegetable protein; our work with nutritionists and vets tells us the best food for animals in one based on animal protein.  But this protein source issue is a husbandry choice, not a medical one.

I think a probable answer to how the "hard pellets cause gum issues in sugar gliders" part of the story got started is this: there were coincidences people did not understand.  Correlation without causation, as the scientists would say. 

In the beginning, many people started with feeding hard cat food, which resulted in poor glider health.  This generally poor health condition resulted in normal issues, such as breeding injuries, becoming life-threatening.  When gum problems surfaced, they were  probably a result of nutrition problems, which then a hard pellet diet could have physically aggravated.  When some pioneers switched to more healthful diet plans like BML, Leadbeater's, or later on SunCoast - which coincidently were soft and include vitamin and mineral supplements - their gliders were much healthier and normal issues like breeding injury did not blossom into obvious gum problems.

Use soft food, no more gum problems.  The story is born.

But the real reason for the gliders being less sickly was not the texture of the food being soft, but the dramatic improvement in diet quality, resulting in few gliders at the vet for a "lumpy jaw" diagnosis.

The question at hand is twofold: Is lumpy jaw a disease commonly  found in sugar gliders?  Fact or fiction?  We’re going to call this one fiction.  Then, does feeding sugar gliders a hard pellet diet create gum problems for the animals?  Fact or fiction?  I won't call this fiction, but it's not a fact, either.  The right answer probably is "it depends", primarily on what's in the pellets and the total diet picture.  I could certainly see hard pellets aggravating a gum problem caused by a  nutritional deficiency or injury, but that's not the same as causing it.

Now, a lot of people who feed hard pellet foods will soak them in water or apple juice as they have been told not to feed hard foods.   And this is fine.  But I do have a cautionary note about this practice.

Please use water and not juice as the softening agent.  The pellet part of the diet is a free feed staple food, left in the cage to supplement the fresh foods part of a healthy glider diet.  This provides around the clock access to food.  However, juice can get rancid, water will not.  The whole purpose of a staple food is to have access all the time without spoilage.  Rancidity is spoilage.  So in the process of trying to avoid a disease that may not even be a risk factor to sugar gliders, by using juice you could create a condition that can increase health risk should an animal consume rancid food.

We invite your thoughts on this article as we are well aware that we are tackling a topic that may be controversial.  We always have the best interests of sugar gliders at heart and would not dare to make such comments if we were not convinced of some validity here.

Do you personally know of any confirmed cases of lumpy jaw in sugar gliders?  Contact me with comments: lisa@sugar-gliders.com


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