Sugar gliders are interesting animals for many reasons, but one of these reasons is shared by only a few animals in the world: the pouch. The pouch has one primary purpose for all marsupials, but as pet owners, we need to be aware of other things that may involve your sugar glider's pouch besides a joey.
Sugar Glider Pouch Purpose
Only female sugar gliders have a pouch (called a marsupium) and its main purpose is to protect, raise, and carry young (called joeys). This pouch is located on the abdomen (belly) of your female sugar glider, and the opening of it is about where the belly button would be on other mammals. The pouch doesn't have an opening like a pocket on your t-shirt but rather opens by expanding or stretching the circular entry, creating a very secure area where a joey won't fall out and can stay warm while it is growing.
The joey is not born in the pouch, despite what many people think, but does crawl into it immediately after it is birthed like all other mammals. Inside the pouch the naked, pink, blind, joey can keep warm, grow, develop, and feed off of one of the four teats located inside the pouch. As the joey grows it will start to explore outside of the pouch but will continue to nurse on the teats that are located inside the pouch for at least eight weeks. These four teats are unique because they can offer milk for four different life stages all at the same time enabling the mother sugar glider to care for young of different ages.
Sugar Glider Pouch Problems
Female sugar gliders can also develop problems with their pouch in addition to using it to care for their young. The most common problems are pouch infections and mastitis of the teats inside the pouch. Symptoms of both problems are very similar and you may notice a smelly discharge coming from the pouch (it should normally be dry and have no odor) if your sugar glider has one or both issues.
Pouch infections can be a yeast or bacterial issue and may need to be cultured by your exotics vet in order to choose the right medication to successfully treat the issue. Nursing joeys may avoid the pouch and stop nursing even if the teats are not affected due to the infection of the pouch. Weight loss, dehydration and even sepsis are usually seen in nursing joeys who have mothers with a pouch infection or mastitis.
Mastitis usually makes the teats red, swollen, firm, painful, and prevents milk from flowing normally. The teats cannot be seen without "unfolding" the pouch. This may need to be done on a sedated or anesthetized sugar glider by your exotics vet if they are painful. Joeys will lose weight and dehydrate since milk is not being supplied to them by the infected teats. The discharge from the teats may need to be collected in order to culture it and determine which antibiotics or antifungal medication will be successful but still safe to treat your sick sugar glider.
Joeys that are still nursing on a mother that has mastitis and/or a pouch infection will need to be hand fed and possibly put on the same medications as the mother. Regular gentle swabbing with cotton swabs in the pouch with a disinfecting chlorhexidine solution may also need to be done to cleanse the area. Your sugar glider may also require pain medication.
A less commonly seen pouch problem is prolapse. Pouch prolapse (or inversion) is when the pouch is inside out and the pink, fleshy lining of the pouch is visible on the outside. It might occur with over grooming when your sugar glider pulls her pouch open too far to clean herself, or in females who have recently weaned a joey. Normally the pouch prolapse will correct itself, but in the off chance that it doesn't, you should contact your exotics vet.
How Do You Prevent Pouch Problems in Sugar Gliders?
Cleanliness in the environment and sugar gliders in the cage are crucial to preventing pouch infections and mastitis in female sugar gliders. If your sugar glider has had a pouch problem before, you may need to clean the cage or nest more often and bathe them or their cage mates that interact with them using a damp wash cloth on a regular basis.
Diseases and Syndromes of Sugar Gliders. Merck Veterinary Manual.