Sugar Gliders and Zoonotic Transfer

Zoonosis refers to any disease that can be transmitted from domestic or wild animals to humans, or vice-versa.

With regards sugar gliders, there are a host of diseases that can be transferred between sugar gliders to human beings. These include: Salmonella, Giardia, Leptospirosis, and Toxoplasmosis to name a few. In addition, although not common in captivity, wild sugar gliders are often infected with mites and fleas. (1)

This article covers:

    1. Giardia
    2. Salmonella
    3. Leptospirosis
    4. Toxoplasmosis
    5. Abiotrophia and Streptococcus Anginosus
    6. Cellulitis and Septic Tenosynovitis
    7. Prevention
    8. Cleaning and Antiseptics
    9. First Aid
    10. References

I. Giardia

Giardia is are zoonotic protozoan parasite. It can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and weight loss. (2).

Often associated with dogs and cats in kennels or shelters, Giardia is a common parasite. Poor breeding conditions, dirty water and generally filthy housing conditions promote the spread of Giardia. The parasite is often found in sugar gliders; especially those purchased from mill breeders.

Giardia is easily spread to other household pets and humans. It is recommended that any and all animals being introduced into your home undergo a check for these parasites by your veterinarian.

II. Salmonella

Salmonella is a bacteria and its infections are zoonotic. Infections can be transmitted via water or food as well. According to a 2009 article in the Washington Post, over 140,000 people contract Salmonella from chicken eggs in America each year. Out of these, some 30 actually die from Salmonella. (3)

Regarding Salmonella, according to Janine M. Cianciolo, DVM: "The bacteria escapes from the animal in feces, is transferred by contact exposure, and may live and multiply outside of the host. The bacteria typically enters humans by mouth. This occurs after handling contaminated material and then by eating without washing your hands. Symptoms may occur 6-72 hours after exposure. Humans get gastroenteritis (irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract) and some additional unpleasant symptoms, such as diarrhea." (4)

III. Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is disease caused by the Leptospira spirochaete bacteria (also called Yellow Fever, Weil's disease and 7-day Fever). Infected animals transmit the spirochete via urine or semen and it therefore can infect food, soil, or water and be easily carried to humans. (5)

Symptoms include chills, headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, muscle spasms, hemorrhaging and sometimes death.

Since sugar gliders scent mark by both licking and cloacal marking, Leptospirosis can be transmitted by touching your fingers to a spot they have scent-marked, by handling their food dishes, and by handling their water. Direct transmission of the disease is easily accomplished owing to the fact that sugar gliders readily urinate on any surface, even while climbing on or being handled by humans.

IV. Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondii. (6) The disease is known to cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and other diseases affecting organs including the eyes, heart and liver. Animals become infected by eating raw meats that carry the disease. Handling of some raw meats and the utensils and cutting boards that touch infected meat is another means of transmission. Drinking water can also be easily contaminated with the parasite. Hand-to-mouth infection after touching cat feces (litter box, gardening, etc.) is also common.

Sugar gliders can transmit the disease by infecting their drinking water and via direct contact with their droppings.

V. Abiotrophia and Streptococcus Anginosus

Abiotrophia, formerly know as nutritionally variant streptococci (NVS), is a bacteria that causes diseases such as endocarditis (inflammation of the heart) and bacteraemia (infection of the blood with bacteria). (7) The disease may also lead to congestive heart failure and myocardial abscesses. (8)

Abiotrophia is often masked by Streptococcus Anginosus when cultures are taken, because s. Anginosus develops quickly the petri dish - withing several days - while Abiotrophia can take up to five days to appear. Abiotrophia is considered a "satellite" bacteria that rides along with Streptococcus Anginosus. (9)

The bacterium Streptococcus anginosus group includes beta-hemolytic strains of S. anginosus, S. constellatus, and S. intermedius. brain and liver abscesses. (10)

These strains of bacteria are highly virulent and are often present in the mouths of sugar gliders, along with other common bacteria such as the Staphylococcus genus. It is easy for a sugar glider to coat your hands, arms and neck with these pathogens merely by licking you. This does not often cause the disease to be transmitted at dangerous levels; however, a glider bite that penetrates the skin can cause serious infection.

Dangers of hand and finger bites from Sugar Gliders

Your hand and fingers contain tendons. And these are surround by a membrane called the flexor tendon sheath. The area between the tendon sheath and tendon is bloodless, sugary, dark, moist and warm - a "perfect storm" to promote the growth of bacteria. This is because the blood uses white blood cells to fight off bacteria as part of your immune system. Because the area beneath the tendon sheath is bloodless, you are susceptible to grave infections there.

The flexor tendon sheath gives elasticity and flexibility to the tendons, allowing them to move freely. This same elasticity and flexibility has the negative affect of drawing infections along the tendon as if sipping through a straw. This leads to a condition known as Septic Tenosynovitis. (11)

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection in the deep layers (subcutaneous tissues, dermis) of the skin. Both Streptococcus and Staphylococcus bacteria are common causes of Cellulitis. A sugar glider bite can easily cause Cellulitis. If it is not treated, Cellulitis and Septic Tenosynovitis can quickly become life-threatening. (12).

VII. Prevention

Before and After Handling Animals. You should thoroughly wash your hands and arms both before and after handling sugar gliders. If the gliders lick or nibble on your face, especially around the eyes, mouth and ears, it is important to sterilize these areas as well. Bacteria can easily be transferred from glider spittle and urine into the eyes and mouth. Avoid rubbing your eyes or mouth after handling gliders.

Food preparation. Consider rinsing and even washing all foods before preparing them for feeding. You can use iodine to soak fruits and vegetables before cutting them up. Rinse them well with water only before preparation.

Utensils and cutting surfaces. Use a bleach formula to wash cutting boards, utensils and preparation surfaces and then rinse with pure water afterwards.

VIII. Cleaning and Antiseptics

Cage Cleaning

Bars, doors, floors. Use a safe bleach, vinegar or commercial disinfectant to clean the inside and outside of your gliders' cages once a week.

Water cups, tubes, food dishes. Each day, make sure all water cups, and food bowls are taken out, cleansed and replaced.

Bedding, nesting material. Gliders often mark on and urinate on bedding and other nesting materials. These need to be washed regularly.

Play Rooms. Clean the floors and countertop surfaces of any room where gliders are let out to play. Kitchen-grade bleach-based wipes are effective in killing most surface bacteria and viruses, but you must be careful to wipe down everywhere - including crevices and corners.

Cleaning Large Surfaces

You can clean large surface areas such as cages, floors and countertops with a bleach solution. Just mix half a cup of bleach with a gallon of warm water and some liquid soap in a bucket. Swab the area to be cleaned with the mixture, being careful to swab it once again after letting it sit for a minute with pure water on a towel. (You do not want to leave a bleach residue). Similarly, you can use a full cup of vinegar along with liquid soap in a gallon of water although it will not kill as much of the microbes as bleach.

Another effective way of cleansing cages is the use of a power washer. Of course, this needs to be done outside. You can blast a lot of filth away with the power washer and then cleanse the area with a disinfectant.

Cleaning hands and arms

Chlorhexidine or Betadine are hospital-grade disinfectants that are useful in washing hands and surface areas to rid them of common bacteria and viruses. Nolvasan Disinfectant (chlorhexidine dictate), and Betadine (Povidone-iodine) are both available from online sources.(13)

IX. First Aid

After washing out a cut or puncture wound with hot, soapy water, you can soak the effected area with Hydrogen Peroxide and wash again around the cut or puncture wound with a disinfectant. Cover the wound with a sterile gauze or bandaid. If the cut or puncture wound is deep, it is recommended that you get to a doctor for antibiotics or other appropriate treatment.

X. References

20100204: Originally submitted by Edwin Margulies, co-director, Lucky Glider Rescue & Sanctuary

(1) Merck Veterinary Manual, 9th Edition, Merck & Co., Inc., Whitehouse Station, NJ, USA, 2008.

(2) David B. Huang MD, PhD, MPHa and A. Clinton White M, "An Updated Review on Cryptosporidium and Giardia," Gastroenterology Clinics of North America Volume 35, Issue 2, Pages 291-314, June 2006.

(3) Jane Black and Ed O'Keefe, "Overhaul of Food Safety Rules in the Works," Washington Post, Wednesday, July 8, 2009

(4) Janine M. Cianciolo, DVM. "What Dr. C Says On...Zoonotic Diseases," GliderVet Newsletter No. 3, Sun Coast Sugar Gliders Web Site.

(5) Asst. Surg. A.M. Stimson, "Note on an oragnisaam found in yellow-fever tissue," Hygienic Laboratory, Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, United States Public Health Service, Public Health Report, Volume 22, Part 1, April 26, 1907.

(6) C. George Ray, M.D.; Kenneth J. Ryan, M.D., Sherris Medical Microbiology, 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN 0-8385-8529-9 (alternate, alternate); 2004.

(7) Laurence Senn; et al: "Bloodstream and endovascular infections due to Abiotrophia defectiva and Granulicatella species," Institute of Microbiology, University Hospital, Bugnon 46, 1011 Lausanne CHUV, Switzerland, 2005.

(8) John L Brusch, MD, FACP, "Infective Endocarditis," Harvard Medical School; Consulting Staff, Department of Medicine and Infectious Disease Service, Cambridge Health Alliance. Aug 23, 2009

(9) Brian Lipman, MD, [Diagnosis and treatment of sugar glider bite, April 2009] Infectious Disease Associates, Las Vegas, NV

(10) Richard Facklam, "What Happened to the Streptococci: Overview of Taxonomic and Nomenclature Changes," Clinical Microbiology Reviews, October 2002, p. 613-630, Vol. 15, No. 4 2002

(11) Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA, "Flexor tendon sheath infection of the fingers or hand," Healthwise, January 2007.

(12) James M. Steckelberg, M.D, "Cellulitis Definition," Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), Feb 6, 2008.

(13) Veterinary Staff, "Guidelines for Anesthesia, Postanesthetic Care and Surgery of Amphibians, University of Michigan, Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine, July 20, 1998

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Last Edited February 4, 2010