by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Hedgehogs are adorable little insect eating mammals that live, on average, 4-7 years when kept as pets. They are known for being timid little animals, but as any hedgehog owner will tell you, hedgehogs respond to their owner’s voice and appearance and are very interactive if socialized properly.
While they can make terrific pets in the right circumstances, they are not right for everyone. Before you rush out and get a hedgehog, learn as much about them as possible to make sure these interesting creatures are right for you.
Where Do Hedgehogs Live?
Wild hedgehogs are native to Africa, Asia, Europe, and New Zealand. They are not native to the U.S., but have become very popular pets here. Most North American hedgehog pets have been bred from African species and are considered domesticated. They are generally called African pygmy hedgehogs. Given the right cage set-up and environment, these animals can thrive in captivity and be fun, social pets.
Where Can You Get a Hedgehog?
Should You Buy or Adopt Your Hedgehog?
The International Hedgehog Association and the Hedgehog Welfare Society are great resources for finding adoptable hedgehogs. And like other animals, hedgehogs can be found in shelters across the U.S. There are also many reputable breeders and pet stores that sell hedgehogs.
To prevent medical problems from developing, all hedgehogs should have a check-up with a hedgehog-savvy veterinarian when they are first purchased or adopted and should have annual examinations after that. Hedgehogs do not need vaccinations, but they will need periodic nail trims and should have their stool checked annually for parasites.
Who Should Have a Hedgehog?
The Social Needs of Hedgehogs
Like porcupines, the skin over a hedgehog’s back is covered with prickly quills that help protect it from predators. Unlike porcupines, however, hedgehogs cannot shoot their quills out in defense. Their pointed quills can make them difficult to hold, so these animals are not the best for families with very young children or for individuals with very sensitive skin. They are best held in a small towel until they relax.
Hedgehogs are great for people who have the time to handle their pet daily to socialize it. They do well when housed alone and do not need to be kept with other hedgehogs, but they should be allowed out of their cages at least once a day for exercise and social interaction.
Hedgehogs are notoriously shy and use their uniquely strong back muscles to roll up tightly into a ball, hiding their faces and causing their spiny quills to point outwards so that predators can’t see their faces or limbs. They will remain balled up whenever they feel frightened or threatened. To minimize the fear response, hedgehog owners should start taking their pets out of their cages every day when the animals are young to get them used to being handled and to be less afraid of people, so that they don’t ball up.
As hedgehogs are nocturnal, they are best for people who are not light sleepers and who aren’t disturbed by their pet running in a wheel every night. They may sleep for several hours during the day, making them ideal for pet owners who want to interact and play with their pets in the evening.
How Do I Care for a Hedgehog?
Building Your Hedgehog’s Habitat
Hedgehogs require an escape-proof cage. The cage should be as large as possible, such as a wire enclosure meant for guinea pigs, but the cage floor should be solid, rather than wire, so that the hedgehog’s feet don’t get caught. Lined the cage either with newspaper or other paper-based bedding. Wood shavings or other types of litter meant for cats are not recommended, as they can be dusty and are indigestible if eaten, leading to potential gastrointestinal obstruction. Hedgehogs can be trained to use small litter boxes, which should also be lined with a paper-based litter and placed in the corner of the cage.
Hedgehogs need a heavy, untippable bowl for pelleted food and a smaller bowl for insects. Some hedgehogs will drink from a water bottle that is affixed to the cage, while others prefer a bowl.
All hedgehogs should be provided with a smooth-sided wheel to run in (not a wire wheel, so as not to get their toes caught), as well as a hiding spot, such as an upside-down wooden box with a cut out door, or a plastic “igloo” for rodents, which can be found in most pet stores.
Hedgehogs’ cages should be spot-cleaned daily to keep them free of fecal contamination and leftover food debris, and thoroughly cleaned at least once a week by removing all of the bedding and replacing it with fresh bedding. Fresh food and water should be given daily.
Hedgehogs are notorious for becoming obese, so daily exercise is essential. They also need to be provided with mental stimulation when they are in their cages, such as ramps, ledges, tunnels, and other “cage furniture” to climb through or on. PVC pipe and toys such as balls, bells, and certain chew toys meant for cats or birds are also great for keeping hedgehogs busy.
What Do Hedgehogs Eat?
Hedgehogs are insectivores (insect-eaters), but they are not strict insectivores, as wild hedgehogs will eat different types of food, including mollusks (snails and worms), amphibians, lizards, snakes, birds’ eggs, fish, carrion, mushrooms, roots, berries, and melons.
Domesticated pet hedgehogs should be fed pelleted formulas manufactured specifically for hedgehogs while being supplemented with a limited number of insects (mealworms, crickets, earthworms, waxworms) and a small amount of fruits and vegetables, such as beans, peas, corn, apples, and carrots.
As they love to catch live prey, hedgehogs should not be offered large numbers of live insects or they will choose them over other foods. This can lead to an unbalanced diet, and the hedgehog will likely become overweight.
What Potential Health Problems Do Hedgehogs Have?
Hedgehogs can suffer from a variety of medical problems; some of the more common issues include skin infections with fungus (ringworm), and mites. Both ringworm and mites can cause dry, flaky, crusty skin and quill loss. These infections should not be confused with normal quill loss. Baby hedgehogs will lose their quills as they grow and replace them with adult quills, and adults will periodically lose quills normally. With ringworm and mites, however, quills are lost in patches, exposing areas of dry skin.
Ringworm is potentially transmittable to people, while mites are species-specific, so they are not transmittable to humans. Both conditions can be treated successfully with medications prescribed by a veterinarian.
Hedgehogs also commonly develop dental problems, including tartar build-up, gingivitis, and gum infection/abscess formation. Signs of dental problems can include salivation, dental pain, and decreased appetite. Dental cleaning, removal of abscesses, and antibiotic administration is required if dental disease is severe.
Obesity is a huge problem in pet hedgehogs. Obese hedgehogs have pudgy legs and large amounts of subcutaneous fat protruding from under their mantel (the quill-covered top of the body) and in their armpits. These hedgehogs may not be able to roll up into balls like other hedgehogs and may develop brittle bones from calcium deficiency, particularly if they eat excessive numbers of insects. Obese hedgehogs should be offered restricted amounts of food and encouraged to run around either outside of their cages or inside on wheels.
Older hedgehogs also commonly develop heart disease, manifested by weakness, difficulty breathing, weight loss, heart murmurs, heart failure, and ultimately death. When diagnosed early, heart disease in hedgehogs, like that in people, can be managed medically to prolong life and improve overall life quality.
Hedgehogs also can be infected with Salmonella species or other bacteria. Hedgehogs can carry Salmonella bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts without any signs, or they can have diarrhea, weight loss, decreased appetite, and lethargy. Since Salmonella infection is transmissible to humans, it is critical for anyone who handles a hedgehog or cleans its cage to wash his or her hands afterward.
Another disease commonly encountered in hedgehogs is “wobbly hedgehog syndrome” – a neurologic disease of unknown cause that causes nerve damage and progressive paralysis that begins in the hind end and eventually affects the front end.
Initially, affected hedgehogs will usually wobble when they walk and will lose the ability to ball up. These signs progress over months to an inability to stand, falling over, tremors, and seizures. There is no effective test for this condition or treatment; affected hedgehogs usually die within 1-2 years.
Like other animals, hedgehogs may develop tumors. One of the most common tumors they develop is squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth, which causes swollen gums, tooth loss, and oral pain. Treatment involves surgical removal along with other therapies, such as radiation. Since hedgehogs are prone to developing tumors as they age, it is essential that they have regular veterinary check-ups to catch these tumors early.
When cared for properly and well-socialized, these cute little creatures are terrific pets. In the right homes, they can thrive as loving, interactive pets for years.