By Jennifer Phillips
The hedgehog protects itself with spikes. (Photo courtesy pixabay.com)
Many of us are probably familiar with the popular video game character Sonic the Hedgehog, with his spiky blue body and a tendency to run like there’s no tomorrow. Aside from the blue color, this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the hedgehog. They are very unique and intriguing little creatures that fascinate many of the people who get the opportunity to meet them.
The most common species of hedgehogs that are kept as pets in the U.S. is the African Pygmy hedgehog, small mammals that are native to Africa. As insectivores, their primary source of food in the wild is a variety of insects. The process of domesticating hedgehogs became popular in the early 1980s, but they’ve retained many of their wild behaviors, including a fear of predators.They are fairly small in size, with the average adult weight ranging from ½ to 1 ¼ pounds and a body length of about 5 to 8 inches long. They have adorable little faces that some have described as raccoon-like, with small black eyes. They have somewhat flexible, pointy noses that are constantly busy sniffing the air. One of the most notable features of the hedgehog are the 5,000 to 7,000 quills that cover most of their body. Only their underside and face are free of quills and are instead covered with very soft, short, white hair.
Some people mistakenly compare the hedgehogs quills with porcupine quills, but they are quite different. Whereas porcupines have very sharp, barbed quills that detach when embedded in the skin of an attacker, a hedgehogs quills are actually modified hairs resembling hollow tubes that are not very sharp, do not have barbs and remain attached to their bodies. Make no mistake, though, these quills serve as the hedgehog’s only defense against predators. They control the direction of the quills using large muscles on their back. When calm, hedgehogs keep their quills in a relaxed position where they are laid down and all pointing towards their back end. When hedgehogs feel frightened or angry, the quills stand upright, crisscrossing and pointing in all directions. They can take this defense even further by rolling up into a tight ball, forming an impenetrable barrier that protects their sensitive face and undersides. Hedgehogs have tails that are so short and stubby that they can sometimes be hard to even see. Their legs are also quite short and can even be tucked in when the hedgehog rolls into a ball.The lifespan of the hedgehog ranges from about 3 to 5 years, although this can vary quite a bit. Some owners have reported that their hedgehogs have lived to be 9 years old but this is not very common. As with any pet, their longevity depends on breeding and husbandry. A well cared for hedgehog that comes from a reputable source will have a much better chance of living a long, happy life.Despite domestication efforts, hedgehogs are still considered exotic animals. This poses some problems related to keeping them as pets in many areas of the U.S. They are still illegal in a number states, counties, and cities such as California, Georgia, Hawaii, and Nebraska and New York City. Some states, such as Arizona, Maine, New Jersey, and Wyoming allow hedgehogs as pets but require you to have a permit to keep them. Wisconsin requires you to have a permit to bring a hedgehog into the state. At one point in Pennsylvania, you were not required to have a permit, but importation of hedgehogs became illegal. There has been discrepancy over whether hedgehogs are still legal to own as pets at all in Pennsylvania. Due to the conflicting information on this issue, in addition to the potential for laws to change, it is best for you to check with your local Game Commission for current laws. Keeping an illegal pet puts you at risk of having the animal confiscated and euthanized.
While a hedgehog can make for a very interesting pet to have, it’s very important to keep in mind that they have not been kept as pets for very long. They have not had the chance to become domesticated animals like cats and dogs, and this is often reflected in their personality. A hedgehog may or may not seek you out for companionship, so if you’re looking for a pet that wants your attention, a hedgehog may not be for you. Buying from a responsible breeder and frequent, proper handling can help maintain a friendly relationship with you, but this no guarantee. In general though, hedgehogs are quiet and typically gentle. The sex of the animal makes little difference in whether they will be a good pet. Keeping hedgehogs together is not recommended, as they are naturally solitary animals who are happier having the place to themselves. Since hedgehogs are nocturnal, they will be most active at night, when they spend their time eating and often running for hours.
Hedgehogs are fairly low maintenance pets that do not give off any real odor and spread no dander that may cause allergies. The cage should have a minimum floor area of 24 inches by 24 inches and should have solid, not wire, floors to prevent injuries to their tiny legs and feet. A cage with ample floor space, rather than a tall cage with a lot of ramps or stairs, is preferred because hedgehogs do not like walking downhill once they climb up. Rabbit and guinea pig cages, with wire coated tops that allow ventilation, provide these features quite well. It’s best to put the cage in a warm area, above 72°F, that is well lit while avoiding drafts and direct sunlight.
To provide bedding, some owners prefer cloth cage liners made of fleece, flannel or corduroy fabrics. Other owners highly recommend a substrate bedding such as CareFresh Ultra, which is very soft, absorbent and allows the hedgehog to safely burrow. There seems to be a great deal of controversy over which, if any, wood based beddings are safe due to the toxic oils that some contain, as well as the danger of sharp pieces that can poke a hedgehog in the eye while burrowing. A large exercise wheel, such as the Wobust Wodent Wheel
, which has a solid surface to prevent leg injury is an absolute must for hedgehogs because they love to run. They should also have a place, such as a wooden house, where they can hide and sleep. In addition to an exercise wheel and hideout, they also enjoy tunnels and mazes for entertainment. Other supplies that are needed include a food and water bowl, which should be fairly wide and heavy to prevent spilling. It also needs to have low sides to accommodate the hedgehog’s short legs. Some owners prefer to offer water from a bottle to ensure it’s cleanliness but caution should be taken to ensure that the hedgehog knows how to use it.In the wild, hedgehogs enjoy a diet that consists of mainly insects. They need a diet that is high in protein and low in fat. There are commercial foods designed specifically for hedgehogs that meet these needs. If a hedgehog, or insectivore, food is not available, they can be fed a high quality dry cat food that is low fat (usually designed for older cats). Regular treats such as mealworms, crickets, fruits, vegetables and cooked unseasoned meats can be given in moderation. Some examples of high protein, low fat meat include chicken, turkey and salmon. Although hedgehogs will readily accept dairy products, they are lactose intolerant and may experience stomach pains, gas and diarrhea, so these items should generally be avoided.Hedgehogs require no immunization shots and are very disease resistant, so their list of health concerns are fairly small. One problem that can affect hedgehogs is Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS), which is a genetic disorder that causes similar symptoms as Multiple Sclerosis in humans, and there is no cure. Hedgehogs can also have allergies to things in their environment, which can cause their skin to become red and irritated until the source is removed. As with many animals, hedgehogs may get cancer at some point in their life. Keep in mind that not all veterinarians are knowledgeable about hedgehog care, so it may be difficult or expensive to find good veterinary care near you.
Hedgehogs are still fairly new to the world of pets in the U.S., yet they continue to capture the attention of many animal enthusiasts throughout the country. We still have a great deal of learning to do about them, which is evident by the often contradicting information that can be found. They are also still very early in the domestication process, which means we need to be very understanding of their needs as animals who are still very much wild. As long as you can accept these adorable creatures as they are and are willing to put the time and effort into learning about their needs, you will certainly be very pleased and entertained by their unique features.