Interesting Facts About Hedgehogs
Disambiguation of Genus and Species
Hedgehogs belong to the phylogenetic class known as Mammalia, subclass Eutheria which is reserved for higher mammals rather than the monotremes that are egg-laying mammals or marsupials. Within Eutheria they are further classified as belonging to the order Insectivora which implies their diet consists primarily of insects. Proceeding further down the hedgehog family tree are four genera that hedgehogs have been placed under: Atelerix, Erinaceus, Hemiechinus, and Paraechinus. For domestication purposes, the White-bellied, or Four-toed Hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris, was bred with the Algerian hedgehog, Atelerix algirus. This hybrid breed became known collectively as the African, or African Pygmy hedgehog and is classified the same as its primary parent, Atelerix albiventris. Because this paper is focused on the domesticated species, for our purposes, the reference of this name will be directed toward the African Hedgehog.
Legality of Ownership
In the last half-decade, exotic pets have become increasingly popular in the United States. One such exotic that is fairly common is the African Pygmy Hedgehog. The United States Department of Agriculture banned imports of hedgehogs in 1990 from Africa for health and political reasons. The species was considered threatened as a result of its popularity as both a pet and as a food delicacy in South Africa. However, by the time restrictions on importation were put in place, there were already enough hedgehogs in the United States to maintain a sufficient breeding population. By the efforts of a select number of experienced breeders, the species was successfully domesticated, and its future as a pet was secured.
Much has changed since the early years of hedgehog breeding in the United States, and even though pet hedgehogs are now completely domestically raised, they are still classified as exotic, nondomestic animals by most government agencies. This will likely not change because no species of hedgehog is indigenous to the United States or Canada, a criteria for reclassification as domesticated. Although increasingly available in pet stores, hedgehogs, or ‘hedgies,’ as they are referred to by owners and enthusiasts are still a rare pet. As with all exotic pets, it is necessary to research the laws and regulations specific to your area regarding ownership before buying one. Some states allow hedgehog ownership, some require a permit to do so, and some states have put outright bans on their possession. Specifically, hedgehogs are illegal to be owned as pets in the U.S. states of California, Georgia, Hawaii, New York City, Virginia, Nebraska, and Kansas. In Canada, it is illegal to maintain a hedgehog in captivity in some parts of Ontario.
Although it may be hard for a hedgie owner to imagine why anyone would disapprove of having hedgehogs nearby, it is easy to understand why their ownership is restricted in some cases; if they happened to escape, some climates or conditions would be instantly fatal for hedgehogs. The hedgehogs available as pets are African species that has been bred in captivity for roughly twenty years. This has allowed for certain distinguishing traits to become established and as such, they should not be confused with the European variety that are still wild animals (and are protected in most European countries). It is unlikely that a pet hedgehog could survive very long in the wild, especially in the colder parts of North America, which seems to be where they are most popular. However, the chance of a domestic population establishing itself in the wild does exist, at least in the warmer climates. The fact that domesticated hedgehogs are extremely susceptible to cooler temperatures for any length of time means finding out whether this is a real possibility is an experiment best left to theory, rather than practice.
I am lucky to be living in Texas, where owning this animal is perfectly legal, and am the proud owner of a female hedgie, Abby. Living with a hedgehog is an opportunity to be in contact with an animal that has survived without significant evolutionary changes for millions of years. They are interesting to observe, nonaggressive, relatively easy to care for, have no body scent of any significance, and make very little noise.
Hedgehogs are born with their spines directly under the surface of a protective skin that shields the mother during birthing. Within 24 hours the quills, which are modified hollow hairs, break through this protective skin and provide a limited defense for the tiny mammals. A hedgehog is approximately an inch long when born, but grows rapidly over the first few months and soon grows to an adult size of 6-8 inches. We brought Abby home when she was only six weeks old, and she was about as long as my palm (about two inches long). A healthy adult hedgehog weighs about a pound. It is hard to imagine how this funny-looking creature moves with such short legs, but hedgehogs are equipped to waddle around with the help of an even smaller (about a half-inch long) stubby tail for balance. They can actually lift their underside completely off the floor and run very quickly for short distances. The species bred for domestication have five toes on their front feet, and only four on their back feet. Even in adult mammals, spines only grow to be less than an inch long, but are sharp enough to provide adequate defense. There have been occasions when picking up Abby while she was in a deep sleep, that I startled her so much that she jumped and a quill-prick in my hand drew blood. This is very uncommon; it has only occurred a couple of times in the months that I have owned her. In fact, the cheeks, belly, and legs of this animal are covered in a soft white fur that makes correct handling painless. As with most animals with highly developed olfactory organs, hedgehogs have utilized the benefits of a sensitive snout. Finally, their muzzle would not be complete without a small black nose―that twitches erratically―on the end.
Quilling refers to the time when a young hedgehog starts to shed their baby quills and replace them with their adult quills. Quilling normally starts around the eighth week up to as late as six months. During this time, there are several noticeable changes in the behavior and mood of the hedgehog. One of these is the fact that quills are being lost at a high rate, as opposed to the occasional loss of a quill or two every so often that is common in adults. During this time it is not uncommon for the young hedgehog to lose up to a dozen quills or more during one handling. Close inspection reveals that the hedgehog’s skin during this time is being pierced by lots of new adult quills to replace the ones lost. This explains the other major change that takes place, a marked difference in attitude and disposition. As the new quills emerge from the skin, it becomes increasingly tender and sore, much like the gums of a teething infant.
The physical pain of this process leaves grumpy and irritated, and it is common for them to sleep longer than usual and display defensive behaviors that may not have been seen in the individual. One such defensive mechanism is described as ‘balling up’ and refers to the hedgehogs’ ability to draw its arms, legs, and head close to its body for protection. It is during this balling mechanism that specialized muscles beneath the surface of the hedgehog's skin contract, in effect cinching the outer spine-covered skin around its body like a pouch. Once balled, only a small portion of the snout is visible if observed from underneath, and from above the hedgehog now appears as a ‘ball’ of bristling spines.
Another defensive behavior that is more prevalent during quilling is the hissing or spitting sound that hedgehogs make when they are displeased or alarmed. Additionally, it is common for a hedgehog to not eat as much during this time, but this is not generally cause for concern, and is only temporary. While these changes in disposition and behavior are only temporary, it is still important for the pet owner to continue to handle and play with the still young hedgehog despite its apparent displeasure at being disturbed. This is because the hedgehog is more open to bonding at this young age and will develop a trusting association with the owner much more easily if handled gently and often.
One of the most crucial aspects of owning a hedgehog is being considerate of its diverse dietary needs. Even though they are classified as insectivores, they are similar to humans in that they are opportunistic feeders. They may eat up to one-third of their body weight each night. With their short legs, it is obvious why in the wild, they prefer to take advantage of sick or injured animals rather than chase their prey. They possess a resistance to snake venom that allows them to find worms and snakes a delicacy. Although they usually bite their food to death, they will also break the back of a snake before consuming it. The structure of their teeth, including two frontal incisors for a total of 36 altogether, suggests a preferred method of holding and crushing live prey.
The basis of the diet for any domesticated hedgie is between ½ and 2 tablespoons of dry cat food nightly, depending on their size, activity level, and metabolism. They prefer a cat food with meat or poultry listed as the main ingredient, and definitely with a high protein level. It is also the responsibility of the caretaker to closely simulate the experiences any wild hedgehog would have and provide their pet with a supplementary diet including insects or mealworms. Some additional treats could be boiled egg, fruit, crickets, or vegetables.
In the wild, hedgehogs are quite territorial around their burrow. They will not share quarters or territory willingly. Cases in which individuals are forced to cohabitate will almost always result in injured animals. The only exception to this solitary lifestyle occurs when to sexually mature hedgehogs get together to breed. Once a suitable partner has been found, and copulation has occurred, they will once again seek solitude within 24 to 48 hours. The African Pygmy hedgehog is sexually mature by one year of age, and males and females can be easily distinguished from each other due to the clearly defined penis of the male.
An important consideration for hedgehog breeders is the stock of the potential breeding pair. Of primary concern is the health history of the breeding couple and their parents as far back as is reasonably possible to determine. This is an important consideration as it can affect the health of the litter and the potential to pass on resistances or susceptibility to disease. Another important factor to be considered when choosing breeding candidates is temperament. This is because as pets, hedgehogs are most enjoyable when they are trusting and friendly and do not spend the majority of the time they are handled in a defensive ball. Physical build and conformation are also important, and any unusual movements or posture may be indicative of disease or genetic disorder.
Once breeding pairs have been identified, it is still important that they be kept separate from one another to minimize the risk of fighting or injuries. A common tactic is to place both the cages of the male and female together in such a way that the hedgehogs are able to go from one cage to the other. This ensures that the female will feel secure and be able to determine when mating occurs and does not threaten the territory of either hedgehog. The best way to encourage a successful mating is to provide a consistently quiet area for the hedgehogs and minimize disturbances that could interrupt courtship or cause them to feel threatened.
It is common for a female hedgehog to play ‘hard to get’ and be non-receptive or off-putting, taking her time before mating. Despite this, a healthy male will not easily be rebuffed and will be persistent in his attempts. In his courtship, the male will gently nudge and circle the female while making distinctive snorts and chirping noises. In response, the female will almost always assume a defensive posture, hissing and puffing with spines on end. This is usually temporary as most females will eventually be won over by the males persistent and patient advances. Once the female is receptive, she will lay on her stomach with her spines completely flat, allowing the male to copulate. If this has not occurred within 48 hours of their introduction to each other it is strongly recommended that they be removed from each other for at least a day before trying again.
The normal gestation period for the African Pygmy hedgehog is 30 to 40 days. If pregnant, the female's abdomen will distend within a couple of weeks, and her teats will enlarge and become more well-defined. The chances of producing a healthy litter can be increased by the provision of a comfortably warm, quiet place for the female to stay during this time. A protective shelter or nest area is also necessary to put the female at ease. The female should not be handled during the latter half of her pregnancy and should be left alone as much as possible to avoid stressing her. This is because a response of stress in mothers may be to eat their young.
The hedgehogs are born blind and with only a handful of soft white spines. They should not be touched or handled for at least three weeks to reduce the risk of the mother rejecting them. At this point, they will have begun to walk around the case or cage and are increasingly curious about their surroundings. Their eyes open between 10 and 18 days, and nursing often continues for up to two months if not interrupted by the breeder. Because the mother’s milk provides the most appropriate nutrition as well as valuable biological resistance antibodies, it is strongly recommended that nursing be allowed to continue until the mother weans the young herself. Additionally, the young hedgehogs need to remain with their mother until they have begun to eat solid food exclusively. However, it is also important that once this has happened, the babies be removed from the mother because she will regain her territorial instinct and try to run the young away.
The snuffling or snorting, while having the head tucked down, is part of the defense mechanism that has kept hedgehogs around for a very long time. It basically leaves them with their quills protecting every bit of visible surface, but still allows the hedgehog to move. The snuffling and snorting is usually accompanied by sudden lurches in the direction the hedgehog believes its potential enemy is in, to try and give it a good warning prickle. The more your hedgehog comes to know you, the more comfortable your hedgehog will become with you. One exception to this is if your hedgehog is sleepy. A sleepy hedgehog can be very insistent about not being disturbed. Getting your hedgehog to become familiar with you takes a lot of patience, but it is worth it. If your hedgehog tends to be somewhat shy or unfriendly towards you, try spending more time holding him. Chances are he just doesn't associate your smell with being a friend, yet.
Similar to any animal, hedgehogs are capable of expressing many different personalities. Just as a litter of puppies will have a bully and its more submissive puppy, a litter of hedgies is prone to the same. Even as hoglets, some hedgies show characteristic traits of high curiosity, excitability, or inquisitiveness, some are more reserved, shy, or easily scared. If many people will be handling the hedgehog as a pet, such as a family with a few children, it is wise to adopt an easygoing one. Hedgehogs who are easily frightened will bond with one owner more, and are more appropriate to be adopted by an individual. Each litter, which may include from one to seven babies, will provide several different personalities, so it is wise to spend time with each one and decide which is the best for adoption.
When we chose Abby, we handled each hoglet in the litter before deciding on the one who seemed most comfortable: unballing quickly, walking around in our palms, and appearing relaxed while being held. She is very curious about her surroundings, and it is very difficult to keep her still when she wants to play. As far as personality goes, it has historically been thought that females are generally friendlier than males, and will become familiar with a new owner more quickly. This, however, appears to be primarily a result of how a lot of breeders handle their animals -- males are usually not handled as much, and hence are not as gentled down. Properly handled when they are young, there is little or no personality difference between sexes. Being friendly generally means their quills will be laid back smoother, and they will have less of a tendency to roll into a ball.
Flehmen’s response is caused by toxic or unusual smells. The behavior itself may take a few minutes or several hours, during which the hedgehog is totally absorbed and almost oblivious to the activity in its surroundings. This behavior is frequently reported, and most people who own (or have owned) a hedgehog have witnessed it at some point. Hedgehogs have been observed in a lab to bite the head of a toad where toxic glands are, foam at mouth, and self-anoint. Spines left effects on the research volunteers (grad students) for 60 minutes.
The spines were still poisonous a week later. The hedgehog ate the frog after using toxins. If the handler of a hedgehog smells interesting, it will lick or nibble them, back off, and suddenly contort itself, start foaming at the mouth, and lick the foam onto its spines. This “self-anointing” has to be seen to be believed, but it's perfectly normal. It's not known conclusively why they do it, but it probably has an association with self-defense; hedgehogs are highly resistant to most toxins, and when they encounter something that might be toxic, they get it in their mouths, foam, and cover themselves with the toxic mixture. The result is a hedgehog with toxic spines, which is really something to reckon with. (Incidentally, the toxin resistance of hedgehogs is truly prodigious and has been the subject of some research; they are one of the few animals that can safely eat giant toads (Bufo marinus), for instance. One more last note: We don't know why this happens, but even without the benefit of self-anointing, their spines seem to have a mild toxic/irritant effect; when pricked by one, even slightly, it hurts more than it expected, and for a little bit longer.
One of the most effective ways to provoke a session of self-anointing is to pick up a hedgehog with sweaty hands, or after having used hand lotion, or a different type of soap. It's really hard to believe something as round as a hedgehog can twist itself into that contorted a position. It's also a bit disconcerting to learn just how long their tongues are!
The hedgehogs found in the United States as pets are descendants of hedgehogs imported from Africa. Although these hedgehogs have been domestically raised for several generations, they have not been domesticated long enough to lose their characteristic lifestyle. It is crucial to understand a little about this lifestyle in order to decide if a hedgehog is a suitable pet for your home. The primary thing to consider is that hedgehogs are basically nocturnal. Their night consists of two phases: feeding as its first priority and then guarding its territory.
A hedgehog in the wild covers a territory 650 to 1,200 feet in diameter every day in search of food. A pet hedgehog will awake from dusk until dawn and become very active in its cage or on an exercise wheel. This can be disturbing at first, especially to an owner who happens to be a light sleeper. However, just like a fan running during the night, or busy traffic outside, they are sounds that the owner can become desensitized to over time. Most hedgehogs do not like being awakened during the daytime and may even become aggressive if subjected to daytime handling. However, for the owner who wishes for a pet more active in the daytime, changing the feeding schedule very gradually can encourage an earlier-rising hedgie.
Our pet hedgehogs are African in origin. They have adapted to the much warmer climate, and have generally lost the ability to tolerate hibernation. As pets, hedgehogs do not stock up on food, nor put on the necessary extra body fat (at least in the right manner) needed to get through hibernation. A pet that is allowed to even suffer semi-hibernation extensively can suffer long term effects (becoming very weak and sick), and those that do end up in full hibernation will rarely survive beyond 1–2 days in this state, if at all. Now that we've made it clear that they shouldn't be allowed to hibernate (or even go into semi-hibernation, what are the signs to look for, and how do you prevent it from happening? The good news is that if caught in time, the effects are reversible.
If the temperature where they are kept drops too low (below about 20 degrees C or 68 degrees F), they can start preparing for hibernation and will certainly go into hibernation for brief periods, if the temperature drops much below this—at least until the temperature returns to a comfortable level. If your hedgehog seems to be sleeping too soundly, and you are worried, any kind of movement to his or her bed will usually earn you at least a brief spate of unhappy snuffling. If this happens, then you can probably assume you've just disturbed a sleepy hedgehog, or at least he's not in full hibernation. If this and nudging at him don't have any effect, and he's been in quite a cool (for a hedgehog) temperature, he may have slipped into the beginnings of hibernation, and should be gently (and slowly) warmed up, which should let him awaken, and come back to full activity.
Hedgehogs will also tend to slow down and get somewhat grumpy if they are kept at a temperature that's too cool for their liking. If you're finding that your previously energetic hedgehog is acting a bit slow and grumpy, and cool weather has started to arrive, then you may want to take steps to warm up your hedgehog. One of the most common signs of a hedgehog being too cold (semi-hibernation), is being very unsteady on its feet. Wobbly hedgehogs, or ones showing signs of problems in their hindquarters are almost always due to being too cold. Another sign that a hedgehog that is too cool is its sudden disinterest in food.
If it becomes necessary to do so, a variety of methods can be used to warm them. The one that I use is to put Abby in a travel cage with a bed of towels and a heating pad, set on the lowest setting, underneath for warmth. Never place the pad in with the animal as they can chew the cords and suffer electrical shorts or become burned by the pad itself. I found it is not a good idea to warm them up by bathing; they are so lethargic that drowning becomes a serious concern.
Some animals are more prone to chills than others. Recently, another cause of hibernation, or more commonly, partial hibernation has shown up. It appears that hedgehogs are quite sensitive to the short daylight hours, or even low light, as can happen during the winter months. If your hedgehog is warm enough, but still shows indications of wanting to hibernate, try leaving a light on to extend the `length of the day' for them. Beyond even the light issue, it appears that some pet hedgehogs may be more prone to hibernation, or rather trying to hibernate than others. In some cases, you may need to be very diligent to ensure your little friend doesn't drift off into a one-way winter's nap on you. Details on this, assumed, genetic link are very sketchy as yet.
Also, a worry is the chance of pet hedgehogs going into aestivation. This is similar to hibernation, but is done when things get too warm. In their natural habitat, this is to let the hedgehog wait things out until cooler and/or damper weather returns. Pet hedgehogs can slip into this state, especially in light of heat waves in recent years in North America. The problems and side effects of aestivation are largely the same as for hibernation.
Hedgehogs tend to be very nervous by nature and do not enjoy nature's best eyesight. Hedgehogs rely primarily on their sense of smell. Their sense of hearing is a distant second, and their vision is way down the list. In fact, vision is generally used mostly as a source of warnings of danger. Hearing serves two purposes: tracking interesting sounds or warning them of dangers. Keep all of this in mind when trying to win the heart of a hedgehog. When you first get a hedgehog as a pet, it is important that your new friend come to identify your smell with that of a friend. Because of this reliance on sense of smell, if you are constantly changing perfumes, or sometimes use strongly scented items, you are going to have much more difficulty than normal, but by no means is it an impossible task.
The best way to socialize your hedgie is to spend as much time as you reasonably can (without over-stressing the hedgehog) and gently hold or play with him. Hedgehogs that are thoroughly familiar with their human friends tend to be a lot friendlier in most cases—although it depends on the hedgehog, as it does with any animal with a personality. In simple terms, hedgehogs do best with (possibly short amounts of) regular attention, rather than large periods of infrequent attention. A few minutes each day is far better than hours once a week. It is also important to keep up the contact, to maintain the bond. I was advised by Abby’s breeder to play with her at least an hour every day.
Picking up a hedgehog, or otherwise handling him is difficult, at least until he gets to know your smell. Because of this, there is one cardinal rule about hedgehog handling, and that is to never wear gloves. If you do, your hedgehog will never become used to you, and your smell. That said, there are, indeed, times when you have to. As with any so-called rule, there are exceptions, and using your common sense is the best thing. Remember, it's much better to use gloves and take your hedgie out to play, then not to play at all. One thing you should do before trying to pick up any hedgehog, is to let your little friend sniff your bare hand, before you pick him up that way he will come to know the picking up is safe. The recommended way to pick up a hedgehog is with one hand at each side of him, then bring your hands gently together to cup him. Never grasp a hedgehog in a way that could allow any of your fingers to be caught in the middle should he decide to roll into a ball. Being in the middle of a hedgehog ball is an extremely painful experience—it's truly astounding just how strong their muscles are. Most hedgehogs, unless really upset, will end up stepping up on your hands as they come together.
Once on your hands, you can transfer your little friend to your lap (a towel spread on your lap can help, here), or onto your chest. Properly handled, from shortly after birth, pet hedgehogs are very friendly, playful animals that will keep their quills smoothed down, and enjoy being with people. Once socialized with you, your hedgehog will be like this any time you want to play (at least after it has had time to wake up, if you decide to play during hedgie's naptime). That's the ideal, and it is something most people will only achieve if they get lucky, and kept up the right attention, or if they are persistent at trying to win their little friend over.
The natural habitat of Aleterix albeventris is that of grasslands and savannahs in Western Africa. Because they are nocturnal, they need a hiding place to sleep during the day which can consist of leaves or grassy areas where they will be safe from predators. They prefer to hide under the cover of brush or a few trees and can also be found in parks and gardens around developed land. Although they can swim, they have not yet adapted to living in wet climates.
They are most comfortable in a dry climate with temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. African hedgehogs are not equipped to hibernate in the same way that their European cousins are, and any hibernation attempts can be life-threatening if left untreated. Hedgehogs should be kept in as large an enclosure as possible. A common problem with hedgehogs is a lack of exercise, which can lead to obesity. If they are taken out of the cage to exercise often, a cage that is 180 square inches (12" x 15") minimum would be adequate.
An easy and inexpensive cage can be made out of a heavy plastic tub (used for mixing concrete) or an aquarium that can hold at least 20 gallons of water. Ideally, a mini-habitat that is at least eight square feet can be set up. Only one hedgehog should be kept in a cage, as they are not social animals and prefer to live in solitude. A hiding area or nest box is very important for the mental health of your pet. The area should be large enough for the hedgehog to turn around in, but not too oversized (hedgehogs like a cozy fit when sleeping). The most common material used for a nest box is a 10" length of four-inch diameter PVC pipe capped on one end. Other possible materials include cardboard, wood, plastic boxes, or flower pots. The nest box can be stuffed with soft hay, shredded paper, or left empty. The bottom of the cage should have at least three inches of bedding to allow for hedgehogs' natural digging behavior. Pelleted paper bedding, such as yesterday's newspaper, works well.
Avoid cedar shavings, as the oils can be very irritating. If pine shavings are used, make sure to clean the cage often, because the shavings can cause skin irritation if left wet. Do not use wire flooring, which can damage a hedgehog's feet. Hedgehogs can be trained to use a litter box. A small tray with non-clumping litter can be placed in one corner of the cage. Be sure to use low dust material for litter, to prevent irritation of the eyes and respiratory system. They cannot be house trained, however, and might go to the bathroom when taken out of the cage. The bathroom area must be cleaned daily, and the bedding should be changed every two weeks.
Most domestic pets have the potential to spread disease to their human companions. Hedgehogs are no exception. Although disease transmission between hedgehog and hum in not common, it can potentially happen with such diseases as salmonellosis and external parasites. The best prevention for disease transmission is to use good hygiene around hedgehogs or any other pet for that matter. This means washing your hands thoroughly after handling your pet, particularly before eating. Do not wash hedgehog food and water containers or cages in or near human food preparation areas. You do not need to be afraid of your hedgehog because the likelihood of picking up a disease from a person you are in contact with is far greater than contracting a disease from your pet. The key disease prevention is common sense and consistent hygienic habits around your hedgehog and other pets.
Skin disease is one of the most common reasons that pet African hedgehogs need to see a veterinarian. Normal hedgehog skin should be smooth with occasional small flakes of dried skin. If you notice heavy flaking, quill loss or hair loss, scabs, redness, ragged or crusted ears or swollen, crusted pawas there is a problem. In addition, some hedgies will be scratching at themselves constantly. The most common skin disease is caused by a microscopic sarcoptid mange mite. This parasite lives and breeds on the skin and can be transmitted from hedgehog to hedgehog by direct contact. Your vet can diagnose the presence of the parasite by examining a small scraping of skin under the microscope for mites and eggs.
Obesity is a common problem for hedgehogs in captivity. It can be caused by an excessive diet and/or too little exercise. These animals run on instinct and cannot be disciplined as you would a dog or a cat. Put a hedgehog in a 10- or 20-gallon aquarium with no exercise and he will likely become fat or difficult to handle. Hedgehogs need a large cage so they have space for exercise. Once a hedgehog becomes fat in captivity, it usually also become sluggish. Overweight hedgehogs have shortened life spans and are more prone to a variety of illnesses including fatty liver disease, heart disease, and respiratory disease. Because they vary in size due to genes and activity levels, it is difficult to know what a healthy pet looks like. The belly of a hedgehog held in your palm should feel flat, neither protuding and soft nor concave and bony. Although hedgehogs may range in weight from 11-20 ounces, their weight is definitely an issue to keep in mind. Weighing them on a small scale that measures 2-5 pounds works well, and you should always have them weighed at vet visits. When you start out with your new hedgehog, weigh it to get a beginning weight. You can also ask the breeder or pet store to do this for you before you bring your animal home. Start by feeding one tablespoon or dry food every day. Youn hedgehogs should gain about one ounce of weight per week until they reach twelve weeks of age. At that point, their weight will begin to stabilize. A hedgehog is usually considered mature at six months of age and should cease to gain weight at this point. Adjust the amount of the dry food up or down, depending on the activity level of your pet. Some small hedgehogs eat twice as much as their larger counterparts because they are more active or have a different metabolic rate. However, nursing mothers should be offered dry food freely.
Hedgehogs can be infested with the same fleas and ticks that are found on cats and dogs. A tick should be removed by firmly grasping it as close to its attachment to the skin as possible and pulling it out. The area can be cleaned with a skin disinfectant afterwards. Fleas can be eradicated by using a mild flea shampoo or flea powder that is safe for cats. Hedgehogs can also develop fungal disease of the skin ("ringworm") most commonly caused by an organism called Trichophyton mentagrophytes. This fungus can also affect cats, dogs and humans. The signs of the disease are similar to those seen with mange mites, the the hedgehog is usually not itchy. The lesions appear primarily around the face and ears with dry, crusty and scaly skin. A veterinarian can make the diagnosis by plucking some affected hair or quills and performing a fungal culture. It is necessary to treat all the hedgehogs that might have had contact with the infected one. In addition, other household pets should be examined by your vet and may also by treated. Skin lesions on humans may appear as slightly raised red patches, usually in a circular pattern.
A few weeks after getting Abby, we noticed a few patches of ringworm, and took her to the vet for treatment which consisted of oral and topical medication. The standard treatment is to then bathe in Imaverol solution every 3 or 4 days, for 4 baths and provide them with an anti-fungal medicine. Abby took her medicine twice a day and was rewarded on an intermittent schedule. Because of getting a mealworm after taking the medication, or maybe the fact that she knew it was helpful; she never caused a problem while taking her medicine. However, the bath smelled strongly like rotten eggs and it was not my favorite part of the treatment.
Moving further along, the eyes can suffer a number of problems, such as things getting poked into them, or caught around the eyelid, injuries from being struck by unpadded spokes on a wheel, or even cataracts. A vet visit is almost always in order. Don't fret if your hedgehog does lose his sight or even an eye -- hedgies do just fine when blind since their primary sense is smell, and hearing is secondary, with vision a distant third.
The most common disease that afflicts the ears of the hedgehog is mange mites. The second most common is fungal disease. The normal hedgehog ear appearance is thing, nearly hairless skin with a smooth edge. There should be little or no wax present in the ear canal. The signs of both fungal and parasitic disease are similar and include crusting and thickening of the ear edges, ragged ear edges, flaking of the skin on the ear flap, and sometimes accumulation of wax in the ear canal. In addition, hedgehogs can be infested with the same ear mites that can affect cats, dogs, and ferrets. The signs include excessive earwax and frequent scratching at the ears. Hedgehogs can also develop bacterial ear infections. The discharge in the ear will be of a more liquid consistency than normal ear wax and will often have a foul smell. If a hedgehog develops an inner ear infection, it may exhibit a head tilt or circle to one side. Damage to the brain can also cause these signs, so it is wise to get medical attention as soon as possible.
Nutritional Disease/Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome
In addition to obesity, there is a condition called hepatic lipidosis which is an excessive fat accumulation in the liver. Fat cells replace liver cells until the liver can no longer function normally. The hedgehog becomes lethargic, depressed, loses its appetite and may exhibit bizarre behavior such as seizuring and unusual aggression. These signs are due to the buildup of toxic waste products, such as ammonia, in the blood, which then affect the brain. Liver disease can be diagnosed with blood tests, X rays, ultrasound and liver biopsy if necessary. Treatment for obesity and fatty liver disease is directed at reducing the fat in the diet and increasing exercise. Other medications may be used as needed. Hepatic lipidosis can be reversed if it is caught in time.
While there are many conditions that can result in some degree of wobbliness (beyond the normal waddling gait of a hedgehog), the term ``Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome'' has come to be applied to what is now considered to be a neurological disorder. In short, WHS (wobbly hedgehog syndrome)is a progressive, degenerative, neurological disease, the cause of which is still uncertain. There are no known cures, but there are treatments and supportive care you can give that may extend their life and certainly add quality to it. This disease acts much like Multiple Sclerosis does in humans, and may have a rapid onset, though more often the onset is gradual. The hind legs are often affected first, and then the paralysis spreads to the front legs and other parts of the body. Sometimes the paralysis affects one side of the body, and your hedgehog will begin tipping over and unable to stay upright. A series of case studies was done and they revealed that the onset of symptoms in most cases occurs between the ages of 18 and 24 months, although this disease has also been known to strike both younger and older hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs with WHS will often experience weight loss, due in part to their inability to get to their food dishes (much can be done to help this) and in the advance stages of this disease, they become completely immobilized. In the cases that were studied, death occurred between 6 weeks and 19 months after the onset of symptoms. The problem generally appears as a progressive paralysis, usually starting at the tail end of the spine and working its way toward the nose. The rate of progression can vary greatly, sometimes taking only weeks, other times spanning a year or longer. It usually appears in adults over a year old, but it can occur in even very young hedgehogs. The cause of this problem is very likely genetic, probably in some ways due to the very small and shrinking gene pool from which our little friends are bred from.
This problem can be very hard to diagnose, and generally will only be known with any certainty after a detailed necropsy. Other, possibly more common causes of wobbling or paralysis can stem from strokes, injuries, or tumors. In the case of injuries, treatment (assuming you or your vet can determine that an injury occurred) will depend on just what kind of injury it was. For strokes, which do happen to hedgehogs, there will often be improvement over time. For tumors, surgery or steroids may help. One other factor that may be responsible for some types of wobbly hedgehogs, especially in cases where multiple unrelated hedgehogs are affected, is from some sort of dietary deficiency. Exactly what is lacking, or in excess, is not known.
This particular form of wobbly hedgehog syndrome seems to only affect hedgehogs which are raised on cat food, and generally not supplemented with vitamins, as opposed to one of the better foods now on the market. Hedgehogs which have had supplements, or which eat a good, balanced hedgehog food do not appear to show any signs of this problem. As yet, there is no scientific answer as to why, but a change in diet might be worth trying.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of the captive African hedgehog population is prone to developing cancer as they age. Cancer has been reported affecting almost every organ in the body. Signs of disease vary depending on the area affected. The treatment is based on the organ(s) affected and may even include chemotherapy. It is unknown at this time why African hedgehogs have such a high cancer rate, but perhaps over time the answer will reveal itself as more is learned about this pet.
Getting Into Trouble
When it comes to protecting hedgehogs, there is usually little danger to them in the garden, or any other truly natural habitat, from other animals or objects. However, there are dangers lurking in many gardens and yards such as pesticides. Hedgehogs are resistant against animal poisons, not man-made pesticides. Hedgehogs do not destroy gardens, they do not dig, they only manure it. They, in fact, keep your garden free of pests and bugs. One of the worst things by way of pesticides is slug bait. This builds up in slugs, which are one of the hedgehogs favorite foods, and therefore it builds up in the hedgehog. If possible, avoid the slug bait and let the hedgehogs do the slug-removal, or if you must use it, make sure you keep hedgehogs out of your garden.
Another, somewhat odd problem is that hedgehogs seem to compulsively crawl
into or through things (or at least try to, often becoming stuck). This includes cans, plastic rings from drink cans, nets, plastic yogurt or ice cream cups, and even key-rings. Why they feel a need to go into or through instead of around is anyone's guess, but anything a hedgehog can get into, he will, and if it's possible to become stuck, he will. Keeping your garden free of such objects will help ensure the safety of the hedgehogs that visit you.
Also, pools and ponds present a unique problem to visiting hedgehogs. Many man-made pools and ponds have smooth sides, which are too slippery or steep for a hedgehog, who has accidentally fallen in, to climb out. One of the easiest safeguards I have seen for this is to simply dangle a thick rope into the water and tie the other end off to a stake. This is usually enough for a hedgehog to climb out with. Hedgehogs can swim, and will follow around the outside of the pool or pond looking for some way to get out. The only time they tend to drown is in cases where they get too tired searching for a non-existent way out.
Another method some people use is to create a wooden or cloth ramp, with one end floating in the water, and the other end safely attached on dry land. Hedgehogs truly possess an incredible ingenuity for turning the most mundane of objects or situations into something with dire consequences for them. If there is a way they can get into trouble, they will. If they can't get into trouble, they will invent a way.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2010 Scrapaholic