Keeping hedgehogs as pets may seem like a strange hobby to the uninitiated, but anyone who has spent any time around these animals is keenly aware of what great pets they make. There is, however, a number of things you should know before taking one of these animals into your home. As is the case with keeping any kind of a pet, there needs to be a commitment on your part to see that your hedgehog leads a comfortable and healthy life.
There are only a couple of species of hedgehogs that readily consent to becoming pets. Two of the African species in particular seem to enjoy the opportunity for human companionship. These are not high maintenance animals, and they are fairly easy to keep well-fed, but they do require your attention and they will reward you in return.
Hedgehogs That Make Good Pets – and Those That Don’t
Not all hedgehogs make good pets. If you take into account all of the hedgehogs that exist in the world today, the majority of them would make terrible pets. There are presently 14 known species of hedgehogs in the world. Three of these species, known as the desert species, are native to North Africa and the Middle East. None make good pets, and one in particular, the Ethiopian hedgehog, also known as the Egyptian hedgehog, has a nasty disposition. There are four long-eared species, three of which are found in China and the other in the Middle East. Besides their long ears, these four species also have long legs for a hedgehog. None of the four are suitable as pets. The three species of European hedgehogs are all fairly large and are normally over a foot long when fully grown. While the species found in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles can become somewhat tame, or at least seem to be comfortable around people, they cannot always be handled easily enough to be kept as pets.
This leaves the four species of African hedgehogs, three of which can make good pets. The fourth species, the African pygmy hedgehog, makes a great pet. The African pygmy hedgehog, which is normally native to southern Africa, can actually be found throughout the continent. Virtually all of the hedgehogs sold in pet stores or by breeders are African Pygmies, although you will also occasionally see a White-Bellied Hedgehog who is native to Central Africa on the market.
The first thing you will notice when you see one of these African pygmy adults is that you can now have a pet you can comfortably hold in your hand. When you see one curled up in a tight ball, holding it in your hand would seem to be the last thing you might want to do, and there are indeed times when a pair of gloves will come in handy. When any hedgehog is happy and relaxed however, and its quills are down, the animal actually feels soft when you pet it, and a tame hedgehog does enjoy to be stroked. If it should become startled while you are stroking it, it can change into a prickly ball in about a tenth of a second.
Breeder’s Descriptions of Hedgehogs
When you are looking forward to purchasing a pet hedgehog, it may seem to be similar to purchasing a purebred Siamese cat, since these animals come in a number of different color varieties, including the familiar salt and pepper design. When keeping hedgehogs as pets, their color is not always of primary importance, but it can be of utmost importance if you are a breeder.
- If you want a hedgehog that is completely white, or mostly so, yet is not an albino, you want to ask for a snowflake hedgehog. Some breeders will only call their hedgehogs ‘snowflakes’ if the quills are completely white, while others give them the same name if the quills are mostly white. The bellies and legs of most hedgehogs are either white or gray in color.
- Cinnamon hedgehogs have cream colored quills featuring brownish red bands. These hedgehogs are sometimes referred to as champagne or apricot hedgehogs. If one has a mask on its face, as many hedgehogs do, it is called a fawn hedgehog.
- The mocha hedgehog, as you might expect, has coffee or chocolate and cream colored quills. Mocha hedgehogs almost always have a dark mask.
- A cream hedgehog has quills that are either off-white or ivory in color. The cream hedgehog has eyes that are darker than the pink eyes of an albino, but the eyes still have more red in them than you’ll see with most other types.
- If a hedgehog has a mask and dark legs and its quills are somewhere between white and pale gray, the animal you’re looking at would be called a smoke point or a silver point hedgehog.
- Some hedgehogs defy a description based on color alone, but they have definite patterns in their quills. These hedgehogs are sometimes grouped together and referred to as pinto hedgehogs.
Where to Keep Your Hedgehog
While a pygmy hedgehog would fit in a shoebox, using a shoebox as its home would be a cruel thing to do. Hedgehogs can be quite active at times, and being natural hunters they like to scurry about. A glass aquarium-like cage is one option to consider, although you would need to keep a glass cage away from direct sunlight as an overheated hedgehog can easily have a fatal stroke. It’s best to keep your pet enclosure in a room that has decent air circulation, but be careful to keep it away from drafts. A wire mesh cage is preferable to glass, and while you may not see such a cage on the market advertised as a hedgehog cage, one that is advertised as a baby rabbit cage would fit the bill. No hedgehog is a particularly good climber, so you may not need a top, especially for a glass enclosure. A wire cage with a tray is easy to keep clean, especially if the tray is easily removable. In any event, the enclosure should have a solid floor in order to protect tender feet.
Pine chips make an excellent bedding material although hardwood chips are sometimes better, but try to get chips that are relatively dust-free. Cedar chips, or chips from any aromatic wood, need to be avoided. Pellets made from recycled paper are yet another option. When selecting a bedding material, bear in mind that hedgehogs love to burrow. Any hedgehog will soon learn to drink from a drip bottle mounted on the side of its cage. A water bowl will tend to get tipped over or waded through constantly, and the water would have to be changed frequently. A small, but sturdy plastic bowl will serve as a food bowl. It will more than likely also be tipped over, but your hedgehog won’t be fussy about eating spilled food.
You can reserve one corner of the enclosure for a litter pan or litter box. Most hedgehogs will catch on quickly, as they are by nature very clean little animals, and will choose a single place in their enclosure to take care of their bathroom chores.
A small cardboard box, like one end of a cereal box will serve as a house, as will a section of PVC pipe or a PVC connecter that is large enough for the hedgehog to enter. Hedgehogs prefer privacy at times. Some, in fact, will stay in their house much of the day and do their roaming at night. While hedgehogs are not squirrels, they will make excellent use of a squirrel-cage or exercise wheel that has been placed in their enclosure. They will get plenty of exercise and will seem to enjoy doing so.
You don’t have to cover the cage during the day or leave a nightlight on at night for your pet. Hedgehogs, as pets, do best in an environment featuring normal periods of light and darkness. They are also happiest at what you would consider to be normal room temperature, which can be anywhere from 70 to 90 degrees. Whatever you do, don’t let your hedgehog get too cold for any period of time. If it does, it will likely decide to hibernate, which, for a hedgehog, can often be fatal.
Hedgehog Nutrition 101
Hedgehogs are carnivores. They will eat vegetables, but they will not remain healthy for very long if they are deprived of a meat-based diet. Vegetables or fruits, such as a small piece of a carrot, apple, or banana, can be offered as an occasional treat, but the portion should be kept small. Some hedgehogs take a liking to cottage cheese. Hedgehogs eat mostly insects when in the wild, and would certainly not mind a diet of crickets, or even mealworms. They will, however, get along quite nicely on a cat food-based diet, which is to say they are not particularly finicky eaters, although they will sometimes turn their noses up at vegetables. Dried cat food is best, if for no other reason than to help to keep tartar from forming on your pet’s teeth.
It would pay to get a powdered supplement from a breeder or a pet store that can be sprinkled over the pet’s food every other day or so to ensure it is getting any vitamins or other nutrients that may be lacking in its regular diet. Once your hedgehog’s diet has become fairly well established, you want to stick to it because its eating habits are often a good indication of its overall health.
Daily feeding is best done in the evening, particularly if your pet hedgehog is a typical hedgehog and does much of its roaming around after dark. An evening meal will help it keep active until the sun comes up and it’s time to go to bed.
Keeping Your Hedgehog Healthy
As often happens with small animals such as the pygmy hedgehog, it may not show any symptoms of an illness until it is practically too late to do anything about it. If your hedgehog does become quite ill, it can sometimes be difficult to find a veterinarian that will know what to do unless that person specializes in small animals or exotics. If you should know of such a person, it could pay to take your pet in for an examination so the vet can become familiar with your pet, and vice versa.
If your pet suddenly seems weak or lethargic, the first thing to check for would be dehydration. In other words, first check to see that the water bottle hasn’t gone unattended. You may have to force-feed the animal a little water at first until it recovers and can drink on its own. If the symptoms suggest something other than dehydration, take the hedgehog to the vet as soon as possible. Whenever a hedgehog appears to be ill, a visit to the vet is always the best choice.
A hedgehog can sometimes suffer from a bout of hypothermia if its environment has become too cold. Holding the animal, or putting it in a place where it can warm up is often the only treatment that is required.
Two Hedgehogs are (Sometimes) Better Than One
A pet hedgehog does not need a playmate, although there are a few that seem to enjoy having one. Hedgehogs tend to be solitary creatures that will bond to a human just as easily, and perhaps more so, than they will bond to another hedgehog. If you do choose to own more than one hedgehog, each needs to have its own individual cage.
If you place two male hedgehogs in the same cage they will fight; almost always. In fact, if you put two male hedgehogs in the same room, once they discover one another they’ll be apt to start a fight. If you place two females together, they may or may not fight. You can’t always tell what they will do.
When you put a male and female together, they may fight, but they will most certainly reward you with baby hedgehogs, each about the size of half of your little finger. Before the babies are born, the parents need to be separated, and on occasion a female will choose to eat her babies. You never know if she’s going to do that or not, and there’s not much you can do about it as it usually happens within a day of their birth, and not too many know how to care for a one-day old hedgehog except another hedgehog.
Hedgehogs Need Grooming Too
If you are planning on keeping a hedgehog as a pet, you need to be aware of the fact that these little creatures need to be groomed every bit as much as a pet dog does, and perhaps even more. The first question that may come to mind is ‘How do you go about grooming a creature that has sharp spines?’ For one thing, you socialize your pet so it is used to being handled so you’re not trying to groom something that has chosen to take on the physical characteristics of a sea urchin.
Let’s start with the toenails. In the wild, hedgehogs do enough digging to keep their toenails worn down. In captivity, they sometimes need to have them clipped. The easiest way to go about it is to have one person hold the animal, while the other slowly extracts one leg at a time and uses conventional fingernail clippers to shorten the nails.
Most hedgehogs prefer having a bath to having their nails clipped. Instead of a sponge bath however, give your hedgehog a toothbrush bath. If the animal is really dirty, you can put a little water in a bathtub or a sink, and either spray it with lukewarm water or pour water over it from a cup. Once the bath has been completed and the animal has been rinsed off, place it in a nice, soft terrycloth towel and gently wipe it dry.
Eyes, ears, and teeth need to be checked on occasion as well. If a problem is observed in any of these areas, it’s usually best to let a veterinarian decide on the course of action to be taken.
How to Avoid Having a Prickly Ball as a Pet
Pet owners socialize dogs and try to socialize their cats. Not all prospective hedgehog owners are aware of the fact that these exotic little animals need socializing as well. Not only will that make them better pets, it will make them happier pets as well. A hedgehog that is happy to be around humans can be a joy to both watch and to hold. A hedgehog that is afraid of people, or afraid of its own shadow, will spend most of the time curled up, hissing, and with its spines erect.
In the case of the hedgehog, socializing is usually accomplished by handling the animals when they’re still too small to think about being afraid. Once a hedgehog becomes comfortable being held in your hand, you have a friend for life, although there are those who are occasionally in a bad mood and may give you a nip with their tiny but sharp teeth.
If the new hedgehog happens to be an adult, a good way to get acquainted is to extend your hand to let it explore it. Once you can hold the hedgehog in your hand, it will usually be more comfortable sitting in your lap.
Another thing you want to do to socialize your pet is to give it plenty of opportunities for exercise. A used playpen with mesh siding and shredded newspaper on the floor is excellent. For that matter, you can let the animal run around the room as long as there are no safety hazards. Just make certain you know where it is at all times.
Hedgehogs enjoy being on the lawn or in a flower garden, but they need to be watched very carefully, especially in a garden. Hedgehogs have a habit of first finding a cozy hiding space and then becoming very still or taking a nap once they’ve found it, and there’s nothing a hedgehog enjoys more than burrowing around in a pile of dead leaves and then taking a nap. You can’t rely on one to always be on the move so you can keep track of it. If you take your hedgehog outside, dedicate yourself to watching it like a hawk. Then, you can enjoy its meanderings. You also need to keep in mind that these little animals can run surprisingly fast.
Hedgehogs Can Be Highly Entertaining
Hedgehogs might not be the most brilliant of animals, but they can be taught to do certain things and they do have their distinct personalities. What that means is that it can be fun for you to watch them having fun. Hedgehogs that have been running around on the floor for exercise have been known to climb up onto one of their owner’s shoes, waiting to be picked up and returned to the cage. Hedgehogs seem to enjoy working their way through mazes. They do have poor eyesight, and will occasionally bump into things head on, but once they know a path, they’ll stick to it. They also seem to enjoy running in and out of tunnels.
Unlike a mouse, which usually stays close to a wall when running through a room, a hedgehog will often take off in any direction, making abrupt 90-degree turns for no particular reason as it travels about.
There’s one more way your hedgehog can be a source of entertainment to you, and to others. Once you feel you’ve become a hedgehog expert, which may not take all that long, take your pet to a school, a youth organization, or anywhere you might find people who may never have owned or even seen one of these little animals. If your hedgehog has been well socialized, others can have the thrill of holding it their hand and gently stroking it while it explores its new surroundings.
When Owning a Hedge May Not Be Legal
It is no longer legal to import African hedgehogs into the United States. Enough of them have been domestically bred that there is not any shortage of them. The hedgehog is still classified as an exotic animal however; a classification that is quite appropriate. Some states do not allow their citizens to own hedgehogs, and some require that you have a permit if you want to keep one as a pet.
If your local pet store sells hedgehogs, or if there are one or more hedgehog breeders in the state you live in, keeping one as a pet is likely legal. Purchasing hedgehogs from an out-of-state breeder can be a challenge, even if it is legal to own one where you live. Most reputable breeders will not ship these animals; you have to travel to the breeder to pick it up. In any event, it would be best to contact the breeder ahead of time. Some breeders will not sell hedgehogs to someone if they think that person might not give it a good home.
Interesting ‘Hedgehog Facts’ That Are Not True At All
No hedgehog should be used as a croquet ball, despite what you may have learned from reading Alice in Wonderland. When tightly curled up and hissing, a hedgehog may seem solid enough to serve that purpose, but that of course, is not the case.
There are those that are convinced that hedgehogs are rabies carriers because they are known to foam at the mouth on occasion. It just so happens that one of the stranger habits these creatures have is to foam profusely from the mouth and then cover themselves with the foam. This peculiar habit is called self-anointing and is usually accompanied by the flehmen response, which consists of the hedgehog holding its nose high in the air. This activity is believed to be triggered by odors or scents that are unfamiliar to the hedgehog.
Another fallacy is the belief that hedgehogs will sometimes roll on something that they think will be edible and then use their spines to carry their meal back to their nest. No one appears to ever have seen hedgehogs actually do this. Wild hedgehogs have, however, been known to roll in rotting fruit as part of their self-anointing ritual.
Hedgehogs have been feared and hated in some countries, particularly during the Middle Ages, beloved in others, and eaten as food in still others. In the United States at the present, beloved would be the most accurate way of describing people’s feelings towards the animal, and why keeping hedgehogs as pets has been popular for so long.
Once you’ve seen a few images of African pygmy hedgehogs, both as babies and as adults, the thought of not having one for a pet could be hard to resist. A pet hedgehog can quickly make its way into your home, and into your heart.