By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Hedgehogs are small, quill-covered animals native to Europe, Africa and Asia, but in the U.S., their popularity is growing as pets. The type of domesticated hedgehogs kept as pets — African pygmy hedgehogs (a descriptive name, not a true species) — are different from their wild cousins but still display many of the same “wild” tendencies. As such, it’s important to do your research, and know what you’re getting into, before considering a hedgehog, or “hedgie,” as a pet.
First and foremost, know that these pets are illegal in some cities and states, so know the laws in your area before moving forward. The next step is understanding the unique needs of these admittedly adorably cute creatures.
How to Care for Hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are insectivores, which means they eat live insects, plants and roots. You can find commercially prepared diets, which are for the most part, poor-quality, so expect to supplement this with fresh species-appropriate foods, including mealworms, crickets, fruits and vegetables.
Unfortunately, poor-quality commercial “hedgehog food” abounds and is very similar to cheap, dry dog food — and leads to many of the same problems in the animals, including obesity. This, coupled, with lack of activity, makes pet hedgies prone to weight gain and obesity. My suggestion is that if you can’t commit to buying or breeding live insects (their natural diet), then you avoid choosing this lovely little critter as a forever pet.
While many people think of hedgies as roly poly creatures that love nothing more than to cuddle up in a blanket, in the wild hedgehogs can travel several miles in a night, climbing and swimming along the way.
When kept in captivity, they must have access to fresh water and lots of room to exercise, including an exercise wheel (one with a solid bottom, as wire bottoms may lead to limb fractures) and daily supervised time outside of their enclosure to explore and swim, according to Dr. Krista Keller, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital.1
She told The News-Gazette, “Unfortunately, many captive hedgehogs are overweight, so exercise opportunities are very important."2 As for enclosures, Keller recommends a large plastic container with smooth sides (to prevent your hedgie from escaping) that’s at least 2 by 3 feet, although the bigger the better.
I feel this is much too small and advocate at least a 6 by 6 feet enclosure (which is why many people invest in multi-tiered vertical condos). Hedgehogs are solitary creatures in the wild, coming together only to mate, so should be housed separately. Be sure to add a hiding spot and keep their enclosure warm. As reported by The News-Gazette, Keller advises:
“It also is imperative to include an external heat source (an undertank heater or heat bulb) in the enclosure with multiple thermometers to monitor the efficacy. Hedgehogs come from a tropical part of the world and do best in a temperature of 75 to 85 F. Cooler or hotter temperatures can make a hedgehog enter a state called torpor.”3
Safe bedding, such as that made from recycled paper or even fleece fabric or old pillow cases or towels, should be added to the enclosure. As for elimination, some hedgies can be taught to use a small litter box placed in their enclosure, much like cats, however others may resist it.
In general, hedgies tend to choose one corner or spot in their enclosure to use for elimination, which of course must be cleaned regularly. Consistently putting their feces in this spot can reinforce housebreaking, if this is your goal. Regular nail trims will also be required.
Another important area of hedgehog care is socialization. Unsocialized hedgies can and do bite (as do even the friendliest of hedgies at times). Give your hedgie a few days to adjust to the new environment when you bring her home, and then slowly start interacting with and handling her (gloves can be of benefit, initially, so you don’t startle her if she inadvertently pricks you).
Take care not to startle or frighten her, as this may cause her to bite or roll into a tight, prickly ball, which makes handling difficult. In addition to time out of her enclosure and an exercise wheel, some hedgies enjoy toys such as small cat toys or empty toilet paper rolls.
What to Know Before Adding a Hedgie to Your Family
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, which means they spend much of their day sleeping, “coming to life” at night when their owners want to rest, which can make it difficult to give your hedgehog the mental and physical stimulation she needs. In addition, think twice before keeping her enclosure in your bedroom, as her nightly activities can be noisy.
In addition, hedgehogs may carry salmonella bacteria in their stool or fungus capable of causing ringworm on their quills and skin. As with any small mammal, you should wash your hands after interacting with her or cleaning her cage.
You’ll also need to find a veterinarian who cares for hedgehogs (not all do), as annual veterinary visits are necessary to ensure your hedgie stays in good health. On average, pet hedgehogs live about 5 years (although some live 8 years or more).4 If you decide a hedgehog is right for your family, avoid purchasing one via the exotic pet trade, which may capture animals from the wild, and adopt a domesticated hedgehog from a rescue organization instead.
Also, be aware that domestic hedgehogs cannot easily survive in the wild, and can wreak havoc on local environments, so if you can no longer care for your hedgie, make plans to find her a new, responsible home or surrender her to a rescue organization — do not release her into the wild.