Hedgehogs: Think of them as an out-sized, meat-eating hamster covered in spikes!
This may sound the stuff of nightmares, but hedgehogs make great pets and share several traits in common with a hamster. For example they are both nocturnal, prefer to live alone, run long distances at night…oh…and are incredibly cute.
But in truth, the analogy ends there because hedgehogs have a different set of needs to live a long and happy life (But heck, the idea of a giant, carnivorous, spiky hamster is too good not to share!)
Those glossy brown eyes, tapered nose, and coat of quills, make them a photogenic pet, possibly one reason for their recent rise in popularity. But before rushing out to buy one, you should be familiar with their needs and be certain you can provide a happy hog home.
For starters, do some research and find out if hedgehogs are legal in your state. Since the African pygmy hedgehog is not a native species, some states have banned keeping them as pets in order to protect native wildlife and the local ecosystem.
Those states in which hedgehog keeping is illegal include:
- Washington DC
- New York City (5 boroughs)
Hedgehog Basic Biology
Let’s get up close and personal with your new prickly pet pal.
The African pygmy hedgehog is a tropical species. The average hedgehog lifespan is 3 – 5 years. They mature at the relatively young age of five months, which is when they can start breeding (Be sure to separate brothers and sisters before this age!) A hedgehog pregnancy lasts from 32 – 50 days, and she gives birth to an average litter size of three to four hoglets.
In the wild in their native Africa, these cutesy critters dine mostly on insects. This officially makes them carnivorous, enjoying a diet of things crunchy creepy-crawlies, with a little herbage thrown in as a side salad.
Hedgehogs (like hamsters) are nocturnal. They are active once the sun goes down, and boy are they active. It’s not unknown for wild hedgehogs to travel 8 kms in one night, so providing an exercise wheel is a must. Of course, this also risks disturbing your sleep, so be sure a pet that’s active when you aren’t, fits in with your plans.
And last but not least, these hedgehogs hail from a tropical environment and need keep warm. Whilst they hibernate in the wild, in captivity it’s generally considered better to provide artificial heating and keep them awake year round.
Housing and Homing a Hedgehog
What do you need to care for a hedgehog? A basic hog shopping list includes:
- A suitable secure cage
- Safe bedding
- A hide or shelter
- A heat mat or lamp
- Ceramic food and water bowls
- Appropriate food
1: A Secure Cage or Container
Hedgehogs are solitary creatures and prefer living alone. Males in pairs, or even paired females tend to fight, whilst mixed gender pairs will mate, with all that this implies.
Like all creatures, hedgehogs require sufficient space to exhibit a wide range of natural behaviors. This boils down to the “Bigger the better” in terms of a cage. Ideally, the hog should have at least four foot in length to potter in, with a wheel for serious exercise.
Look for a cage with a solid floor and keep the hedgehog deep bedded. (Avoid mesh floors as these are damaging to delicate paws.) There are a variety of enclosures suitable for hedgehogs from purpose-made cages to indoor rabbit systems or even a vivarium. Factors to bear in mind are:
- Space: There needs to be enough room for the hog to trundle around and have separate areas to sleep, eat, drink, exercise, and toilet
- Warm but Well-Ventilated: Vivariums excel at holding onto heat, but are often poorly ventilated. You may need to drill extra ventilation holes if using a viv.
- Low Level: Hedgehog may think they can climb, but in truth they are clumsy and often fall. Low levels tumbles are fine, but avoid cages with a mezzanine level or the hog might mistakenly try to climb and injure themself.
- Flat floor: Be kind to those paws and avoid mesh flooring
2: Safe Bedding
The best options for bedding include aspen, shredded newspaper, or untreated wood chips. Every bedding has its good and bad points, so it’s a matter of working out what works best for you and your hog. Indeed, you can try litter-training your hog (using wood-based cat litter in a pan) and then use a fleece as a sort of hedgehog carpet.
Remember to spot clean bedding every day, scooping out the soiled areas and replacing it with clean, and then do a complete clean at least once a week.
3: A Hide or Shelter
Like all creatures hedgehogs like to be safe and private while they sleep. The hog idea of a luxury bedroom is a shelter, box, or igloo lined with bedding. They will curl up inside and slumber the day away.
Another nice alternative is a hedgehog pouch. These are the equivalent of a hog sleeping bag, except the creature goes all the way inside to curl up and sleep. A hedgehog pouch has the advantage that you can lift the hog out of their cage in it when it’s time to clean. Also, some people find their hog will trot back into the pouch at the end of playtime once they’ve had enough.
4: A Heat Lamp or Mat
Your hedgehog needs a steady temperature of 73 – 75 F day and night. A useful rule of thumb is that if you feel cold then your hedgehog needs extra heat. If your centrally heated house is snug all year round, fine. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature, and if it dips at night then give your hog a black lamp or heat mat. However, be careful the hog can’t lie directly on top of the mat (make sure there’s a fleece or cover) to avoid thermal burns.
For sure avoid the temperature going below 68 F as this could trigger hibernation.
5: Ceramic Food and Water Bowls
Ceramic bowls are heavy which makes them difficult to tip over. They also have the advantage of being easy to clean and scratch proof. Avoid sipper bottles as the hedgehog’s surprisingly long tongue can become tapped by the ball bearing in the spout. Ouch!
6: Appropriate Food
Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life. Where hedgehog food is concerned, variety helps ensure balanced diet. In the wild hedgehogs eat insects and snaffle up whatever hops, wriggles, or flies past. To mimic this you should include wigglies such as crickets, mealworms, silkworms, and wax worms into their menu. These are easily obtainable through reptile shops.
The core of the captive hedgehog’s diet should be a good quality dry cat food, about and a half tablespoon’s per day. But add in variety by offering a supplement of:
- Boiled or scrambled egg
- Lean cooked chicken, lamb, or turkey
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
Remove any uneaten food each morning, so that it doesn’t go moldy. Oh, and don’t give hedgehogs milk. They struggle to digest the milk sugar, lactose, and develop diarrhea as a result.
Wild hedgehogs do a lot of pottering and investigating. Mimic this by providing cardboard tunnels to explore. Don’t forget – an exercise wheel (one designed for ferrets is ideal) is mandatory, but make sure it’s big enough that the hog’s back doesn’t curve into a ‘U’ when inside,
You should also have a secure room or space where you can let the hog out to run around and stretch his legs. This is also a good time to fuss and pet him, so that he becomes used to your company. However, eventually you’ll yawn and need your bed, whilst the hog still wants to play. Give him some cat-sized toys (play around to see what he prefers) to keep him amused during the night.
Hedgehog Health and Habits
Keeping your hedgehog in clean conditions and providing a balanced diet go a long way to keeping them healthy. However, they are prone to certain health problems:
- Respiratory Illness: A hedgehog’s delicate lungs are easily damaged by ammonia. If their bedding becomes soiled, high levels of ammonia will predispose them to pneumonia. Signs of this include rapid breathing, poor appetite, and staying in one place
- Gut obstructions: A hedgehog may eat things that aren’t edible, such as cat litter, which then becomes stuck in their gut. The signs are non-specific and include lack of appetite and extreme malaise
- Bloat: Certain vegetables, such as those from the cabbage family, encourage gas formation in the bowel causing the hog to swell up. Some hogs ‘deflate’ of their own accord, others need veterinary help.
- Wobbly Hedgehog syndrome: The condition causes the nervous system to degenerate and affects the hog’s balance. It’s thought to be genetic and may affect around 10% of pet hedgehogs. There is no known cure.
- Self-anointing: This looks alarming but is actually normal behavior. Certain smells trigger the hog to produce copious amounts of saliva which they then smear over their quills. Normal, but odd. Go figure!
And finally, taking on a hedgehog is a commitment for the next five years. Make sure this is a challenge you are prepared for and can provide for your prickly pals needs for years to come. Only then can your hedgehog have a happy home and lead the healthy life they deserve.