Hedgehogs are becoming more and more popular as pets, in spite of the cute little critters’ sharp quills that can deliver quite a poke.
Why would one want a hedgehog? Besides their cute appearance and behavior, the hedgehog can be slow to warm up to its human owner. Hedgies, as aficionados call them, have only been domesticated for about a decade and still show a lot of the wariness of a wild animal. Winning over their trust can be extremely rewarding. It can also be fascinating to watch their behaviors.
Some people believe that hedgehogs are poisonous, but that’s – thankfully – not the case. Hedgehog quills are actually modified, thick hair that comes to a point. The quills do not have barbs and they don’t come out of the hedgehog, unlike the porcupine. The most common pet hedgehog is the African hedgehog.
Because they can be shy, prickly and are nocturnal, hedgehogs make poor pets for young children. A responsible teen-ager could be an excellent caretaker for a hedgie, but ultimately a parent must be in charge of providing food, supervision and vet care. Potential hedgehog owners should also note that a properly cared for hedgie can live up to 10 years, and will need a steady caregiver for that time.
In the wild, the hedgehog diet consists mainly of insects and a bit of green foods or vegetables. In captivity, where the proper kind and number of insects are hard to come by, the best thing to feed your pet is a high-quality commercial hedgehog food. Some older references on pet hedgehogs suggest cat or kitten food, but hedgehogs really require very specific nutrition that is best met by a food designed just for them. Of course, you can and should supplement with bits of fruit and vegetables, and give one or two meal worms per day as treats.
Perhaps all those quills are the cause, but hedgehogs don’t seem to be as social as many small caged pets. Two females can be housed together, but males are best kept alone.
It may not be easy to find a vet knowledgeable about hedgehogs. Look for an exotics vet who sees a lot of rodents. Hedgehogs are susceptible to cancer and problems with the reproductive system, so spaying is advised, though expensive. Some hedgehog owners opt for regular visits with an experienced vet to keep an eye on any potential problems. You don’t, however, have to get any vaccines for your pet hedgehog.
Look for a cage or housing that provides at least 2 square feet per hedgehog. In nature, hedgehogs can wander a mile or more each night looking for food, so they definitely need as much room as you can give them and plenty of daily exercise. Some hedgehog owners include a solid exercise wheel in their pets’ environments. Remember when deciding on a location for the cage that hedgies are nocturnal and active – they are likely to be making noise at night and aren’t suited for a bedroom.
Like other small animals, hedgehogs can be extremely susceptible to health problems from cedar or pine shavings. Aspen shavings or paper bedding is recommended, or you can use a soft piece of carpeting or blanket cut to the size of the cage. With any bedding that you use, make sure your pet is not chewing on it or eating it. Never use a clumping type of cat litter in case it is ingested.
Many owners litterbox train their hedgehogs. Put a box in the corner where your hedgehog decides to relieve itself. Place its droppings in the box and be patient as your pet figures out what you are hoping for. Some owners have good luck putting the droppings from another hedgie in their own pet’s box – the smell will indicate to the new hedgehog where the bathroom spot is located.
Hedgehogs have very unique behaviors, including “annointing,” in which the hedgehog licks the surface of a new or strong-smelling item, produces foamy saliva, and spreads that all over its quills. Some hedgehogs do this frequently while others only do it once or twice a year. Males tend to do it more often than females. Be careful that your hedgehog does not do this with some unknown substances – the creatures have a very high tolerance to toxins that they encounter in this way and can unknowingly spread a toxic or irritating substance all over themselves. There’s no easy way to clean the quills off, either, although some hedgehogs enjoy water and will swim or dabble in it willingly.
Finding a pet hedgehog can be a challenge. Hedgehog breeders are USDA licensed, which (in theory) makes the quality of the animals available a little higher because breeders must pay a fee and submit to annual inspections of their breeding facilities. That’s not a guarantee, though, and you should make sure any breeder you deal with can tell you about the pedigree of each hedgehog, has hand raised each hedgehog and can provide ongoing support and a guarantee. Hedgehogs can occasionally be rescued from shelters, or you can contact Petfinder.org for adoptable pets. Expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $175 depending on color for a hedgehog from a breeder, or $50 and up for a rescue.