Hedgehogs - Owning

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

General Information

Hedgehogs are nocturnal and are very active at night as they look for food and investigate their environment. During the day, hedgehogs tend to burrow or hide and sleep most of the time. They are skilled at climbing and digging and are even good swimmers. In the wild, the hedgehog does not experience cold weather. If a hedgehog does get chilled, it will become less active. They are also susceptible to heatstroke in high temperatures. Hedgehogs thrive with an environmental temperature of 70º - 85ºF (21º - 29ºC).

Hedgehogs are naturally insectivores (eat insects). Their life expectancy is about four to six years but some live for eight to ten years. Males and females tend to be solitary and territorial except when breeding and raising their young.

What are hedgehogs like as pets?

The African hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris, has been kept as a pet for several decades. They can make interesting, somewhat challenging, yet fun and enjoyable pets. Hedgehogs are mammals whose entire back is blanketed with spines like a porcupine. The sharp spines can cause injury to an owner if the hedgehog is not handled properly, but the spines are NOT barbed like a porcupine and will usually not puncture the skin. They do not throw their spines for defense. As a defense mechanism, hedgehogs "ball up" exposing only their spiny backsides. Because they often do this, owners may not be able to handle or play with them like other pets. However, a well socialized and gently handled young animal will become more tolerant and less afraid, so it will not ball up as much.

"As a defense mechanism, hedgehogs "ball up" exposing only their spiny backsides."

Unlike most other pet animals, hedgehogs tend not to play with toys. They do enjoy running on a wheel designed for hedgehogs or chinchillas (these wheels are designed so that they do not get their feet caught).

What makes hedgehogs unique?

A. Hedgehogs have a keen sense of hearing and smell but their vision is not well developed.

B. Hedgehogs are covered with sharp spines on their backside. Frightened hedgehogs may hiss and "ball up". When they do ball up, you will only see a ball of spines.

C. If threatened, they will jerk their body upward and thrust their spines towards the handler’s fingers or hands.

D. Hedgehogs will become less active if the environmental temperature falls below 60ºF (15.5ºC), which is not desirable. As pets, hedgehogs do not need to hibernate and many veterinarians recommend against hibernation, as problems with disease can occur if the hedgehog is not healthy prior to hibernation. Talk with your veterinarian to learn more specific information about the problems associated with hibernation.

E. Hedgehogs have a lower set body temperature (96º - 99ºF or 35.5º - 37ºC) than most mammals.

F. Hedgehogs have a unique and unusual behavior called "anting" or "self-anointing", in which they take substances or objects of strong or unusual odor into the mouth, mix it with copious amounts of saliva, and then spread this mixture onto their spines using their long tongues. This creates an unpleasant sensation if a predator tries to lick, bite, or touch the hedgehog.

How do I select a pet hedgehog?

Hedgehogs are usually purchased from pet stores, through breeders, or at exotic pet shows. As with any pet purchase, avoid hedgehogs that appear ill or listless and especially if they have discharge from the eyes and/or nose. Hedgehogs should be bright and alert and move quickly when startled. The spines should be clean and the skin free of scaliness. If possible, check the ears for redness or excess wax, which might indicate an infection. Check the mouth (if possible) for broken teeth or red and inflamed gums. The hedgehog should neither feel fat nor thin. Check the anal area for diarrhea or moistness, which might indicate a gastrointestinal infection. Owning a hedgehog may be restricted by law in certain municipalities. This should be investigated prior to purchasing one of these unique animals.

"Hedgehogs should be bright and alert and move quickly when startled."

Should I have my new hedgehog examined by a veterinarian?

Your hedgehog should come with a health guarantee and, in most cases, the guarantee requires a checkup by a veterinarian within a few days (usually 48 hours) after purchase. Select a veterinarian knowledgeable about hedgehogs. Since hedgehogs will ball up if frightened, some veterinarians may elect to anesthetize your hedgehog with a gas anesthetic (such as isoflurane) for a thorough physical exam.

The veterinary examination will include checking your hedgehog’s weight and also for physical abnormalities. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin will be assessed, and the abdomen will be palpated (if possible). Your hedgehog will also be examined for signs of dehydration and malnutrition. A fecal test should be done to check for internal parasites. Your veterinarian can also determine the sex of your hedgehog.

What about routine health care?

Like all pets, hedgehogs should be examined at least annually and, if abnormalities are noted, blood tests and/or radiographs (X-rays) may be recommended. Pet hedgehogs do not require vaccinations.

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