Hedgehogs - Diseases

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What are some of the common diseases of pet hedgehogs?

Common conditions of pet hedgehogs include internal and external parasites, ringworm, cancer, pneumonia, gastrointestinal disease, and obesity. Signs of illness or disease are often vague and non-specific, such as lack of appetite and lethargy. Therefore, any deviation from your hedgehog’s normal habits should be cause for concern and should be evaluated by your veterinarian.

What are the signs of these diseases?

Internal and external parasites
Internal parasites ("worms" and protozoa) can cause diarrhea and require a microscopic fecal examination by a veterinarian. In cases of low parasite counts, some hedgehogs may not show any signs but still test positive for intestinal parasites.

External parasites include fleas, ticks, and mites and cause various types of dermatitis. The ‘Quill Mite’, Caparinia tripolis, is the most common external parasite in pet hedgehogs. It is often discovered while examining the face, as they run around the face, forehead, and ears. These mites come from direct contact with other infected hedgehogs or from contaminated litter and cages where infected hedgehogs have been living. Many animals with a low number of mites show no clinical signs. In moderate to heavy infestations, quill loss, flaky skin, and crusts at the base of the spines may occur. Ear mites may also infest your pet hedgehog. Fleas like many warm-blooded mammals and hedgehogs are no exception. Ticks are uncommon, especially if the hedgehog is kept indoors.

Ringworm is not a worm but rather a fungus involving the skin. Clinical signs can include missing spines, hair loss, flaking, and crusting of the skin. This fungal skin disease can be transmitted to other pets and people.

Cancer may occur in hedgehogs three years of age and older. Most commonly, cancer involves the mouth, stomach, or intestinal tract but all body parts are susceptible. As is true with many hedgehog diseases, clinical signs may not be specific for cancer and simply include weight loss, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth is a very common cancerous condition in hedgehogs. It may cause a foul odor coming from the mouth, noticeable swelling around the mouth, and/or weight loss. Uterine cancer in female hedgehogs may cause vaginal bleeding.

Respiratory diseases, especially pneumonia, are often seen in pet hedgehogs. Symptoms may include nasal discharge, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Severely affected pets may be listless and stop eating. One of the most common causes of pneumonia in hedgehogs is the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough in dogs. Limit exposure to unvaccinated dogs. All dogs in your house should be vaccinated against kennel cough.

"One of the most common causes of pneumonia in hedgehogs is the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough in dogs."

Gastrointestinal disease
Gastrointestinal problems may occur for several different reasons. Salmonella infections may be asymptomatic or may manifest as diarrhea. Salmonella infections can lead to dehydration and death if not managed properly. Other causes of diarrhea include dietary factors such as consuming milk or changing brands of food too rapidly. Fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) may be caused by malnutrition, starvation, or toxins.

Obesity is very common in hedgehogs being fed strictly cat food. An obese hedgehog cannot curl up in a ball and may have difficulty walking or running on a wheel. Obesity often leads to fatty liver disease and a shortened life span.

How are hedgehog diseases diagnosed?

It is often necessary to perform certain clinical procedures or diagnostic tests to reach a proper diagnosis. These procedures can include a thorough physical examination, fecal analysis, radiographs (X-rays,) blood and/or urine testing, fungal or bacterial cultures, ultrasound, and/or exploratory surgery. Most hedgehogs must be anesthetized for the veterinarian to perform a thorough examination or other procedures. Using gas anesthesia is safe and quick, and it prevents harm to your hedgehog while being examined. Classically, it takes several minutes to have the hedgehog sedated enough to examine and five to ten minutes to regain normal stability and motor skills.

How are hedgehog diseases treated?

Internal parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. External parasites are treated with prescribed antiparasitic medication. Pneumonia and other respiratory problems are treated with antibiotics. Hedgehogs that are lethargic and have stopped eating will require aggressive therapy in the hospital. Diarrhea is managed by determining the cause, correcting the diet, and providing the appropriate medication. Giving antibiotics or other medications by mouth can be very challenging with a reluctant hedgehog. Injectable antibiotics or medicines may be necessary. Most cancerous conditions will require surgical removal of the tumor. Chemotherapy is available for some forms of cancer.

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