The hedgehogs commonly kept as pets in North America appear to by a mix of species, originally native to Africa. The term “African Pygmy Hedgehog” is a descriptive term (coined by breeders), rather than a true species name. Hedgehogs are fairly low maintenance pets, and while they don’t mind handling once used to it, they don’t really seem to crave human interaction. However, they are illegal as pets in some areas. African Pygmy Hedgehogs as Pets!
Thanks to selective breeding, hedgehogs are now available in a huge array of color variations. Their backs are covered with rows of short prickly spines and their bellies are covered with soft fur. When threatened, they roll in to a tight ball with just a mass of spines poking out. When relaxed, the spines lay almost flat.
Hedgehogs are quite compact, reaching a size of around 5-8 inches in length. Estimates of expected life span vary widely, anywhere from 3-8 years, although 4-6 years is probably most typical. They are considered primarily insectivores as insects make up the largest part of their natural diet.
Choosing a Hedgehog
Locate a reputable breeder who breeds for good temperament and makes sure young hedgehogs are handled regularly. Getting one young (6-8 weeks) is the best way to make sure your hedgehog will get used to being handled.
If possible, try to pick up the hedgehog to gauge its reaction – choose one that will allow itself to be picked up and maybe even turned on its back without rolling into a tight ball and staying there.
Look for bright eyes, clear nostrils and healthy looking skin, quills and fur. Watch out for flaky skin, missing quills, discharge around the eyes or nose or evidence of diarrhea. Also make sure the hedgehog is in good body condition – neither too thin nor overweight. Check around the legs and watch out for rolls of fat as obesity is a common problem.
Males and females generally are equally good pets but plan on only one hedgehog to a cage. Most hedgehogs are perfectly happy to be kept alone and in fact they often fight if kept with other hedgehogs.
Allow a bare minimum of 2-3 square feet of floor space (though bigger is better). You can use many types of cages, but always avoid wire floors and be cautious about the spacing of wire sided cages – the narrower the better.
Aquariums, plastic commercial cages or even modified plastic storage bins are possiblities. You can also modify clear plastic storage bins to allow adequate ventilation (a row of holes around the top of the bin and/or in the lid works well).
For bedding, try aspen shavings or newer alternatives to wood shavings, but avoid cedar shavings. Pine is probably okay, especially kiln dried, but there are alternatives available. Some people use indoor/outdoor carpeting such as Astroturf to line the cage. Use a heat source to seal the edges so threads do not come loose.
Provide a small shallow pan with dust free cat litter which may become the hedgehog’s primary bathroom area. Do not use clumping litter though. Also include a cardboard box or some other enclosed hiding place as a secure haven for your hedgehog.
A wheel provides great exercise and helpful in preventing obesity. An open sided, solid surface wheel is necessary, and should be quite large (greater than 10 inches, at a minimum). A good example of a hedgehog safe wheel is the Healthy Hedgehog Whisper Wheel from Hedgehogs by Vickie (stick to the larger size if at all possible; note they have a “Hefty Hedghog” model for the hedgehog that needs a little extra support).
Feeding is a controversial topic in hedgehog care. For many years, high quality cat food was the recommended food of choice, supplemented and mealworms or crickets and other treats. Commercial hedgehogs diets are now available, which are not ideal but they are, for the most part, better formulated for hedgehogs than cat food (although some hedgehogs do not like them as much as cat food).
Prepared insectivore diets (such as Zoo Fare) are another good alternative, often favored by exotic animal veterinarians and zoos. Whichever you choose, a mixture or variety of foods is probably best for both health and preventing diet boredom.
Hedgehogs tend to love mealworms, and they make a good occasional treat, but feed mealworms nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables and dog food before giving them to the hedgehog. Crickets can also be fed. Small amounts of hard boiled egg, baby foods or fruit can be given as occasional treats, but feed these goodies in moderation.
Most hedgehogs do not particularly like to be cuddled, but most will allow themselves to be picked up and will readily climb over their people. Careful handling is a necessity. Tame hedgehogs by handling gently and frequently, carefully scooping up your pet around the sides. If you get your hedgie from a good breeder who has been handling them, your hedgehog will most likely be quite tame already.
Initially, your hedgehog may curl into a ball when you try to pick him up. However, if you just cradle the ball in your hands, the spines do not really hurt; usually the hedgehog will unroll within a few minutes and start exploring once it realizes you mean no harm. Be careful the hedgehog does not manage to coil into a ball over one of your fingers though as this is extremely painful!
When starting out with a new hedgie, practice handling at times the hedgehog is awake (e.g. early evening) as a sleepy hedgehog will be more grumpy. Try hand feeding favorite treats such as mealworms to gain the trust of your hedgehog. If your hedgehog is really resistant to handling at first, a thick towel should be all you need to be able to pick him up.
Hedgehogs have a remarkable habit called “self-anointing” which can be somewhat startling the first time you see it. Particular smells seem to send the hedgehog into a flurry contortions as it starts to salivate profusely and spread the saliva over its back. No one is entirely sure why hedgehogs do this and some seem more prone to it than others, but it is not a cause for concern.
Hedgehogs and wheels
Most hedgehogs dearly love to run, and a hedgehog wheel provide the opportunity for plenty of important exercise. Although there are problems associated with using improper wheels, the positive effects of having and using a wheel are virtually enough to make one a necessity (unless your hedgie has free run of an entire room).
One of the most tragic maladies found in hedgehogs these days is Fatty Liver Disease, though for all the cases I have heard of, none have occurred in hedgehogs that have and use wheels. This includes cases where siblings have each had the same diet, but one has not used a wheel, and the other has. Exercise is very critical to our little friends, and for almost all of them, the only option available to get them enough exercise is to give them a wheel.
Here are a few thoughts on hedgehogs and wheels from Nathan Tenny:
They adore exercise wheels, and will run upwards of five miles a night (at a top speed of 12 mph!); their feet get stuck in the regular wire wheels, though, and screen is hard to clean (they seem to like defecating while on the move, which makes sense, I guess). All is not wonderful with hedgehog wheels — there are a few serious problems that need to be considered.
- It is necessary that the wheel have a solid surface.
A hedgehog wheel should not just have a set of wires running across it as on most wheels for hamsters, gerbils, etc. Without a solid surface, your hedgehog will get his legs caught in the wheel, and/or develop sores, or worse problems. There are a number of ways to adapt wire wheels, so that they have smooth surfaces, from liners to duct tape, just use your imagination. Having a solid wheel leads us to the next problem.
- Hedgehogs tend to leave their droppings all over their wheels:
There’s still one pending problem with the hedgehog wheels I’ve seen: Hedgehogs tend to defecate on the run (reasonable enough), and the wheel eventually gets pretty icky. If you don’t clean it, so does the hedgehog. Unfortunately, hedgehog feces stick to wood fairly effectively (that’s quite the understatement — I’m thinking of marketing it as a new extra strong glue — ed.). A heavy coat of enamel paint makes them easier to clean off, but I’d sure like to find a surface that they’ll just wipe away from. Teflon wheels? Here’s my fiancee’s suggestion: If you live near a glass supply store, you’ll find that they sell sheets of a sort of sticky vinyl—intended as masking for people who sandblast glass. Anyway, we have one wheel that has strips of this stuff along it, for traction, and she says that the strips are noticeably easier to clean than the plain wheel. Just a thought. — Nathan Tenny
Velcro’s wheel was lined with some cheap vinyl placemats (the smooth, shiny, padded kind) that were cut into strips and stuck together with anti-slip strips (sort of like self adhesive sandpaper to put on stairs and things to keep people from sliding away). The anti-slip strips were there as a vain attempt to help Velcro keep his nails worn down a little. It wasn’t too slippery, and definitely passed the Velcro approval test (by that, I mean it needed a thorough cleaning most mornings)!
- Pad any spokes you have on your wheel.
Hedgehogs have a tendency to suddenly look around to the sides and behind while they are running — to see how far they’ve gone. This almost always results in getting hit in the face with a spoke from the wheel. Unfortunately I know of at least one hedgehog who has lost an eye because of this (the hedgehog is fine — it was properly treated by a vet). The only sensible solution I can see is to pad the spokes so that they don’t cause injuries when they hit, or if you are really inventive, maybe design a spokeless wheel, maybe suspended on a roller from the top of the cage?