Buying a Hedgehog

Pet stores

A pet store may be your most convenient option for buying a hedgehog. You’re more likely to find healthy hedgehogs and knowledgeable staff at a pet store specifically aimed at exotic pets than a large, more general shop. It’s unfortunately rare to find a large pet store that treats its hedgehogs well. Too often, they’re kept in overcrowded enclosures by staff with limited knowledge of their dietary and environmental needs. Baby hedgehogs in pet stores are often weaned too early—sometimes as young as 3 weeks, about half the time they’re supposed to stay with their mother. The long-term impact of early weaning on the animal’s health often can’t be undone. If you buy your animal from a pet store, make sure to check out the cage where it’s being housed. If the cage is dirty, overcrowded, or lacks sufficient food, water, and hiding places, you should not buy your hedgehog there. The animal will likely have health issues that could mean costly vet bills down the line, and it’s likely to be improperly socialized (the grasping hands of so many strangers may make the animal permanently wary of handling). You might feel compelled to rescue the animal from deplorable conditions, but remember the business aspect of the pet trade. If you buy this animal, you’re giving this shop your money, and supporting their continued mistreatment of small animals.

If you do buy an animal from a pet store, it’s advisable to buy a male instead of a female. Though it’s not healthy for female hedgehogs to breed before 5 months of age, they’re sexually mature as early as 8 weeks. A lot of pet stores will let males and females cohabitate when they’re young assuming no breeding can take place. Add the fact that it’s extremely difficult to tell when a female hedgehog’s pregnant, and you could end up bringing home the hedgie equivalent of a teenage mother. Aside from the health complications from this (and the fact that you now have 4-10 pets when you planned on having one) this often means hedgehogs are breeding with their siblings and can result in inbred offspring. Inbreeding leads to both psychological and physiological issues. If the pet store staff has trouble differentiating between male and female animals, you shouldn’t buy a hedgehog there.  

Breeders

A reputable breeder is the best place to buy your hedgehog. There are both good and bad breeders. The size of the operation is not the best indication of the quality—there are great large operations, and sub-par smaller ones. Like with pet stores, look at the enclosure where your hedgehog’s being kept and make sure it’s clean and not overcrowded. Be wary of any breeder who won’t let you see the cages unless they give a good reason for the omission (e.g. there’s a very pregnant female who shouldn’t be disturbed, or a new litter of hoglets). Breeders are also the best place to look for specific color variants. The breeder should be able to provide at least five generations of lineage for your animal. This shows you two very important things: That the animal is not inbred, and that it’s been selectively bred for a good personality. Generally speaking, hedgehogs bought from breeders are more accustomed to humans and friendlier overall.

A good breeder will be able to do more than simply sell you a pet. They’ll be able to answer any questions you have about the animal’s care and show you how to properly handle the hedgehog. You should also ask the breeder for recommendations on finding veterinary care. If they’re willing to give you the name of their vet, this could be an ideal option—that vet may already have a relationship with your animal. If the breeder is unable to tell you where the closest vet is, that’s a pretty big warning sign, because it means they’re not taking the animals in for regular check-ups (if they simply can’t give you that vet’s information because he’s full or only works with breeders, that’s unfortunate but acceptable).

Rescue shelters

A rescued hedgehog is not the best pet for a first-time owner. These animals come with a history, and it’s rarely a happy one. Improper nutrition and housing may have given it chronic health issues, which could translate to costly vet visits. Past neglect or bad experiences with handling could also make it standoffish or especially timid around people. A rescued hedgehog can take a long time to start trusting people again, and may never be as friendly as one bought young from a breeder.

The advantage of rescuing a hedgehog, of course, is that you’re providing a home for an otherwise abandoned animal. If you feel up to the challenge, the International Hedgehog Association has a state-by-state listing of rescue organizations on their website (http://www.hedgehogclub.com/rescue/). Make sure you are prepared for the extra time and financial investment before adopting—you’re not doing yourself or the animal any favors if you have to abandon it again because its care is more work than you expected. 

Behavior and personality

Some hedgehogs are explorers, boldly forging into new territory and constantly trying to escape from their cage. Others are cuddlers, perfectly content to pass an evening resting in their human’s lap. Still more are loners who may be eager to solve mazes and puzzles but will hiss at the touch of an unwanted human hand. Even within the same litter, the personalities of individual hedgehogs vary widely, and it’s very important to spend some time with the animal before you decide to adopt it.

That being said, the average hedgehog tolerates handling but rarely looks for attention. Hedgehogs are solitary in the wild, only coming together to mate. They won’t get lonely without other hedgehogs around—in fact, they do best when housed singly. Male hedgehogs should never be kept in the same enclosure with another animal, male or female. Two or more females can usually cohabitate peacefully but should be carefully monitored and separated if they begin to fight.

Hedgehogs communicate through both body language and vocalizations. A content hedgehog will have smooth, flat quills and make a whistling or purring noise, or a pig-like snuffling sound that’s especially common when they’re foraging for food. An annoyed or nervous hedgehog will make puffing or snorting noises and erect the quills on its forehead over its eyes. Consider this a yellow light—move slowly, gently, and cautiously if you continue interacting. If all of a hedgehog’s quills are erect, and it’s hissing or clicking, the hedgehog is either scared or angry and you should leave it alone. He may also jump or “pop” when he’s feeling especially grumpy. A well-treated hedgehog should rarely curl up into a tight ball. This is a defensive posture and a sign the hedgehog feels threatened. If the hedgie’s curled into a loose ball and you can still see his face, he’s just resting and all is well. When they’re afraid, angry, or in pain, hedgehogs are capable of producing extremely loud screaming sounds. This is a cry for help and you should immediately find the source of the hedgehog’s alarm.

One odd hedgehog behavior that deserves special attention is the practice of self-anointing. Hedgehogs are extremely odor-sensitive and when they encounter a particularly pungent or pleasant smell they’ll start foaming at the mouth and then spread saliva over their quills. No one’s completely sure why hedgehogs do this. Some speculate it’s a form of camouflage to make the animal smell like its environment. Others think it’s an attempt to increase the effectiveness of their quills by coating them with toxins. Whatever the reason, it’s a perfectly normal hedgehog behavior and shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. The unsubstantiated claim that hedgehogs frequently have rabies is likely due to a misunderstanding of this behavior, since foaming from the mouth is a common symptom of that disease. 

Hedgehogs and other pets

You should supervise interactions between hedgehogs and larger pets, at least for the first few weeks the animal’s in your home. A dog’s curious pawing can injure a hedgehog just as much as an outright predatory attack from a cat. Luckily for the hedgehog, his quills will usually deter both kinds of attention. Though you want to make sure your enclosure is secure, most of the time cats and hedgehogs come to a kind of truce—after the first time your cat gets a paw full of quills, they’ll usually leave the hedgehog alone (though they may sit and watch the hedgehog for hours, which could stress the little guy out). Interactions with dogs tend to be trickier. A large dog, especially, may try to pick the hedgehog up in its mouth, or bat it around like a ball. These actions are rarely aggressive or predatory in nature, but they can be equally harmful. Keep your dog’s personality in mind before allowing the hedgehog to run around with it in an open space. Calm dogs often ignore or gently sniff at hedgehogs. More manic breeds may never learn how to interact with hedgehogs safely.

Surprisingly, ferrets tend to be the most dangerous animal common in a home. The ferret’s strong natural odors will intrigue the hedgehog, while its sharp teeth and claws could cause the hedgie serious injury even if they’re only trying to play. Shared playtime between the hedgehog and other small animals—like rabbits, guinea pigs, and rats—should be fine, though you should never house multiple species of small animal in the same enclosure.

European vs. African hedgehogs 

The majority of hedgehogs bred in North America are African pygmy hedgehogs, which are themselves a hybrid of two wild African species—the 4-toed or white-bellied hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian hedgehog (Atelerix algirus). As the name pygmy would suggest, these animals are on the small side, typically weighing 300-700 grams and measuring 6-9 inches in length. Though many color variations are possible, the traditional coloration is a white-furred belly with black and white banded quills.

The hedgehogs featured in folk tales are typically Western or European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) or Eastern European hedgehogs (Erinaceus concolor). These animals have brown fur and quills and are generally larger, weighing up to 1000 grams and measuring 12-15 inches. These animals are rarely seen in the North American pet trade but may be familiar to European homeowners, who often aim to attract wild hedgehogs to their gardens to eat slugs, snails, and other pests. Both species of European hedgehog are threatened and protected in most of their range. Interacting with them in the wild is fine, but it may be illegal to capture and keep the animal, and you should allow it to stay in its natural habitat. Even the states where hedgehog ownership is legal may not also apply that to European species—since they’re adapted to a temperate climate, they’re more likely to become invasive if released in large enough numbers (as their introduction to New Zealand can attest to).

There’s a bigger difference between these species than the color of their quills. European hedgehogs are accustomed to cold winters, which they pass by hibernating. This also means they’re adapted to eating a fattier diet, especially in the fall when they’re stocking up for their long sleep. African hedgehogs live in a climate where it’s warm all year. They’re active in all seasons and require a primarily protein-based diet that’s very low in fat. Though they retain the instinct to hibernate when the temperature drops too much, they’re not physiologically adapted for the process. Their speedy metabolisms don’t slow enough, even in a state of torpor, and hibernation is often fatal for African hedgehogs.

Since they are by far the most common species found in the pet trade, the advice in this blog is aimed at African pygmy hedgehogs. Don’t assume your hedgehog is European just because it’s brown. Some African hedgehogs are selectively bred for brown, tan, or orange colorations. If you’re not sure of the origin of your new pet, you should ask the breeder to explain the animal’s lineage. Most breed selectively and track the ancestry of their animals back at least five generations.

Older hedgehog ailments 

As hedgehogs age, they’re prone to developing more health issues, the most serious of which is cancer. This can affect every organ of the body, and can be treated with chemotherapy or surgery. Signs of cancer include unusual lumps under the skin, or the other signs of illness like sluggishness and appetite loss.

Older hedgehogs also frequently suffer kidney issues. This can be identified by sudden weight loss, lethargy, anemia, and changes in the waste. Oral diseases are also more common in older hedgehogs. There’s no surefire way to prevent any of these illnesses, but keeping the cage a little warmer for a hedgehog over the age of five—around 80°F—can help keep them healthier longer.

Other issues

Hedgehogs kept in an environment that’s too cool or too moist are prone to developing respiratory diseases. Signs of this are similar to a human’s common cold—sneezing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, or wheezing sounds while breathing. Give the enclosure a good thorough cleaning and raise the temperature a few degrees. If the symptoms don’t improve within a week, call your vet.

Hedgehogs carry salmonella but very rarely will contract it. If they do, you’ll notice flu-like symptoms and will need to call your vet. Similarly rare conditions include urinary tract infections, eye infections, and shock from an invisible injury. The best bet in all of these cases is to get medical help rather than trying to treat the issue yourself.

Finally, the hedgehog’s quills can make it difficult to properly cover small wounds to keep them from getting infected. If your hedgehog gets small cuts that don’t bleed too much you can affix a piece of gauze over the wound and hold it in place with a solid strip of sock material. Slide it over the front of the hedgehog; it should hold the gauze tight to the body. If there’s profuse bleeding—or if the hedgehog is bleeding from the nose or mouth after a fall or injury—you should seek medical attention.

Administering medicine 

Since your hedgehog is already sick, you should try to make the administration of medications as low-stress as possible. If you’re putting topical medication on a wound or skin infection, don’t apply too much. If the hedgehog thinks it smells or tastes good it can re-open the wound by repeatedly licking or chewing on the area. You may need to get a plastic shield of the same style given to dogs and cats post-surgery from your vet if they refuse to stop licking the area.

When you’re administering medicine orally, try to make it part of a treat as often as possible. Hedgehogs have a sweet tooth so mix it with some mushed-up fruit or use some natural flavoring from the baking section to give it a pleasant odor and flavor. You can also mix the medication with human baby foods based on strained meats, like chicken and turkey, or with their wet dog or cat food. Don’t mix the medication into an entire bowl of dry food as you won’t be sure that the hedgehog will eat the whole dose.

Hedgehogs are fairly tolerant of injectable medications, though they may pop and jump the first time you try it. You can give an injectable medication even if the hedgehog’s in a ball; have your vet show you the ideal way to administer that particular injection.

The hardest medications to give to a hedgehog are those that have to go directly into the ears or eye. Your best bet for getting these into your hedgehog is to use a scruff hold. This is the way mother hedgehogs carry their young in the wild, so while it might look painful a scruff hold will actually help relax them. Put on a pair of latex gloves to get better traction on the quills and gently grab the hedgehog slightly behind his ears, lifting him until his rear legs are suspended. Once he’s relaxed his mouth should be slack and his eyes almost closed. At this point, you can use an eye dropper to administer the medication. Make sure the medication is at room temperature to limit discomfort, and try not to touch his sensitive face hairs or it may cause him to break out of his relaxed trance.

 

Introducing your pet to strangers 

It can be tempting to want to show off your new hedgehog to everyone who comes to your house—it’s exciting to get a new pet, and you want him to be a part of your family. You should resist this urge, though, and continue to introduce new people to your hedgehog slowly until you’re sure how he’ll react. Don’t introduce your hedgehog to any strangers until he’s completely comfortable with you. After you’ve reached this point, have a friend come over and start the same way you did—take the hedgehog out of its enclosure, settle him into the newcomer’s lap, and instruct your friend not to attempt to touch or move him until he decides to begin exploring on his own.

Some animals can quickly reach the point of feeling comfortable with anyone and seem to love human attention; others bond very closely with a single handler and are wary of any other hands coming near. There’s no way to tell which kind of hedgehog you have until you’ve seen him interacting with a variety of people. If it’s especially important to you to find a gregarious hedgehog, you may want to get an adult individual from a breeder whose personality is fully known and developed.

Dealing with bites

Even well-adjusted hedgehogs occasionally bite, and it’s something you should be prepared for. There are two kinds of bite: a playful nipping and a serious fear reaction. Nipping can happen during play or when feeding treats. As noted above, hedgehogs are very scent-sensitive and may lick and nibble on things it thinks smells or tastes good. If your hedgehog starts aggressively licking something it’s priming to take a bite and you should move it—especially if that thing is your finger. Scents that hedgehogs find appealing include perfumes and colognes, so if you wear scented products on your wrists you may be at risk for nibbles. Salty things taste very good to hedgehogs; if you’ve recently eaten salty or savory snacks the taste of them might still be on your fingers. Tobacco smoke is another common cause of exploratory nibbles. Most hedgehogs will want to self-anoint with this aroma. The best way to prevent these kinds of exploratory bites is to wash your hands thoroughly before handling the animal. Even if he does nibble you, these kinds of nips rarely break the skin and are no more painful than a sharp pinch (though they should still be discouraged).

Fear or defensive bites are a more serious issue. These bites are more aggressive and typically do break the skin. To make matters worse, a hedgehog will often lock its jaws once it’s bitten down. This is to prevent wriggling prey from escaping in the wild and can make bites very damaging and painful if they’re not handled correctly. Don’t try to tug the bitten item forward out of the hedgehog’s mouth—you’ll injure yourself, your pet, or both. To force the jaws to unlock, push the bitten item in toward the hedgehog’s head. Stay as calm as you possibly can if your hedgehog bites you. Return it safely to its cage then wash and disinfect the wound.

If defensive biting becomes habitual, it’s imperative that you find out the root of the problem. Make sure he’s being handled gently by everyone. Hedgehogs differentiate between multiple owners by their scent and the sound of their voice, so look for patterns in the animal’s aggressive behavior. If he’s acting out because of improper handling, looking at who puts him on edge will help to identify the culprit. If he’s biting everyone equally, it could be out of pain. Check his body for bruises or visible wounds, and make an appointment with the vet to make sure nothing’s wrong. Also thoroughly inspect his cage to see if there’s something inside of it causing discomfort.

If the hedgehog is being handled well and there’s nothing wrong with him or his enclosure, there are a few methods you can try to curtail biting behaviors. A drop of rubbing alcohol on the hedgehog’s nose when it bites will make it release. The animal will likely self-anoint with the odor but it won’t harm him and he should stop biting with time. You could also blow gently in his face, or use a plant sprayer to gently mist his face when he appears to be preparing to bite. Don’t turn to these methods until you’re sure there’s not a legitimate reason behind the habitual biting. You don’t want to discourage your hedgehog from showing you when something’s really wrong.

Food and nutrition

Hedgehogs are classified as insectivores, but in reality they’re omnivores, opportunistic feeders who’ll eat whatever happens along. Their diet in captivity should be high in protein and low in fat. While there are commercial hedgehog chow products available, many of these are simply re-packaged food for rodents, or the leftovers from making cat and dog food. In either case, these aren’t appropriate diets for a hedgehog. Rodent diets rely too heavily on grains in their formula and won’t give a hedgehog enough protein, while the leftovers of other animals food will be lacking in nutrients and too high in fat.

The bulk of your hedgehog’s food should be comprised of hard kibble. The texture of the kibble will help the animal to keep its teeth clean and prevent dental issues. A healthy adult hedgehog will eat between ½ and 2 tablespoons of kibble a night depending on their age, activity level, and metabolism. You can adjust this amount to suit your individual hedgehog by keeping close watch of their weight and increasing or decreasing their food allowance accordingly. Make a mix for your hedgehog consisting of at least three different brands of kibble to make sure he’s getting a good range of nutritional input. Supplement this chow with occasional fruits and vegetables, cooked meats, and insects like mealworms and crickets.

In the wild, hedgehogs do most of their foraging at dawn and dusk, and these are the best times to offer them food in captivity. Replace the dry food with fresh offerings at around 7pm and leave it in the cage all night. Treats should be given when you want the hedgehog to come out to play. You can split their daily feeding into 2-3 smaller sessions if you’d prefer; this may be helpful in adjusting their schedule to be more awake during the daytime. Make sure the food you offer is at room temperature or warmer when you give it to your hedgehog; this tends to make hedgehogs want to eat it more.

Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and shouldn’t be fed anything containing dairy. You should also avoid food that has artificial preservatives like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) as these have been suspected of causing serious health problems, including certain cancers. Generally speaking, hedgehogs are resistant to most toxins, but there are a few foods that could be dangerous. Avoid avocados, grapes, and raisins—these foods have been linked to liver and renal failure. Nuts and seeds (frequent contributors to many small pet diets) are potential choking hazards and generally too fatty for a hedgehog; you should avoid feeding them. Anything a human would consider “junk food” is also bad. The high fat and sugar levels can contribute to obesity, and these foods often contain unhealthy preservatives.

There are a lot of good options for kibble at your local pet store that may or may not claim to be for hedgehogs. Always check the label on any food you buy and avoid anything with grain or corn as its primary ingredient, or anything that contains excessive amounts of preservatives, even if they’re not the specific ones noted above.

For owners of multiple pet species: you should not allow your hedgehog to share a larger pet’s dish, even if they eat exactly the same kind of food. This is partially to avoid cross-contamination of the food and prevent illness in all your animals, but it also prevents injury. Cats and dogs who are otherwise placid and accepting of the hedgehog might get protective of their food dishes, or could be so focused on eating that they step on or hit the hedgie without even meaning to (or noticing). It’s also impossible to determine how much food each individual animal is eating if they’re sharing dishes, meaning you won’t be able to monitor your hedgehog’s intake and could miss signs of an impending illness. 

Dry cat or kitten kibble

Cat and kitten chows are the most reliable source of properly balanced nutrients. Look for a high-quality product that has meat as the primary ingredient. Meat or meat meal should also be the second ingredient listed. The kibble should ideally have 30% protein, though anything in the range of 24-35% is acceptable. Also look for a food that’s less than 15% fat and low in iron. Young hedgehogs (under 10 weeks of age) should be fed kitten chow—it’s softer, smaller, and easier for them to digest. After that, you can move them to a low-calorie formula for adult cats. The insects hedgehogs eat in the wild are very crunchy, and kibble delivers that crunch, making it appetizing for most hogs. Some will be picky about the shape or taste of their kibble once they’ve gotten used to a certain kind. If you’re trying out a new pet food, ask the store if they have a sample bag you can try so you don’t waste money on something your hedgehog will refuse to eat.

Dry dog food

Dog food meeting the same requirements (30% protein, 15% fat, low iron, and meat based) will fill your hedgehog’s nutritional needs. Buy the type made for small dogs—larger pieces of kibble may be difficult for a hedgehog to get its mouth around and chew. If you already have a large dog that eats food nutritionally suitable for your hedgehog, you can break the larger kibble into smaller chunks in the food processor and offer it to your hedgie in this easier to eat format. 

Hedgehog chow

In the past, foods labeled as hedgehog diets were all pretty terrible for hedgehogs and owners were advised not to even consider these as options. In recent years, more high-quality hedgehog foods have started showing up in pet stores. Some good brands include Spike’s Delight, Exotic Nutrition’s Hedgehog Complete formula, 8in1 Ultra Hedgehog mix, and Sunseed hedgehog food. Though this isn’t a complete list, you should check the label of any other brand of hedgehog chow to make sure the first two ingredients are meat or meat meal and that it contains no seeds, nuts, or raisins. 

Wet dog and cat food

Canned, wet dog and cat foods should only be given to hedgehogs as treats. Make sure they’re meat or poultry based and limit the amount to one teaspoon a day. Canned foods will often alter the consistency of the hedgehog’s waste; it may be moist or slimy, or have a stronger odor than usual.

Live food

As insectivores in the wild, hedgehogs will appreciate the inclusion of live food in their diet. This should be a supplement to dry kibble—a hedgehog in captivity will get too much fat and not enough other vitamins subsisting exclusively on live food. You can give them 3-5 mealworms in a day, 1-2 crickets, or a single waxworm. Insects should be gut-loaded for at least 24 hours before feeding them to your hedgehog (if you’re not familiar with this term, gut-loading is a process by which an insect’s nutritional value is enhanced by feeding them high-quality food).

Mealworms often come in a gut-load mix of flour and sawdust and can be left in that container. These little worms are the larval stage of the mealworm beetle. If left in a room-temperature environment, the mealworms will pupate into their adult form, a medium-sized black beetle that can also be fed to the hedgehog, or left in the container to lay eggs and form a self-sustaining colony. If you’d rather not deal with beetles, you can prevent pupation by keeping the mealworms in the fridge. Don’t feed freeze dried mealworms to your hedgehog—these have been implicated in instances of impacted bowels.

Crickets should be kept in a plastic container with a tight-sealing lid. You can find cricket gut-load formula in the reptile section of the pet store. Provide the crickets with a slice of a hard fruit or vegetable for water (like a melon, potato, apple, or pear). Crickets are more difficult to breed, and considering how few you’ll need for your hedgehog, you’ll likely be best served by buying only as much as you need for a few feedings from your local pet store. 

Fruits and vegetables 

Fruits and vegetables should be considered treats for a hedgehog. Give them only small amounts per day (less than a teaspoon). Avoid avocado and grapes, as mentioned above; otherwise, all fruits and vegetables are fair game. Food enjoyed by most hedgehogs include peas, corn, yams, apples, melon, and bananas. 

Cooked meats

Some other human food can be an appropriate treat for a hedgie. Poultry and hamburger are popular hedgehog treats. Make sure the meat is unseasoned and avoid pre-packaged lunch meats or other items containing lots of salt and preservatives. As with the other treats above, offer them no more than 1 teaspoon in any given day.

Supplements

If your hedgehog has dry skin issues you can add a few drops of an omega fatty acid or some flax seed into their food mix. Most hedgehogs will not need other nutritional supplements. You should only give them vitamin mixes if it’s recommended by your vet; due to the vitamins and minerals already present in their food, hedgehogs who are given generic small animal multi vitamins could receive too much of certain things, some of which can be accumulated in the blood to toxic levels.

Daily play and exercise

Now to the fun part of hedgehog care: Playtime! If you get your hedgehog on a regular schedule, you’ll likely find him waiting for you at the cage door when playtime comes around. The nature of your play is going to depend a lot on the interests and personality of your particular animal, but in every case variety is key. Hedgehogs are intelligent and inquisitive animals that enjoy exploring new things.

You’ve got a lot of play area options to work with, but if you’d rather not buy an external structure—or if you have limited space—several areas of your home can be easily adapted. The simplest option is a standard bathtub. The sides are too tall and smooth for a hedgehog to climb up and out, so you don’t need to take any extra security measures aside from making sure the drain is firmly stoppered. You can use a pet gate or baby gate to close off a closet or other section of a room. If you can, find a gate with ½ inch or smaller gaps between the bars; if that’s not available, buy a sheet of smooth metal or plastic to cover it and prevent escape. Some owners will let their hedgehogs out to explore and play in an entire room, or even their entire apartment—in fact, free-roaming hedgehogs are not unheard of.

Any area that’s going to serve as a play space needs to be hedgie-proofed for safety. Hedgehogs aren’t known to chew on non-food items the way rodents do, though they will eat something if they think it’s food, and they will often lick strong-smelling items, either to determine edibility or to self-anoint with the odor. You should make sure nothing is accessible in the hedgehog’s play area that could be toxic if licked or eaten. The other behaviors you have to worry about during playtime are climbing and burrowing. Hedgehogs are accomplished climbers, but they aren’t always as good at getting back down. If you’re letting your hedgehog roam in a whole house or room, make sure he can’t climb his way into any dangerous situations. Since they burrow, you also have to be careful of gaps in walls and cabinetry. You should also make sure they can’t get under, inside, or behind any appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, etc) where they could get stuck, lost, or injured. Radiators and heating vents should also be covered or blocked off. Finally, you need to make sure there’s no way for the hedgehog to get outside through a window, doggie door, or other opening. Once they’re in the open, hedgehogs run surprisingly fast, and they could be gone before you have a chance to react.

Outdoor play 

It can be fun to take your hedgehog outside for some fresh air, so long as you follow some basic safety precautions. First of all, make sure the air temperature is within the acceptable range of 70°-90°F (and make sure to factor any kind of wind into that equation). You’ll mostly want to take them outside in the evening when they’d normally be awake. This will keep them from getting overheated by direct sunlight. It’s also not a good idea to take a hedgehog outside when it’s raining. They like a drier environment, and they’ll get cold if they get wet.

Any time your hedgehog is outside they should be in a secure, supervised area. You can use a rabbit hutch or move their playpen or cage outside. Whatever space you provide should include both shade and water. Remember that they burrow; the grass in your yard is not necessarily a secure barrier, and whatever insects or worms they happen upon while digging will probably be eaten. If you don’t want to worry about them digging, put a layer of something solid between the hedgehog and the grass. You could use a blanket, a sheet of pressed wood or acrylic, a canvas tarp—pretty much anything that’s non-toxic and can’t be burrowed through.

Be aware of all potential environmental hazards before you take your pet outside. Don’t put them on a lawn that’s been chemically treated. If your neighborhood has a lot of free-roaming cats (or other predators) a covered enclosure is necessary. The space should also be clean of other animals’ waste. Raccoon droppings can be especially bad for hedgehogs. Raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) is a parasite that’s transmitted through physical contact and can be contracted by hedgehogs. The eggs of this parasite can stay alive in the soil for years, so be especially cautious letting your pet burrow in areas where raccoons are common.

Toys 

Most hedgehogs can learn how to run a maze in search of treats. You can build them one using blocks or set up a system of tunnels out of the plastic pieces they sell in the small animal section—just be sure to buy the ferret size; hedgehogs can get stuck in tubes designed for hamsters and gerbils. Aside from these products, most toys aimed at small animals aren’t the best for hedgehogs. Unlike other rodents, they don’t need to chew on wood to file down their teeth, and a lot of the toys designed for hamsters and gerbils are choking hazards if given to a hedgehog. You also shouldn’t use the clear plastic hamster balls or runaround balls. Since hedgehogs like to poop while they’re running these will get your pet pretty messy, and the ventilation slits in these products are also known to catch quills and toes.

If you want to get toys at the pet store, look for them in the cat and dog sections. Both balls and squeak toys usually appeal to hedgehogs. The general consensus among breeders is that you shouldn’t give hedgehogs straight catnip, but cat toys with catnip inside won’t harm a hedgehog—they’re not generally known for destroying toys and will be unlikely to eat any. The only cat toys you should avoid are the slitted hard plastic balls, as the hedgehog’s teeth and toes can get stuck in the gaps. From the dog section, balls and squeaky toys are both good options.

You can also use children’s toys and stuffed animals. Hedgehogs seem to greatly enjoy pushing toy cars around their playpen, and you can have some fun with kids’ construction toys (dumptrucks, backhoes, etc) by putting treats in the compartment and watching your hedgehog learn how to get to them. Online hedgehog forums are full of wonderful ideas for playthings. Even something as simple as a disposable paper bowl can be an engaging addition to a playpen. Just make sure anything you offer follows the same rules as the bedding and cage: it should be non-toxic, contain no cedar, pine, lead, or zinc, and have no stray threads or sharp edges.

 

 

Exercise Wheels

Hedgehogs are accustomed to running long distances in their natural habitat, and a high-quality exercise wheel is necessary for a captive hog to thrive. Traditional hamster wheels (a wire mesh wheel open on both sides mounted on an axle connected to triangular supports) are not suitable for hedgehogs; in fact, these models exemplify exactly what you don’t want. The supports are the first problem. Many hedgehogs like to step off of their wheels mid-run, and the external frame could injure or trap them in the process, while their backs often bump into the central axle while they’re running. The wire mesh wheel often catches hedgehog toes and quills, causing injury. These models can also be top-heavy and are prone to toppling when climbed on.

The ideal hedgehog wheel has a 12” diameter with a running tread that’s 4-6” wide. The wheel should be of a solid material and can be made of either metal or plastic so long as it has enough tread. The entry side should be free of obstruction. To avoid potential falls, the wheel can be attached to the side of the cage or firmly mounted to a weighted or secured base. There are a few different designs that satisfy all these requirements, some of which are radical departures from what you might picture when you think of an exercise wheel.

Regardless of which design you pick, make sure that it can be easily cleaned and removed. Even for litter box trained pets the wheel often serves as a backup bathroom. Running stimulates a hedgehog’s metabolism and causes his body to expel waste. Instinct tells the hedgehog he’s leaving the waste behind as he runs and he won’t show his usual concern for cleanliness. Wheels should be wiped down daily as part of your maintenance routine. Remove and disinfect the wheel at least once a month. 

Bucket wheels

Made of solid, durable plastic, bucket wheels are often made and sold by breeders and hobbyists, and they’re available in a range of styles and sizes online. You can fasten it to the side of the cage or mount it on a stand; it will be quiet and take up very little floor space. The only issues with bucket wheels are that you’re unlikely to find them at your local pet store, and they can be costly ($20-$30 before shipping). 

Flying saucer wheels

The flying saucer is an exercise wheel flattened and turned on its side. They feature a broad, textured disc mounted at an angle on an attached stand. They are safe, quiet, and easy to clean. Though they take up a lot of floor space inside the cage, they are great for enclosures with a low clearance. They’re a little trickier to use; most hedgehogs don’t take long to figure them out but older hedgehogs may have difficulty, and they might be hard to use for especially large animals. The main disadvantage keepers find in flying saucer style wheels is that they can fling the waste your pet drops while running around the cage if they build up enough speed, causing quite a mess.

Chinchilla wheels

Solid wheels designed for chinchillas—like the steel Quality Comfort models and the all-plastic Comfort Wheels—can be great options for longer and larger hedgehogs. Both models are a bit noisier, generally, than the styles listed above. The plastic Comfort Wheels may be more difficult to clean because of the grooves on the running surface and you should keep a close eye on your hedgehog’s feet when he’s using this kind of wheel (he may run them raw). The solid steel models have a smooth surface but you should check the outer edge frequently to make sure there’re no sharp edges. The main issue with both styles of chinchilla wheels is that they can be top-heavy and have been known to topple. Affixing these wheels to the side of the cage is the best and safest option.  

Picking the right animal

Health and personality should be your two main factors in determining which hedgehog to buy. Though hedgehogs are good at hiding illnesses, there are several signs you should look out for when you’re going to buy your new pet. Make sure the animal is moving easily, without a limp or any dragged limbs. The eyes should be bright and clear with no crusting or discharge; the ears should be smooth and rounded with no visible ear wax. Any sneezing, wheezing, or discharge from the nose is a sign of an infection. Check the skin between the quills for dry patches or sores and make sure the fur on the face and underbelly is soft and not matted. Hedgehogs should have no natural odor; if it smells bad, that’s a sign of a dirty cage or serious illness. Any poop you see in the cage should be firm and dark brown. If it’s green or slimy, the hedgehog likely has an intestinal illness or parasite. Even if these health issues are temporary, you shouldn’t buy an animal that’s sick. Moving causes the animal stress, weakening its immune system and making an existing condition get even worse.

Once you’ve determined the animal is physically healthy, you should assess his personality. Most hedgehogs will be a bit shy when faced with a new human, but he should unroll on your arm and relax his quills soon after you pick him up. An outgoing animal may immediately start exploring; a calmer one may simply sit on your arm and sniff you out. Both can be great pets. Decide whether you’d rather have an explorer or a cuddler and pick your animal accordingly. If you can, it’s best to handle more than one animal before you make your decision. If the hedgehog jumps, pops, clicks, or hisses at you, you should put him back. This individual may just be having a bad day, but those could also be behaviors that never go away. You should be especially wary if multiple animals you pick up at the pet shop or breeder respond this way to your touch.

Age of a new hedgehog

Hedgehogs ideally should be left with their mothers until they’re at least 6 weeks old. Beyond that, the age of the animal when you buy it is a matter of personal preference. Some breeders advise buying hedgehogs immediately after weaning. If the individual you buy is less than 12 weeks old, you’ll have to deal with at least one quilling. A younger hedgehog will be more adaptable and if you plan on shifting its schedule to be more diurnal a younger hedgehog will respond better. Younger hedgehogs will also bond with new humans more readily. The advantage of buying a fully grown hedgehog (6 months or older) is that its personality will be fully developed and you’ll be better able to assess what kind of pet it will be in the long term. If you’re determined to buy a hedgehog with a specific personality, you should buy it as an adult.

Male vs. female 

You can tell a hedgehog’s gender easily by looking at its belly. Females will have 4-5 sets of little nipples running down their underside. Males will look like they have a “belly button” on their lower abdomen. This is the prepuce (penis housing) and will be separated from the anal opening.

Both male and female hedgehogs make good pets. There’s no appreciable difference in personality between the two, in terms of their interaction with humans—there are outgoing females and shy males. Male hedgehogs will not get along with others of their kind, so if you want multiple hogs to have shared play time you should buy females. Neither males nor females produce any kind of musk, though male hedgehog urine may have a stronger odor. Male hedgehogs are typically less expensive than females, if that’s a factor for you. In terms of health issues, females are more prone to reproductive issues (especially uterine cancers). These health concerns increase with breeding. Male hedgehogs have more issues with urinary tract infections, so the health concerns between genders ultimately balance out. 

 

Hedgehogs as pets

Though they may look like rodents, to get a better sense of their care and personality you can think of hedgehogs more like very small cats. They need a diet heavy in protein and light on grains—in fact, keepers will often feed them dry cat food as the bulk of their diet. Hedgehogs take readily to litter box training and are generally clean animals. Being nocturnal, hedgehogs will be most active between dusk and dawn—roughly 7pm to 7am—and are excellent pets for people with busy schedules, content to hang out on their own most of the time. Hedgehogs will get stressed out and cranky if you try to wake them up during the daytime, and if you want a pet you can play with 24/7, a hedgehog is not for you. People who work during the day often find the hedgehog’s nocturnal habits work perfectly with their busy schedules. The pet will want to eat and play around the time you’re getting home, and should still be awake when you’re getting ready the next morning.

Unlike other small animals, hedgehogs produce no noticeable odors. Since their teeth don’t grow throughout their life like a hamster’s they won’t chew on things so aggressively. They’re independent and intelligent animals, and while they can form strong bonds with their keepers and be very affectionate, they do so on their own terms and appreciate a good amount of solitude to balance the interaction.

Of course, hedgehogs aren’t exactly like cats. The main difference is their environment. The hedgehogs sold as pets come from a hot, arid climate, and they need an ambient temperature between 70° and 90°F to stay healthy. They’re also very active, with a territory of up to 1000 feet in the wild, and require a relatively large enclosure along with regular play and exercise time outside their cage. One advantage they have over larger pets is that they don’t shed as much fur (though they do occasionally shed quills), and they don’t trigger most pet allergies. People who are allergic to hedgehogs are typically allergic to the animal’s saliva, meaning this allergy will only be triggered by handling the animal, not by simply sharing their space. In general, they’re a lower maintenance pet than a cat or a dog, but that doesn’t mean you can just stick the cage in the corner and forget it’s there. Hedgehogs that don’t get daily attention from their humans have a tendency to turn mean and anti-social. They can be wary of loud noises or aggressive attention, and thrive under the care of a patient and gentle keeper. Hedgehogs don’t require any initial shots or immunizations, and while it is possible to spay a female “hedgie” it’s a stressful procedure that’s generally not done unless there’s a reproductive health issue.

Hedgehogs weren’t bred and sold in large numbers until the last quarter of the 20th century. Stores and veterinarians classify them as exotic pets and are not as familiar with their care and physiology as with those of more common animals. You may have some difficulty finding a vet nearby who’s willing to treat your pet hedgehog. Since they are a more esoteric pet, you’ll need to do more research into products before going to the pet store. There aren’t many products labeled for hedgehog use, and the things that are aren’t necessarily the best; your hedgehog’s supplies will be a mix of those designed for rabbits, chinchillas, cats, and even reptiles. The trick is figuring out which things to get in each section. The recent introduction of the hedgehog captive breeding program also means they’re closer to wild animals than most of the pets you can find at the store. The first wild-caught hedgehogs to be sold as pets could only be handled with gloves because they constantly had their quills raised and would hiss and bite at anyone who came near. Modern pet hedgehogs are bred to be more sociable, but there are still some captive-bred individuals that don’t care to be handled much by humans. Because of this, it’s very important to meet the individual hedgehog you plan to adopt before making your decision.

Legality 

While hedgehog ownership is legal in the US and Canada on a federal level, there are some states, provinces, and cities that have banned ownership. As of the writing of this blog, it is illegal to own a hedgehog in California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and parts of British Columbia, Ontario, and Virginia. Georgia allows licensed hedgehog breeders but not private pet ownership. Arizona doesn’t explicitly outlaw hedgehogs, but the housing requirements to obtain a permit are difficult for even most zoos to meet, and for practical purposes you can consider them illegal. Other states require you to obtain a permit before purchasing an animal, including Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Wyoming. If you’re caught with an illegal pet you at least get a fine and may face jail time, and the animal will be taken away—sometimes to be moved out of state, more often to be euthanized. Even if you’re not caught, no veterinarian in your state will be willing to see your animal if it’s illegal, meaning a long journey if problems should arise.

Since these laws can change, you should check your area’s policy regarding hedgehog ownership before buying an animal. Don’t assume hedgehogs are legal just because you find them at the pet store. National pet store chains can sometimes inadvertently send animals to stores that shouldn’t be selling them. 

Life expectancy

Hedgehogs in the wild have a life expectancy of only 18-24 months, but hedgehogs in captivity live an average of 4-6 years and have been known to reach the age of 10 if cared for well. A lot of people see this as a positive over other small pets, but it does mean you have to plan a bit further into your future than with a rodent like a hamster. Make sure you’ll still want the pet—and be able to care for it effectively—for at least six years.

Cost

The hedgehog itself will likely be the most expensive part of your initial investment. A single baby hedgehog will cost anywhere from $125-$350, depending on the color and gender. Females tend to cost more than males of the same color, since females are more in demand among breeders and are less likely to be born in the first place. The cage, toys, and other set-up supplies are going to vary widely in cost depending on the style and complexity of your setup, but you should plan on spending somewhere between $100 and $200. You should also plan on spending around $50 on an initial vet visit soon after bringing your pet home. Adding it all up, the up-front investment will be in the neighborhood of $300.

Ongoing costs of hedgehog care are relatively minimal. Depending on which brand you buy, you’ll probably spend around $15-$25 per month on dry kibble. Aside from that, there are a lot of “ifs” involved in ongoing expenses. If you use recycled paper or wood shavings for bedding, you’ll need to replace them at least once a month. These beddings typically cost between $10 and $25 per bag, though you’ll likely only need 3-4 bags per year (depending on the messiness level of your hedgie). If you use a litter box, you’ll need to buy litter ($10-$25 per bag), though you won’t need to use much. The only major expense associated with hedgehog ownership is the potential for high vet bills as the pet ages. Older hedgehogs are prone to both kidney disease and cancer, the treatment for which can cost over a thousand dollars.