Despite their roly-poly appearance, hedgehogs in the wild are accustomed to running long distances and should be provided ample opportunities for exercise and exploration in captivity. Hedgehogs provided with inadequate exercise tend to one of two behavioral extremes: Either they will become reclusive and anti-social or they will spend much of their time awake running their nose along the inside of their cage and gnawing at the wires, sometimes to the point of causing themselves injury. Obesity is also a major concern for a hedgehog whose cage is too small. These effects are cumulative; hedgehogs become sicker, more aggressive and less friendly the longer they’re deprived of sufficient physical and intellectual stimulation.
Set up your new pet’s cage before you bring him home—moving is stressful for any creature and you want to limit the amount of time he spends in transition. Having the cage ready before the hedgehog’s arrival also lets you perfect its placement in the home and make any necessary adjustments. If you own other pets, this also gives you an opportunity to test the security of the enclosure (an especially valuable step with cats).
Though they have gained popularity in the last few decades, hedgehogs are still considered an exotic pet, and as such you’re unlikely to find a “hedgehog” section in your local pet store. To further complicate matters, certain brands have tried to jump on the bandwagon by marketing products to hedgehog owners without doing proper research into the animal’s true dietary and environmental needs. Always check labels and use a critical eye when buying toys, bedding, or food for your hedgehog, and don’t rely on the information given to you by pet store staff who likely received little (if any) specialized training in the exotic species their store carries. This advice is mainly aimed at large, multi-species pet stores; smaller shops specializing in exotic animals are more likely to be knowledgeable, and to stock their shelves with high-quality products.
Your hedgehog cage should offer a minimum of four square feet of floor space. This is for a single animal; if you’re planning on keeping more than one hedgehog in an enclosure, it will need to be larger to give both animals space to get away from you and each other (females only—remember that male hedgehogs should always be kept in solitary enclosures). Hedgehogs are accomplished climbers, and if floor space is an issue you could consider purchasing or making a multi-level home with ramps for navigation. Glass, hard plastic, and mesh are all great materials for your hedgehog’s enclosure. Your main concern should be finding a cage that provides ample ventilation, prevents the hedgehog from escaping (or other animals from entering), and has a solid, level floor for the animal to walk on.
Guinea Pig Cages
Cages made for guinea pigs are often the perfect size for a hedgehog and are some of the few cages that can be used “out of the box” without modifications. Most models feature coated wire sides and top with a base of plastic, metal, or nylon. Make sure the floor is of a firm, solid material. If the wire bars of the cage start low enough for your hedgehog to climb them you may need to line the interior cage walls with thin pieces of a smooth, solid material.
Guinea pig cages are relatively inexpensive—simple models often cost less than $50. Coated wire cages in general have a similar pros and cons. They provide excellent ventilation and are lighter-weight than glass, but they can be difficult to clean thoroughly, especially around the edges and hinges, and the open sides mean you have to be very careful of temperature changes or drafts in the hedgehog’s room.
Modified rabbit cages
The biggest difference between a rabbit cage and a guinea pig cage is that it’s made for a larger animal and you have to be more careful of the width of the gaps between the bars. Look for bars that are spaced no more than ½-inch apart. A rabbit’s larger feet also have an easier time on metal mesh floors that a hedgehog’s paws can slip through. If you do buy a cage with a wire mesh floor, you’ll need to cover it with a firm, solid material.
While it’s not advisable to house your hedgehog outside full-time, rabbit hutches can make great outdoor playpens. Just keep careful watch around the edges of open-bottomed models that sit directly on the grass—hedgehogs love to burrow, and may just dig their way out into the open while you’re not looking.
Modified ferret cages
Ferret cages come in a wide range of designs, from simple single-level cages with shelves and hammocks to elaborate 4-story modular towers. Ferret cages can be great for active hedgehogs but tend to need a few safety upgrades. Make sure that all ramps are at least as wide as your hedgehog’s body—a bit of clearance on either side is always better—and that there are no steep drops from ledges or off of the edges of platforms (if there are, you can construct impromptu walls with nylon or sheets of plastic). Ferret habitats are the most expensive housing option on this list, running upwards of $250 for a multi-level cage.
Though you typically find them in the fish or reptile section, glass aquaria also make excellent hedgehog enclosures. Look for an aquarium that’s a 30-gallon long or larger capacity. If there are young children or other pets living in the home, a mesh screen top for the cage is a must. If there aren’t, a screen top is optional but recommended—your hedgehog won’t be able to climb the glass sides to escape but may learn to scale their wheel or hide box.
Glass has the advantage of holding heat better than wire enclosures and may be the best material for colder climates. Aquariums are easy to clean and relatively inexpensive. On the downside, they don’t allow for as much ventilation. Glass is also heavy, making the enclosure difficult to move. There might also be a logistical issue fitting cage furnishings into an aquarium. Water bottles may be difficult to mount and exercise wheels are often too tall for a standard glass aquarium, though “flying saucer”-style wheels will fit comfortably.
Making your own cage
Even the best commercial enclosures will often need some kind of tweak before they’re suitable for your hedgehog—so why not cut out the middle man and just make the cage yourself? Lots of exotic pet hobbyists do this since it allows you to construct a cage that’s perfectly suited for your home and pet.
The best material options for doing it yourself cages are the same as for commercial models: Glass, hard plastic, and metal bars or mesh. Avoid wood and soft plastics because they can be more difficult to clean and disinfect. If you’re going with metal, avoid anything containing zinc or lead as these minerals can cause toxicity in small animals. Any paints used in the cage decoration should also be non-toxic and lead-free, even if it’s just on the outside.
The design possibilities when you’re making your own cage are nearly endless and can be tailored to suit both your needs and those of your pet. You can create very cool modular enclosures using plastic storage containers linked together by PVC pipe. Simply buy a couple large-sized Steralite (or other clear plastic) storage containers and a length of PVC pipe with a 4” diameter. Cut the middle out of the container’s lid and cover it with wire mesh to give the hedgehog more ventilation. Cut a hole in the side of each container, low enough for your hedgehog to get up inside, then attach the PVC pipe to each enclosure with aquarium sealant or another non-toxic glue. These kinds of cages can be especially good if you’re housing multiple females together—when one of them needs alone time, you can simply close off the PVC pipe and separate the animals with little stress.
If you’re looking for design inspiration, the forums over at Hedgehog Central have some great DIY project ideas (http://wiki.hedgehogcentral.com/tiki-index.php?page=DIY#Cages).
Heat and humidity
African hedgehogs are accustomed to living in a hot climate, and you want to replicate this to some extent to keep your hedgehog healthy. Aim to keep your cage’s interior temperature in the 75°-80°F range. Older hedgehogs (starting around age five) will need a hotter environment (80°-84°F). A good rule of thumb is that if you’re comfortable in a t-shirt, it’s warm enough for a hedgehog. In the extremes, hedgehogs should get no colder than 70°F and no warmer than 90°F.
A thermometer is the best way to get an accurate reading of the temperature in your hedgehog’s cage. Avoid the stick-on thermometers you can find at pet stores; these are notoriously inaccurate and will ultimately do more harm than good by potentially giving you a false sense of security (or alarm, depending on what it’s reading). Digital thermometers with an external probe are the best for small animal owners. You may find these in the reptile or fish section of larger pet stores; if not, you should be able to find one at a home improvement store for less than ten dollars.
Heat and Lighting
Keeping your hedgehog’s day/night cycle consistent is one of the best ways to keep him healthy in the long-term, and the easiest way to do this is with a light fixture hooked up to a timer. Hedgehogs do best with a year-round photoperiod of 12-16 hours of daylight and 8-12 hours of darkness. Even if you live in a warm environment and your hedgehog doesn’t require an external heat source, you still need to provide them with a consistent photoperiod. Aberrations in their daily light schedule can cause insomnia and illness, and may trigger attempts at hibernation.
A hedgehog’s lighting needs are much easier to accommodate than those of cold-blooded animals like lizards and turtles. There is no evidence that hedgehogs require UV exposure, meaning your pet will not require fluorescent or mercury vapor lighting. While your lighting can provide extra heat for hedgehogs in cold climates, they do not require a basking area the way reptiles do. You should not rest the fixture directly on the cage—metal cages, especially, conduct heat exceptionally well and could easily cause burns. Mount the bulb near the cage but not touching it and carefully monitor the temperature. You can use a standard incandescent bulb to give your hedgehog the daylight it needs. Even if he spends the entire day in his burrow sleeping, his body and brain will recognize the light as “day” and keep his metabolism accordingly regulated.
Owning a nocturnal pet can be frustrating. You want to give him the day/night cycle he needs but still be able to enjoy his company. Night viewing bulbs can often help with this. These are infrared or ultraviolet bulbs that produce a red, purple, or blue light, and you can find them in the reptile section of most pet stores. While some hedgehogs are very particular and will only come out and play in complete darkness, most respond well to these night-viewing bulbs. Keep a close eye on the hedgehog after you introduce a night bulb to his habitat, paying special attention to any changes in behavior. If he gets agitated, reclusive, or lethargic, you should stop using the night bulb—however convenient it may be for observing your pet, the animal’s health always comes first.
Other heating methods
If you need to provide extra heat, a standard heating pad on the lowest setting placed underneath the cage should be sufficient to raise the temperature. Put it under only one side of the cage so your animal can get away from the heat if it wants to. If your cage base is plastic and you’re concerned about it melting, a space heater in the hedgehog’s room can also work nicely. If you use a space heater, make sure it’s not pointed directly at the hedgehog’s enclosure—though the air coming out of a space heater is warm, it’s still moving air and can cause a draft, creating the opposite effect that you’re looking for.
Don’t heat tape, heat rocks, or undertank heaters marketed for reptile use, for the same reason that you don’t want to set up a basking light. These products are designed to raise the temperature to comfortable levels for cold-blooded critters, typically somewhere in the range of 90°-110°F—much too warm for a hedgehog.