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.