When you’re living with an exotic animal, the first rule of thumb to keep in mind is that they’re tame but they’re not domestic. Most hedgehogs sold in today’s pet trade are only a few generations removed from being wild and their survival instincts are much stronger than a cat’s or dog’s. The key to successful hedgehog ownership is to work with these instincts, allowing the hedgehog—whenever possible—to be the master of his own domain.
Hedgehogs are typically active from 7pm-7am. It may be possible to adjust this schedule with enough care and patience, but some individuals never fully adapt to new schedules and you have to be willing to let the pet stay active at night if that’s what works best for him. Similarly, while some hedgehogs will be loving and affectionate, others will remain somewhat timid and reclusive no matter how often they’re handled. There are introverts and extroverts in the hedgehog world just like there are in the human world, and you won’t do yourself or your pet any favors by trying to force him to be something he’s not.
Bringing your hedgehog home
Moving is a stressful process, for animals as well as people, and once you’ve got your new pet settled into his cage it’s best to leave him alone for about 24 hours before trying to handle him. Give your new pet food and water and check on him a couple times to make sure he’s eating and drinking; otherwise, leave him be.
If your hedgehog is not eating or drinking, you shouldn’t panic right away. If you’re using a water bottle, try switching to a dish. If you’re using tap water, try a bottled water instead; the tap water in certain areas contains minerals that hedgehogs find unappetizing. If he won’t eat, try calling the pet store or breeder where you bought the animal and asking what kind of food they use. It’s possible there’s just too much change happening at once and a touch of the familiar in his food dish could give your hedgie back his appetite. Count or weigh the kibble so you can accurately track whether he’s eating or not; it’s possible he won’t eat while you’re around until he’s used to your presence. If the animal’s generally active and he’s passing solid waste, give him a few days—he might simply be adjusting. If he seems depressed or lethargic and his poop is green or slimy, you should call your vet.
Once his 24-hour adjustment period is over, the first thing you should do is get a baseline weight. Hedgehogs gain about an ounce a week for the first 12 weeks of life and continue growing until 6 months, at which point their weight should remain relatively consistent. The typical weight range for a healthy adult hedgehog is between 350 and 500 grams, but smaller animals can be healthy at as little as 250 grams, and larger individuals may weigh up to 1000. This is why it’s best to keep a regular record of your hedgehog’s weight and base health decisions on individual changes, not a set range.
Socializing your hedgehog
The amount of time it takes a hedgehog to get used to human action varies widely from one individual to another. In general, animals purchased from a breeder will be better socialized than those bought at a pet store—they’re more likely to receive daily attention and individual handling, while pet store hedgehogs may have been subjected to rough or unwanted touching, and are often more wary of new humans at first.
A hedgehog’s not as easy to pick up as some other pets. If he’s feeling defensive or frightened, your hedgehog will either raise his quills or go into full-on ball mode. The more you handle your hedgehog, the more he’ll get used to you and the less likely he’ll be to prickle up at your approach. Normally you’ll want to avoid handling the hedgehog when he’s balled up, since this is a pretty clear sign he’s in no mood to be touched. There are two exceptions to this rule: early in the ownership when the hedgehog’s getting used to you and when the hedgehog escapes and you need to retrieve it. Keep a pair of heavy duty work or garden gloves on hand for this purpose.
In the first week, you should aim to handle your hedgehog for about half an hour every day. Pick up the animal by gently sliding your hands underneath it from the sides. You should feel fur under your fingertips instead of quills. Lift him out slowly and carefully; you can lean him on your forearm for support. For the first few interactions, you want to settle the hedgehog in your lap and let it get to know you at its own will. Outgoing hedgehogs will start exploring you within a couple of minutes. A shy hedgehog might stay tightly balled during your first interaction, or he may move only enough to bury his face in your elbow and hide. In either case, don’t try to grab the hedgehog, and don’t make too many fast movements. You can offer treats if he seems receptive to them. The goal is to give him positive associations with your scent and make him feel safe. If you want to speed the socialization along or if the animal’s acting especially shy you can put an old t-shirt that’s been recently worn in the cage as a blanket. Your scent will be on the shirt and the hedgehog will start to associate your smell with comfort.
Once he’s actively exploring you and seems relatively comfortable with your presence you can try petting your hedgehog. This may happen on the first day, or it may not happen until the end of the first week; be patient if he seems reluctant to be touched. When you pet him, start with the rump, and only gradually work up toward the face. If the spines on his forehead start to go up or if he makes any kind of hissing noise, stop touching him and let him be. Eventually, most hedgehogs will climb up your limbs, sitting on your shoulder or even riding happily in a shirt pocket. Starting slow is the key to gaining this level of trust. After the hedgehog’s adjusted, you can balance quiet together time with active play using toys or mazes, but you should continue to handle him every day when possible to maintain your relationship. An under-handled hedgehog will revert to moodiness and may lash out.