Provided they receive proper food and housing, hedgehogs are not susceptible to many illnesses or sensitive to toxins during the first five or so years of their life. Older hedgehogs, unfortunately, are prone to many cancers, and this is the primary cause of health complications in elderly hogs. Some of the most common health issues—like dry skin and obesity—may not require veterinary attention, provided you monitor your pet’s health closely enough to catch the issue early.
Like many small animals, hedgehogs have evolved not to show illness or injury readily. In the wild, this is a matter of survival—sick, weak animals are often the first to be taken by predators. In captivity, this can make it difficult to tell something’s wrong until it’s too late. Fortunately, there are some signs of a problem that a keen pet owner will be able to notice. It’s not normal for a hedgehog to scratch or gnaw on itself frequently. If it’s doing this, it at the least has dry skin, and may have an external parasite or allergic reaction to something in its cage. A hedgehog’s ears should have smooth edges. If they’re ragged or have finger-like protrusions, he’s probably got some kind of ear infection or fungal growth. Persistently runny, smelly, or odd-colored stool is usually an indication of an internal parasite or infection. Discharge from the eyes, ears, or nose is a sign of infection. Other signs include sluggishness, lack of appetite, sudden weight changes, lumps or sores on the skin, excessive quill loss, cloudy eyes, or changes in water consumption are other good signs that something’s wrong. If you notice any of these things, you should immediately make an appointment with your vet.
Visits to the vet
Since hedgehogs are still considered exotic pets, it can be difficult to find a vet who’s willing to treat them and knowledgeable enough to be of use. Exotic pet veterinarians are getting more common, and if you live in a city you’ll probably be able to find at least one. More rural owners, though, may need to drive a significant distance. You should find the closest vet and make an appointment for an initial check-up as soon as possible after getting the animal home so you don’t have to scramble if there is a problem down the line. Yearly check-ups are also a good idea; you may want to increase that to twice a year visits for hedgehogs over the age of five. If you’re not sure how to find a vet in your area, the Hedgehog Welfare Society has compiled a fairly comprehensive list at their website (www.hedgehogwelfare.org/veterinarians.asp). You should expect the bill to be at least $50 for a hedgehog’s vet visit, and it could range up into the thousands if surgery or serious medication is required.
Getting your hedgehog to a vet can also be a bit of an ordeal. If your cage is large, heavy, or unwieldy, you’ll want to buy a small, secure container to transport him in. A cat carrier will work well, or a plastic habitat or glass aquarium. Make sure whatever container you’re using has good ventilation. If it’s winter, warm up the car before bringing your animal out and put some kind of heating device—like hand warmers or a heating pad on the lowest setting, wrapped in a towel—inside the carrier to keep the hedgehog warm. Sudden chill is bad even for a healthy hedgehog, and could prove fatal for one that’s already sick. If it’s summer, make sure to keep the carrier out of direct sunlight and don’t put it directly in front of any air conditioning vents. A few scraps of cloth or bedding for the hedgehog to nestle with inside the carrier can’t hurt either.
If your hedgehog is an adult it should never lose more than a few quills at a time (if he does, that’s a sign of a skin infection and he should be taken to the vet) but a growing hedgehog goes through four quillings during its adolescence. The first occurs at about 4 weeks; the final (adult) quilling usually occurs around 12 weeks. A quilling can last anywhere from 2-6 weeks and can be viewed as your hedgehog’s version of teething (or, alternatively, his “terrible twos”). He will be very grumpy and will not want to be touched during the process—which is understandable; you probably wouldn’t want someone touching you, either, if you had thousands of needles pushing through your skin. For the most part, you just have to ride out the quilling and trust that your hedgehog’s personality will return to normal once the process is over. If you want to help him along you can give him a bath in lukewarm water with a capful of olive oil mixed in. This should soften the skin and help reduce the pain of the new quills coming in. Don’t towel dry him afterwards; instead, use a hair drier on its lowest setting.
Hibernation and aestivation
Hibernation can be fatal for captive hedgehogs because they’re not supposed to be doing it—hibernation is a common thing for European hedgehogs, but not for those of African origin. Since they don’t have to cope with cold winters, African hedgehogs have un-learned the hibernating behavior to some extent and their metabolisms don’t slow enough when they enter the torpor state. Captive hedgehogs who hibernate may die of starvation or hypothermia. Hibernation can be triggered both by temperatures that are too cold and by sudden drops in temperature, even within the recommended range. It can also be triggered by inconsistencies in the day/night cycle and is another reason you should always maintain a consistent photoperiod. A hedgehog that enters hibernation is unlikely to recover if not revived after the first 72 hours, so if you notice it’s happening, you should act quickly.
If your hedgehog refuses to eat and drink and is acting especially sluggish or depressed, he may be entering hibernation. Check the hedgie’s stomach. If it’s cold, you need to warm him up immediately. Put the hedgehog against your chest under a blanket or sweater. Speak to it in soft, soothing tones and stay calm—it will pick up on your emotional state. You could also wrap it in towels fresh from the drier. While you’re warming him, make sure the cage is at least 74°F and raise the temperature, if necessary. Don’t put the hedgehog in hot water or directly in front of a heater. That can raise his temperature too quickly. With the slow warming from your body heat, the hedgehog should revive and resume a normal activity level within 10-15 minutes. If he doesn’t, you should call a vet immediately.
Aestivation is the hedgehog’s response to the other end of the spectrum—an environment that’s too hot. This is much more common and less harmful for African hedgehogs, though it still is a sign you need to tweak the enclosure. A hedgehog that’s too hot will lay flat on its belly with its legs spread out and will start to pant. If you notice your hedgehog doing this, lower the temperature inside its cage. This could mean turning up the air conditioning, or putting bowls of ice on the top of the cage—the cool air should drift down and perk the hedgehog right up. Like with hibernation above, don’t put fans directly on him or run him under cold water. This will lower his temperature too quickly and could cause further complications.
Parasites and fungus
This is the most common health affliction for hedgehogs of all ages. Fungus growth is especially common on the ears. This can take the form of rough or dry edges, or of finger-like growths outwards from the ears. This last ailment is a fungus commonly found in wood products and actually eats away at the skin of the ears. If you notice this, take the animal to the vet as soon as possible.
Mites are the most common external parasite for hedgehogs. These look like tiny white dots, about the size of the head of a pin. You may be able to see them moving on your hedgehog, or you might notice him scratching and biting at himself. A vet can give you a topical medication to get rid of the mites. Hedgehogs that share their space with other animals—or who go outside a lot—are also likely to pick up fleas. You can usually get rid of them with a bath in flea shampoo, but check the ingredients first and make sure you don’t use any product containing Ivermectin, which has been implicated in the deaths of some captive hedgehogs. Hedgehogs can also pick up ticks. If you notice one on your hedgehog, don’t pull it out immediately—the mouth parts can get left behind in the skin and lead to infection. Coat the tick’s body with petroleum jelly until it stops moving, then remove it with tweezers and disinfect the area. If your hedgehog is afflicted by any external parasite, you should clean and disinfect the cage and all its furnishings, and throw away any furnishings or bedding made of wood, paper, or other porous materials, as these may be harboring eggs and could cause a re-infestation.
Internal parasites are harder to diagnose, and can mostly be identified by looking at the hedgehog’s poop, which will be runny, smelly, or green. These can usually be removed easily with oral medication prescribed by your veterinarian. Like with fleas and mites, you should clean and disinfect the entire cage of a hedgehog suffering from internal parasites.
If your hedgehog has no parasites but is still scratching, has flaky or red skin, or is losing an unusual amount of quills, he’s probably got dry skin. This tends to be more of a problem in the winter. You can apply a couple drops of vitamin E directly to his back or rump, or add a small amount of cod liver oil or a supplement containing omega fatty acids to his diet. Just make sure to monitor his weight while he’s receiving oral oils so he doesn’t become obese.
If your hedgehog has diarrhea or is vomiting, he may have a stomach bug. Remove all his food and offer him small amounts of water. Clean and disinfect all of his food containers and save a bit of stool for the vet to examine. You should be especially careful of dehydration in a pet with these issues. Lift up a small amount of the skin on his back, then let it go. It should return to normal right away; if it doesn’t, the animal is dehydrated. Offer your hedgehog some warmed pediatric electrolyte solution (this can be found in the baby food section of the grocery store) with an oral syringe or eye dropper. If he throws this up, seek medical help immediately.
Constipation can also be an issue for hedgehogs, usually caused by changes in their diet. If your hedgehog’s constipated, you can put him in a couple inches of warm water, or feed him a spoonful of unseasoned canned pumpkin. If neither of these things work, his bowels may be impacted and you should call your vet.
A normal-weight hedgehog should have a “leggy” appearance when it’s running. The stomach should not drag on the floor, and there should be no rolls under his arms or chin. An obese hedgehog will be sluggish and cranky, and may even have difficulty rolling himself into a ball. Obesity causes a wide range of health issues in hedgehogs, from kidney and liver failure to heart and respiratory issues. If your hedgehog is obese, remove all wet food and treats from his diet and switch him to a low-calorie kibble formula, if he’s not on one already. Also make sure the pet is getting enough exercise. You may need to increase his daily play time. Also make sure there are no issues with his wheel that are preventing him from using it.
Hedgehogs that don’t get enough hard food to stimulate their gum tissue are prone to tooth loss and gum disease. A normal hedgie mouth has white teeth and pink gums. If the gums are red or swollen, the teeth are discolored, or the animal’s pawing at his mouth, he may have an infection and you should take him to the vet just to be sure. Other signs of tooth disease include loss of appetite, drooling, and foul breath.