Hedgehog is the common name for any one of approximately 14 species in the family Erinaceidae that live throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, most distinctively recognized by their back full of quills. When threatened, hedgehogs will roll up into a ball with their quills raised, a defensive maneuver designed to ward off casual predators. Aside from the presence of quills, the physical attributes of hedgehogs vary widely between species. They can be as short as 5 inches long, or as long as 15. Their weight can range from 200-1000 grams, and their coloration can be anywhere from pure white to nearly black, with variants of browns, creams, and grays in between.
The range of hedgehogs is broad, stretching from Norway to South Africa and from Britain to China. They’ve even been introduced to New Zealand, though they’re not a native species, meaning the only continents where you can’t find wild hedgehogs are North and South America. While hedgehogs as a group cover three continents and a wide range of biomes, each individual hedgehog species has a more limited range. Some species live in the forests and fields of temperate regions and hibernate to survive the cold winters. Others are more accustomed to the hot, arid climate of North Africa, where their territory includes both desert and scrubland, and the hedgehog hides from the heat during the day, coming out at night to forage. Whatever the species, hedgehogs are opportunistic feeders. They’re classified as insectivores but will eat pretty much anything that seems edible.
The most distinctive feature of a hedgehog is its quills. There are approximately 7,000 quills on an adult hedgehog’s back. Scientifically speaking, quills are a kind of modified hair, consisting on the inside of a complex network of air chambers and attached to the muscle by a ball-shaped follicle. These quills are not the same thing as a porcupine’s spines. A hedgehog’s quills aren’t barbed, and they don’t detach from the hedgehog when it attacks. Petting a hedgehog will feel kind of like petting a hairbrush—bristly as opposed to spiky. When the animal is relaxed, its quills will be laid flat against its back; when it’s anxious, they’ll raise up, first around the face, then over the whole body. If a hedgehog feels especially threatened, he’ll roll himself into a ball with the quills sticking straight out.
A hedgehog’s quills aren’t only for defense. If a hedgehog falls from a significant height, it will roll up into a ball and let the spines absorb the impact, allowing them to survive drops of up to 20 feet with no injuries (though you shouldn’t test this with your hedgehog at home!). Quills can also be used to help the hedgehog kill its prey, especially snakes, which tend to wriggle even after they’ve been caught.
Hedgehogs throughout history
Since they frequently live in areas with people, hedgehogs have been a fixture in folk tales for most of human history. The ancient Romans made hedgehogs a part of their festival of Februa, using them to predict the weather. If a hedgehog emerged from its den on February 2nd and saw its shadow, that meant there would be six more weeks of winter. This myth was the basis of the Groundhog Day rituals familiar in North America—since no hedgehogs live on this continent, the early American settlers substituted the closest rodent they could find. In the Middle Ages, various parts of the hedgehog were used medicinally, prescribed for everything from hair loss to improving night vision. More practically, the dried skins of hedgehogs were used for carding wool, since the quills would dry like fine nails and proved useful for combing fibers. Some cultures historically considered hedgehogs to be food, and they’re still considered a delicacy in some African countries.
Hedgehogs appear in folktales throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Some ancient Chinese civilizations regarded hedgehogs as sacred while Norwegians consider them a symbol of independent thinkers. Northern European folk tales often depict hedgehogs as underdogs who never give up, persevering in the face of seemingly insurmountable trials. Though they’re typically regarded positively, hedgehogs were killed as nuisances in 16th century England, where they were mistakenly believed to destroy crops, or thought to carry plagues and diseases in the same manner as rats. England’s stance on the hedgehog softened by the 20th century and the animal is better known now for its appearance in popular stories, like Beatrix Potter’s washer woman Mrs. Tiggly-winkle or the balls in the Red Queen’s croquet game in Alice in Wonderland.
In the modern world, hedgehogs are a protected species in most countries. Capture and export of the animal for the pet trade are either forbidden or strictly limited, and all of the hedgehogs sold as pets in North America come from captive breeding programs.
Hedgehogs and children
Hedgehogs are not a good pet for small children. Their hands are too small to hold the hedgehog effectively—they’ll likely grab on to quills, which could sting and make the child drop the animal. Children also have a tendency to hold on too tight, and a hedgehog is likely to bite if squeezed. The regular schedule of care a hedgehog requires can also be difficult for a younger child to keep up with, and an adult in the house should always supervise the care of a hedgehog owned by a child to make sure it’s getting everything it needs. Generally speaking, hedgehogs are best for older teens or adults.
Since they sleep during the day, hedgehogs are also bad as classroom pets. Even a friendly hedgehog will be grumpy if you wake it up in the middle of the day. They also prefer a quieter, more peaceful environment—the grasping hands and screaming voices of a classroom of children won’t give it an especially calm home space.
Vacations and travel
Any kind of relocation is very stressful on an animal. If you’re going on vacation, it’s best to leave the hedgehog in its cage at home and hire a pet sitter rather than taking it to a kennel or bringing it with you. Air travel can be especially brutal. Even if the airline lets you keep the animal in the cabin, the ambient air temperature on a plane is often too low for a hedgehog to stay comfortable. Especially long flights could send a hedgehog into potentially fatal hibernation.
If you have to travel with your hedgehog—if you’re moving, for example, or need to take him to the vet—you can buy either a soft- or hard-sided pet carrier. Cat carriers work well for this. Include some scraps of a comfortable material, like fleece or flannel, so the hedgehog can curl up in them and feel safe. If it’s cold out, you want to include some kind of heat source. A hot water bottle or chemical hand warmers wrapped in a towel will work, or a heating pad set on low under one corner of the carrier.
Like most animals, hedgehogs can carry illnesses and bacteria that can be transmitted to humans. The most noteworthy of these is salmonella. You should wash your hands after handling your hedgehog or cleaning its cage, and shouldn’t allow it to walk on or inhabit areas where food is prepared. Anyone with a weakened immune system should not clean the cage.
Hedgehogs occasionally lose quills throughout their life, the same way people occasionally lose hairs. The difference is a human hair won’t hurt if you find it with your bare feet. Even if you’re conscientious when interacting with your hedgehog you’ll find shed quills in the strangest of places, from the sheets of your bed to the cushion of the couch.