Pet African Hedgehogs
On average, pet hedgehogs are fairly small, just a little bit smaller than a guinea pig (or about the size of an adult hand). Even though hedgehogs look similar to rodents, they are actually closer cousins to shrews (being insectivores). They have fur on their faces and undersides with spines on their backs. The spines are modified hairs: they are thick and only slightly flexible with sharp points. When a hedgehog is relaxed its spines lie flat against its back and do not seem to be sharp (which is the normal state for most pet hedgehogs, as can be seen in the photo to the right). However, when it feels threatened a hedgehog can tense the intricate muscles of its back which causes the spines to rise up in various directions so that they are held-fast and noticeably sharp (their spines do not come out if they happen to prick you, although they do naturally shed them like hair). They also have the ability to roll into a complete ball as protection against predators to become an undesirable ball of prickles.
In the wild hedgehogs are not social animals, meaning that they do not live in social groups. They are quite independent little critters that enjoy exploring and foraging. However, this does not mean that they are incapable of forming social bonds. They do tend to pick their people, and may act shy around anyone else. That is to say, hedgehogs seem to be fans of familiarity; many of them like their people and their places and might act discontented with change.
As pets hedgehogs provide excellent outlets for those of us who don't need our animals to constantly be paying attention to us. Sometimes it's just fun to watch them do what they do. While many of them are interactive and will thoroughly enjoy using you as a jungle-gym (some of them will even learn their name unlike most other small animals), most are more content to entertain themselves with small toys (such as little stuffed animals or squishy balls that they'll tote around without you ever really knowing what their intensions are) or just running in their a wheels and stopping on occasion to peer around the edge to see how far they've gotten. They also have an innate fondness of tubes; the tubes don't even have to be big enough for them to fit any more than their head in for them to find hours of enjoyment (although I suggest more of an open ended funnel that you might find as an infant or toddler toy at Wal-Mart, such to avoid the hedgehog accidentally getting their head stuck in the tube and panicking).
Aside from their obvious spiny appearance hedgehogs are unique in a few other ways as well. For instance, they are considerably talented contortionists, which is how they are able to roll themselves into complete balls. They are also able to stretch themselves out a bit, lie out flat like a pancake while resting on a hot day, squeeze through openings that look too small for them, and sometimes (such as while yawning) will even roll themselves a little-bit in the other direction, which looks particularly odd if you ever get the chance to see it (stretching with their head and their hind-quarters in their air while their back is flexed inward). They will also occasionally partake in a natural behavior known as self-anointing. Anointing is a common practice for many animals, although not many anoint themselves. This behavior involves the hedgehog producing some thick saliva or foam after licking or chewing on something that is of interest to it, and then contorting itself a bit to lick the foam onto its spines (this is presumably a tactic to add irritants to their spines to assist in making themselves less appealing to predators). Given, this is perhaps not one of their most aesthetic behaviors, but it is at least interesting.
Such unfound rarity and natural ability for entertainment has made the hedgehog a favorite comrade in households across the world. The fascination that is inherent with these wonderful animals has won the hedgehog into the hearts of many as beloved pets; with their unequaled charm and well-earned companionship they are ideal family pets, fascinating and educational class-room pets, and meaningful animal friends.
Hedgehogs are rather simple to house. Their cage should be large enough for them to have ample room to run; I use cages that are about 2'x3'. Be sure that the enclosure does not have wire floors, or any kind of floor that allows for fecal drop through; hedgehogs can get their legs or toes caught in the holes which could result in scrapes or broken limbs (their feet are more like paws than those of rodents).
Be wary of putting anything into the cage that will allow the hedgehog to climb. I prefer nest boxes that are round so that the hedgehog cannot climb on top of it. Water bottles with wire hangers are dangerous if mounted inside the cage: if the hedgehog tries to climb it, then it may get its foot hung up between the wire and the bottle.
What to use as bedding is a subject that has dozens of differing views. It is important to not use anything with high amounts of natural aromatic oils, such as cedar (pine is considered to be safe, but is still not the best choice): these have been shown to have harmful effects on the liver function of various small animals who had prolonged exposure.
What I have found to be the best choice for bedding is a mixture of Aspen shavings and Woody Pet pellets. There is little or no dust, the woody pets let you quickly identify when an area is wet, and there is virtually no odor. The aspen shavings provide a soft bedding material and they are quite absorbent.
Food and Water
Your hedgehog will need a regular supply of clean food and water. Food should be given in a shallow bowl. It is best to feed your hedgehog dry cat food that has the first ingredient listed as some kind of meat, such as chicken: try and avoid as many fillers (corn) as possible. Hedgehogs are insectivores, they will approve of anything meat based. The occasional meal worm is an excellent treat and a good supplement. Most of the hedgehog foods on the market are actually not good for hedgehogs (they're basically just cheap cat food in a box labeled hedgehog food). Below is a summarization of information from the book Hedgehog.
In the wild a hedgehog's diet will consist of mostly insect larvae such as caterpillars. They will also eat beetles, earthworms, and snails. There is evidence to suggest that they eat quite a bit of vegetation (grass,roots,fruit,etc.): but most of the greens consumed by hedgehogs are not actually digested. Hedgehogs are "opportunistic" eaters and will eat many things just because it happened to walk in front of them-- or vice versa. In the wild, hedgehogs will also eat larger prey such as small amphibians, snakes, rodents, and even nesting birds or eggs (Reeve, pp 55-89).
I have found that water bottles are better than bowls due to a hedgehog's instinct to turn over any objects that are in it's cage. It is very important that the water bottle be mounted in a way that does not allow the hedgehog to climb on it as this may lead to injury. It is also important that the bottle be mounted in a way that allows the hedgehog to drink comfortably from it: a hedgehog should not need to lift its head up or strain to reach the nozzle of the water bottle if it is mounted at the right height.
If you would like to use a bowl then I would suggest that it be a heavy bowl that cannot be overturned; even better if there is some way to fasten it down. Using a water bowl does not usually work when also using wood shavings as a bedding since most hedgehogs will fill the bowl with the shavings while foraging around the base. The benefit of using a bowl is that it provides a more natural position for the hedgehog to drink.
Hedgehogs and Veterinarians
Due to how uncommon hedgehogs are in some areas not all vets will know how to treat them. I was fortunate enough to get a vet who used to be a hedgehog breeder. Obviously, not everyone will be so lucky. If you already have a vet you know and trust then talk with them to see if they would know how to treat a hedgehog if the need came up.
Central-African Hedgehogs and Hibernation
The worst-case concerns discussed here are tumors, fatty liver disease, and Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS).
Tumors are usually noticeable as lumps under the skin. If you notice any such lumps then you should contact your vet. Be sure to ask about tumors for any sudden change in behavior. Tumors can be a common problem for hedgehogs in the wild and captivity and the genetics that create this problem probably cannot be bred out with much ease, especially since most hedgehogs do not develop tumors until they are older.
Fatty liver disease is a considerable concern for some hedgehogs. The easiest way to detect this is by looking for yellowing on the skin of the under-arms or belly. In later stages the hedgehog may become lazy and/or stop eating. The causes of fatty liver disease might be dietary or genetic. At this point I would be more inclined to believe that it is most often the result of the poor quality of food being fed to captive hedgehogs and lack of proper exercise.
Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome is one of the most devastating diseases found in hedgehogs. Any decent breeder keeps track of pedigrees to avoid disorders such as this one. Unfortunately, much is still unknown about this relatively rare disease, it is believed to be a familial disorder (seemingly genetic with a recessive mode of inheritance and a possibility of environmental factors), and shows a strong correlation with an autoimmune disorder of the central nervous system called Degenerative Myelopathy (DM) [also comparable to disorders like muscular dystrophy or ALS]. The symptoms are progressive and start with wobbly motion, typically starting with the hind legs. The hedgehog will then lose the ability to use its hind legs. From there the hedgehog might also lose function in the front limbs as the disease progresses until they no longer have any control of their motor functions. There are many other possibilities that can mimic the early stages WHS, most them not very problematic (potential mimics include tumors in the spine or brain, or even simple ear-infections), ask your vet if you notice any signs.
If a necropsy is to be performed on a hedgehog that was believed to have had WHS, then be sure that the professionals performing the procedure are familiar with the signs of WHS; otherwise it might be overlooked. Some hedgehogs could have other problems that could have contributed to the cause of death (such as fatty liver disease and tumors, or even just old age) that might make someone overlook the spinal damage. Although it's not a very common disease, if you do end up with a hedgehog that is found to have WHS, then you should contact the breeder and let them know (assuming your pet came from a private breeder).
© 2017: Mary Dickey All rights reserved.