Hedgehogs are becoming increasingly popular pets and are more and more readily available. By their nature they can suit just about anyone’s lifestyle and schedule. Since they are awake at times of both the night and the day, anyone can find a time in which to enjoy them, and unlike other rodent pets such as hamsters and rats, hedgehogs don’t have any noticeable odour.
The most common species of domesticated hedgehog available on the pet market today is the African Pygmy Hedgehog, which is a hybrid of the White-bellied Hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian Hedgehog (Atelerix algirus), and a number of new colours have emerged since they have been bred in captivity.
As with any other exotic pet, if you decide to take on a hedgehog there are a few considerations to bear in mind. Firstly, are you buying from a reputable source? A good breeder or pet store should have breeding information on your hedgehog, especially if any genetic diseases are present in the family tree. Secondly, assess the physical appearance of the hedgehog. A healthy specimen should have bright, clear eyes, a wet (but not runny) nose, and clean ears with no discharge. There should be no signs of infection or faeces around the anus and any droppings in the cage should be dark and firm. Listen carefully for wheezing or other signs of respiratory infection. Another thing to look out for is neatly trimmed nails, as a hedgehog’s nails grow very quickly and can grow up under the pads of the feet, cutting the skin and causing infection. If the hedgie seems to scratch itself a lot, has a great deal of flaky skin, or displays poor quill condition, it could indicate the presence of mites, a common complaint with hedgehogs, or poor diet.
It is best to choose a young hedgehog, around 6-8 weeks old, so that they can get used to being handled from a very young age. Try to choose one that responds well to being handled and will allow itself to be turned on its back without curling into a tight ball and staying there. Hedgehogs do not require company and often fare better as solitary pets, since they can be aggressive towards other hedgehogs. Hedgehogs live for 3-6 years in captivity.
Once you have found a good specimen, choosing a cage is the next step. There are many commercially available cages which are up to the task of housing a hedgehog, but bear in mind that hedgies require more space than a hamster or other small mammal, and will need room to wander around and play in. An enclosure that is too small could result in your pet becoming depressed, and without enough exercise a hedgehog will quickly become obese. A cage with a floor area of 0.5m2 or larger is suitable for a hedgehog. The cage should have a solid floor, since a hedgehog could easily slip on a wire floor and injure itself. Multi-level cages such as would be used for a rabbit can provide enough room without taking up too floorspace, but hedgehogs have poor eyesight and don’t seem to understand heights, so any ramps and levels should be completely enclosed to prevent a fall. There should be an enclosed area that can provide a safe haven for your hedgehog.
Hedgehogs should be housed indoors, since they require a temperature range of between 20°C and 26°C. At lower temperatures they will start to hibernate, which is dangerous. They also need an average of 10-12 “daylight hours” each day, which can be either natural or artificial light, but not UV light.
Some hedgehogs may run in a wheel, but others will refuse to do so. They have been known to run up to 5km on a wheel in a single night. If you do provide a wheel, make sure that has a solid running surface, but also provide other toys to keep your hedgehog entertained and active.
Wood shaving are not recommended for bedding since many of them, especially cedar, contain oils that are toxic to a hedgehog or dust that can cause respiratory conditions. A non-fraying blanket works best, but recycled newspaper beddings are also popular. A hedgie can be litter-trained, so a litter box filled with dust-free cat litter can be provided and may become the hedgehog’s primary bathroom area.
Most sources agree that high-quality cat food, either meat or dry pellets, is the best food to give your hedgehogs, provided that it contains at least 60% meat, and NO fish. In the wild they are insectivores, so their diet needs to be high-protein and low-fat. They also require chitin supplements, although fibre in their diet can be substituted. While hedgehog diets have become available in many pet shops, most do not seem to provide the nutrition that is required. Mealworms, waxworms, and crickets can be fed as livefood, but be careful of the fat content in feeder insects. Fruit can be given as a treat on rare occasions – baby food is a popular method of providing such treats.
Hedgehogs should never be given cow’s milk, and any treats containing sugar should be avoided. Nuts are also a no-no due to the shape of the hedgehog’s mouth.
Fresh water needs to be provided at all times
Initially, your hedgehog may curl up when you try to handle it, but if you just lightly cradle the ball in your hands in should unroll in a few minutes and start to explore once it realises that you mean it no harm. The spines do not really hurt if they are lightly handled. They become tamer the more they are handled, and you can also try bribing them with their favourite treats to gain their trust. They do not like to be cuddled, but will allow themselves to be picked up and will often clamber over their owners. Do not wake your hedgie in order to play with it – you don’t like being dragged out of bed, and neither do they!
You can give your hedgehog a bath in very shallow water, making sure that their noses stay out of the water. Spray them with some warm water mixed with vitamin E or olive oil, which is good for their skin. Never use tea tree oil on your hedgehog, as this is highly toxic to them.
Hedgehogs have been known to “self-anoint”: they salivate profusely and contort themselves in order to spread the saliva all over themselves. This behaviour is normally triggered by a scent that they particularly like, is completely normal, and is often amusing to watch.
Hedgehogs can be a handful, and sometimes it’s a handful of prickles, but if you are looking for a change from the run of the mill pets like dogs, cats, hamsters and bunnies, a “hedgie” could be a good choice, but just be sure that you are able to meet their specialised requirements.
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