Pet hedgehogs have grown in popularity over the last few years, and rightfully so. Though they aren’t the cuddly kind of pet (due to their spiny exterior), these cute critters are fun and offer a different kind of fulfilling pet experience.
The Natural History of Hedgehogs
Originating in areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa, hedgehogs received their name from how they look and where they like to hang out. Their nose resembles that of a pig, or a hog, and they’re often found in the hedges of shrubs and trees.
Hedgehogs are mammals from the subfamily Erinaceinae. Because of their spiny armor, hedgehogs are often assumed to be a distant cousin of the porcupine. However, this misconception is far from the truth as porcupines are actually rodents!
Hedgehogs as House Pets
Historically, the ancient Romans were the first to domesticate hedgehogs. But the modern domestication of hedgehogs only took off in the 1980s. Many breeds of hedgehogs today are hybrids, the most well-known being the African pygmy hedgehog.
The African pygmy hedgehog’s life expectancy is between 4 – 6 years on average, with proper care and healthy living conditions.
Hedgehogs are illegal in some states, so before you make your decision on whether to bring one home, be sure to check your state’s animal laws out before you disappoint yourself (and your other household members!)
Common Breeds of Hedgehogs
The most common breed of hedgehogs is the African pygmy hedgehog, also called the four-toed hedgehog or the white bellied hedgehog. They are usually between 6” – 8” long, making them a great pet for a small household. Other popular pet breeds are the European hedgehog and the long-eared hedgehog.
Where Should You Get Your Hedgehog?
After you have made sure that hedgehogs are permitted in your state, it is always best to go to a legal, recommended breeder. It is very possible that larger pet chains do not carry exotic pets like hedgehogs, so it might be a good idea to check out the smaller, niche pet stores first.
How to Care for Your Pet Hedgehog
In the wild, hedgehogs are very active. They climb, dig, swim, and often go for night runs for miles on end. Because of this, your hedgehog’s enclosure must be big enough to enable their natural behavior. The enclosure should have smooth walls so that they cannot escape. The minimum size of the enclosure should be around 6 square feet, but the more space you can offer, the better.
Hedgehogs are not very social in the wild, except during breeding season. Therefore, if you have more than one hedgehog, it is best to keep them in separate cages, especially if they are both male, since they are likely to fight.
The enclosure should be kept out of direct sunlight, and away from cold, drafty, areas of your home. Clean the cage at least once a week, with odorless, or weakly odored products.
The bedding in the enclosure can be made from a variety of options. We recommend using a towel or fleece to line the bottom since it’s easy to wash.
Hedgehog Enclosure Accessories
Make sure your cage has enough space for an exercise wheel and a hiding spot for your hedgehog to sneak away and sleep in. This hiding spot can be almost anything, from a cardboard box to something you find at the pet store.
The exercise wheel is a very important piece of maintaining your hedgehog’s health. Without enough time to run around in and outside of their enclosure, your hedgehog is at risk of becoming overweight. In fact, obesity is sadly quite common among hedgehogs. Make sure the wheel is solid, and not made of wire; their feet can get stuck in the wires and this may cause fractured limbs. Ideally the wheel should be around 11” to 12” in diameter.
We also encourage you to give your hedgehogs toys to keep them active and entertained. You can put a variety of toys into the cage and see what they like. Some favorites are tubes and balls with bells (like the ones for cats).
Hedgehog Enclosure Temperatures
Another important aspect of your hedgehog’s home is maintaining the right temperature. Hedgehogs feel best in temperatures between 75 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures that are too hot or too cold can make a hedgehog lethargic. Cold temperatures can cause your hedgehog to attempt to hibernate, which can be fatal in captivity. If the temperatures do drop, gradually raise the temperature, and use an indirect heating pad to help gradually warm up your hedgehog. The best method is to hold your hedgehog against your skin. Once it seems like your hedgehog has come back to a normal temperature, bring your hedgehog to the vet.
During the colder months, a simple way to maintain the correct temperature is by using an external heating source, such as a heat lamp like the ones normally used for reptiles. If you choose to set up a heater or a heat bulb, make sure there are multiple thermometers so that you can monitor the heat.
Hedgehog Diet and Nutrition
What Do Hedgehogs Eat?
In the wild, a hedgehog’s diets consist of bugs, plants, and roots. This diet is hard to replicate in captivity. The most balanced diet for your pet hedgehog is a mixture of dry food, live supplements, and treats.
There are food mixtures made specifically for hedgehogs, but they are often not easy to find. No need to worry, there are other options that are just as good. Make sure that the base food is a mixture of 2 – 3 different kinds of meat-rich, dry cat food, with a fat content under 10% (if possible). Fish can be problematic for African pygmies, so it’s recommended to stick with chicken flavor.
Live food is a good supplement for your hedgehog’s diet. Crickets, cockroaches, and mealworms are some of their favorites. Other foods that can be given as occasional treats include scrambled or boiled eggs, peas, broccoli, apple, mashed potato, cooked lamb, chicken or mince, and dog food.
Water should always be available for your hedgehog in its enclosure. Your hedgehog will drink water from a small bowl, which should be cleaned on a regular basis. Some hedgehogs will drink from bottles. If you are checking/testing to see if your hedgehog will drink from a bottle, be sure to include a water bowl in the enclosure during this trial period until you are certain they are drinking from the bottle.
When you first receive your hedgehog, it is important to get them used to being handled by you. Most hedgehogs will become accustomed to your touch if you handle them often, and are careful with them. At first, the natural instinct for hedgehogs is to curl into a ball. After some time, with enough patience, your hedgehog will relax, open up, and start crawling all over you.
The easiest way to make this process smoother is by obtaining your hedgehog when it is at a young age. At first, you should let your hedgehog get used to its new surroundings, and perhaps give it a few days with minimal to no touching. Slowly you will teach your hedgehog to get used to your scent, and then things will get easier (so do not wear gloves.) Be careful not to startle your hedgehog; a startled hedgehog may bite you.
A strange but natural process called self-anointing may happen, where your hedgehog salivates heavily, spreads the saliva all over its back, and contorts into some strange positions. This process is usually triggered by an odd smell. It is nothing to worry about, and some people even find it cute.
A healthy hedgehog needs to run around and let off some steam. After hedgehog-proofing your place, give your buddy time to run around outside of the enclosure.
Hedgehogs are Nocturnal
Hedgehogs sleep during the day and are active at night. Since they start their activity in the evening, before you head to bed would be a good time to spend time with and bond with your hedgehog.
The lifestyle of a nocturnal pet may mean that you’ll want to keep your hedgehog’s enclosure away from your bedroom, especially if you are sensitive to noise. Otherwise it will keep you up all night running on its wheel or playing with its toys.
Hedgehogs are very good at grooming themselves. If you choose to bathe your hedgehog then it should not be done more than once every two weeks. The only real grooming that hedgehogs may require your help in is nail cutting. Since they do not have their natural habitat to do their own filing, you may want to bring your hedgehog to the vet for a manicure, or cut your hedgehog’s nails yourself using a human nail scissor. If you decide to do it yourself, be very careful. Let your hedgehog calm down first, and do not cut too close to the pink flesh. This can cause bleeding.
Need help clipping your hedgehog’s toes?
Medical Care for Your Pet Hedgehog
To ensure a healthy life for your hedgehog, schedule an annual checkup with a specialized exotic pet vet for a physical exam that includes fecal and blood work.
Upon acquiring your hedgehog, you should head to your vet to examine it for common parasites like mites.
Common Hedgehog Health Concerns
Like humans, hedgehogs can also acquire similar diseases such as fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Liver disease and obesity often occur because of unhealthy eating habits, an unbalanced diet, and minimal exercise.
Balloon syndrome is a rare and strange condition of hedgehogs. Gas becomes trapped under the skin, causing the hedgehog to blow up like a balloon. This condition is unique to hedgehogs stemming from the way their skin is built. If you suspect your pet hedgehog has balloon syndrome, bring them to your vet immediately.
Female hedgehogs are also highly prone to uterine tumors. We recommended spaying all female hedgehogs to eliminate the risk of this fatal condition.
How Can I Tell When My Hedgehog Is Sick?
The following are signs that indicate that your hedgehog might be sick. Should you notice any of these signs, schedule an appointment with your nearby vet:
Flakes or crust on the skin, or losing spikes (may be an external parasite)
Blood in feces
Wobbling/loss of control over their limbs
Squealing while urinating/urine discoloration
Cloudy discharge from the nose
Discoloration discharge from the ear