Hedgehog Husbandry: Adopting and Caring for Hedgehogs
Want a prickly pet that will keep your garden free of insects? Then the hedgehog may just be for you. The hedehog that is most commonly available in the pet trade is the African pygmy hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris)--or a mix thereof. The European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) is found all over western Europe and is usually a little larger than its Asian and African counterparts. The personality of the various species of hedgehog may vary and especially Hemiechinus auritus, also known as the long-eared Egyptian hedgehog, has been noted by some to be somewhat aggressive and may bite, probably because in many parts of Egypt they may still end up on a dining menu. The hedgehog is a member of the order Insectivora. They are actually omnivores, but primarily eat insects. These animals have a high metabolic rate and are nocturnal in behavior, which means they are more active at night.
Hedgehogs are covered with grey-brown spines or quills that are 2 to 3 cm long and 1 to 2 mm thick. The legs, head, and belly are actually covered with brown fur which is hidden on the underside of the body. Hedgehogs have five toes located on the front paws with short nails while the back paws have four toes with fast growing nails which adapt them for burrowing.
Although the preferred diet for a hedgehog is insects, they may be fed canned or dry dog or cat food, mealworms, snails, cottage cheese, pine nuts, and love shrimp, which serve as a good fiber source. A cat and dog food diet alone does not seem to be adequate and should be combined with insects and a fruit/vegetable mixture. Suitable fruits and vegetables include spinach, kale, leaf lettuce, carrots, apples, bananas, berries, grapes, and raisins which are diced. The ideal diet should be high in protein and low in fat. For younger, pregnant, or lactating hedgehogs, kitten or ferret food may be substituted for cat or dog food to provide extra nutients and calories. Overweight animals should be provided with “Lite” adult cat foods as a portion of their diet. Water should be available at all times. Most hedgehogs will use a water bottle although a low, shallow water dish or crock may be substituted.
The optimum environmental temperature to house a hedgehog is 75 to 85°F. Supplemental heating may be appreciated under a portion of the enclosure.
Hedgehogs are territorial as adults. Fighting is rarely observed but they may react to one another with hissing, snorting, and head butting. Pet hedgehogs are best kept in separate housing or kept as solitary pets.
Hedgehogs are normally shy and reclusive. When allowed to run freely in the house they tend to hide in corners and under furniture. It is also not unusual to find them digging in household plants to hunt insects. A 20 gallon aquarium or larger usually provides an adequate enclosure. Within their enclosure, it is best to provide them a hiding place such as a makeshift house. Hiding places may be as simple as a cut-out box, plastic log, or a popular alternative... a flower pot. The best cage bedding is shredded recycled paper or recycled newspaper products. The bedding should be changed frequently. Cedar and pine litter should not be used since they may be irritating to their feet and soft underside. Cloth should also not be used as bedding since strings may be ingested or may get wrapped around the legs causing strangulation of the circulation to the extremities. Wire should be avoided to prevent injury to the feet.
Hedgehogs will use an exercise wheel when provided but must be constructed specifically for a hedgehog and not contain wire that may again result in injury to the feet.
Allergroom shampoo is safe for bathing.
The hedgehog becomes sexually mature at 9 to 10 months of age and will usually mate from April to the end of June, but will sometimes mate until October. The gestation period is 32 days for most pet hedgehogs but may be longer, up to 58 days depending on the species. The male should be removed from the enclosure shortly after breeding since they play no role in the care of the young hedgehogs and his presence may stress the female, resulting in cannibalism of the young by either adult. Three to eight cubs are born headfirst with the eyes and ears closed. A mother hedgehog is usually very attentive to her young and should not be disturbed for 5 to 10 days postpartum. Increased stress may also result in cannibalism. A swollen cutis covers the white baby spines. Shortly after birth, the spines start to perforate the skin. These baby spines are normally shed at approximately one month and are replaced by permanent spines in a process called “quilling”. During the third week of life, the eyes and ears open. The deciduous or baby teeth begin erupting at about day 23, followed by the permanent teeth which begin to erupt at 7 to 9 weeks of age. Two litters may be born each year. Animals born in the fall are often cachectic and will not survive hibernation when born in the wild. In cold climates or when food is limited these animals are not physically prepared for hibernation.
In their natural environment, European hedgehogs hibernate or sleep about four to five months of the year. Hibernation correlates with the outside temperature, the moisture of the air and the available food supply. During the autumn months, the hedgehog will store reserves of fat. Once the temperature drops below 8°C (46.4°F), the hedgehog will retreat to a nest for hibernation. The nest is usually placed under heaps of small branches in a protected area or may perhaps be found under a stable floor. Hibernation is finished when the temperature in the nest stays above the critical temperature for a certain period of time. Hibernation is a protection mechanism that directly correlates with the availability of food and may be prevented in captivity by supplying sufficient levels of food and providing protection from cold weather.
African hedgehogs may become dormant during periods of environmental stress such as excessive heat or cold but do not truly hibernate, with the dormancy lasting for weeks rather than months. The African pigmy hedgehog will wake periodically and emerge at intervals. The pigmy hedgehog does not have a need for dormancy. This pseudo-hibernation may actually make them more susceptible to infection and the development of thrombi and should be prevented when possible by providing a warm temperature and an adequate food supply.
In captivity, a hedgehog may live to be six to eight years of age with as old as ten years of age being recorded. The average life-span of a wild hedgehog is 1.5 years. Mortality of young hedgehogs insufficiently prepared for hibernation may reach levels of 80%. For those animals having survived their first hibernation, the life-span increases to 2.5 years. The short life-span in the wild is attributed to traffic and pesticides in addition to unprepared hibernation. Hedgehogs have a high rate of metabolism resulting in the consumption of large numbers of insects, thereby concentrating possible pesticide residues within their bodies.
In the wild, hedgehogs may be a powerful natural form of pest control. A single hedgehog can eat up to 200 grams of insects each night. In the United Kingdom, people try to attract hedgehogs to their gardens for this organic pest control.
When threatened, the hedgehogs will curl up into a ball and try to puff themselves up thereby extending their spines. These animals will emit a high-pitched hissing sound. A balled up hedgehog is harder to handle without gloves because although the spines do not have sharp tips, they can be irritating. The use of leather gloves may facilitate handling in this balled up state so the animal is not dropped.
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Johnson-Delaney, Cathy. Editor. Exotic Companion Medicine Handbook for Veterinarians. Pp. 2-6.