By Zug G. Standing Bear
1. I’ve heard of African pygmy hedgehogs as pets. Are they the only kind of hedgehog?
The short answer is no. Of the 14 species of hedgehog that inhabit the world, only two species, the Central African hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian hedgehog (A. algirus) are commonly kept as pets, and neither one is a pygmy species. The term pygmy was incorrectly applied to these species by pet animal wholesalers who were trying to differentiate them from their slightly larger European cousins (Erinaceus europaeus and E. romanicus).
Today, virtually all of the hedgehogs in the pet trade in North America are the descendants of 80,000 imported into the United States from Africa during 1991 to 1994. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Agriculture placed a quarantine on live animals coming from countries harboring foot and mouth disease (which meant all of the African continent) and thus the importation of African hedgehogs ended.
2. How can someone tell one species of a hedgehog from another?
Experts can recognize many subtle differences, but for most folks there are some easily recognizable differences. British and European hedgehogs are recognizable by their color, which tends to be dark brown all over, including gold to brown tummy fur. In comparison, both Central African and Algerian hedgehogs come in a wide variety of colors resulting from developing camouflage in the widely varying colors of the desert — from white to black, cinnamon to apricot as well as gray, brown and various combinations. Their underfur is uniformly white.
Algerian hedgehogs can usually be distinguished by small, round, gold patches of fur just below the eyes and skin mottled to dark. The South African hedgehog (A. frontalis), the only endangered member of the 14 species, is easily recognizable by its striking facial fur that is white interrupted by a black band across the eyes. Two long-eared hedgehog species (Hemiechinus genus) are recognizable by their exceptionally long ears and the northern varieties in Russia tend to have gold-colored facial fur and the characteristic long ears. For more about this, the website Hedgehog Central has some excellent information and photographs on species identification.
3. Do hedgehogs make good pets?
This depends upon the personalities of the hedgehog and the human, as well as the environment. African hedgehogs are clean, self-grooming, quiet, odorless if healthy, hypoallergenic to most humans, and do not need to continually gnaw on things, as rodents do, as they are insectivores and their teeth do not continue to grow.
European hedgehogs have a distinctive body odor because they live in a far wetter climate than our African friends, which make very judicious use of water because they are primarily desert animals (hence, odorless). Given these characteristics, they are ideal pets for small apartments.
Although they are capable of almost two dozen vocalizations, they seldom use this talent. They can be quite affectionate and always zany, as well as endlessly curious, as befits their insect-hunting tradition.
“Hedgehog-proofing” an environment is a must, as they have been known to get into the most impossible places and dismantling your lower kitchen cabinets is not a pleasurable task under any circumstances.
4. Do hedgehogs require veterinary care?
All pet animals may require veterinary care and a periodic health checkup is always a sound idea. Hedgehogs can contract colds and upper respiratory illnesses, and intestinal infections and bacterial overgrowth. They can also suffer from severe earwax, broken bones, cancer and even a hedgehog version of multiple sclerosis. Due to their small size and relatively short intestinal track, illness moves quickly in a hedgehog and this requires fast action to get the hedgehog to a skilled veterinarian.
Locate a hedgehog-savvy veterinarian before obtaining a hedgehog. To find one, call around to your community veterinarians and ask. Also, a list of veterinarians who see hedgehogs may be found on the website of the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and another list is on Petcha.com.
There is an excellent review of hedgehog symptoms and possible causes on the Hedgehog Central website under the “Care” category.
5. What do pet African hedgehogs eat?
Although classified as insectivores (insect-eaters), they are actually omnivorous. Being an omnivore has some serious downsides, like eating stuff that’s not good for you, including scrambled eggs and other high-cholesterol items. At our hedgehog rescue, The Flash And Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue, we have found it difficult to maintain a healthy insect diet for pet hedgehogs due to the variability of the quality of available commercially raised insects. Wild-caught insects are not a healthy option due to the excess of insecticides and herbicides in the environment. Moreover, treats such as mealworms are high in fat and should be used only as an occasional treat.
At our rescue, we use high-quality dry cat food as our primary hedgehog diet. The choice of food for your hedgehog requires vigilance, as food formulas can change. Check ingredients periodically on your chosen food.
Even if a food is examined closely and deemed acceptable, there is yet another hurdle to overcome — will the hedgehogs like it? I have cared long-term for nearly 400 African (and two Egyptian) hedgehogs during the last 18 years, and our rescue population typically averages between 30 and 50 resident hedgehogs. I am convinced that they communicate with each other, even though they live in two separate locations and in individual cages and condos (from single accommodations to groups of two to 10). A message sent by the senior hedgehogs of “we’re not going to eat this stuff” is taken seriously by the other hedgehogs in the rescue.
6. What should a pet hedgehog have as living quarters?
A hedgehog should be offered a flat-bottomed container of at least 3.5 square feet of floor space, preferably more. This minimal space provides enough space for a waterer, food bowl, exercise wheel, hiding place and some toys. The Sterilite brand Model 1990, 116-quart container is an adequate size, easily cleaned and lightweight. The 13.5 inch height is sufficient to prevent escapes by all but the most imaginative hedgehogs (and we’ve had a few of those).
In our experience, the ideal lining for such an accommodation is a custom-made cage liner consisting of outer layers of corduroy and an inner layer of fleece. We prefer this because there is no dust, no easy contamination with allergens and mites, and it allows us to see any changes in poop/pee that may signal health problems. In fact, we prefer white-colored corduroy liners so changes in poop or pee are really obvious.
At our rescue, we use a gravity-feed waterer rather than a water bottle. This is because hedgehogs are not rodents and their teeth do not continue to grow. If a hedgehog loses a tooth trying to get water from a metal tube, that tooth is gone forever.
We prefer to use food bowls made in countries with regulations regarding product quality, so we only use Pyrex (made in the United States) food bowls.
In the wild, hedgehogs roam about 4 to 7 miles a night seeking food and romance, not necessarily in that order. Their food needs are met in captivity, but they still need exercise in order to stay healthy. A good hedgehog exercise wheel is a necessity. Hedgehogs need a solid running surface rather than a rung-type wheel, because they are not as sure-footed as rodents and might break a leg. Most hedgehogs tend to be clumsy oafs (one of the reasons they are so adorable). A 12-inch (diameter) exercise wheel is ideal, but an 11 or 10 inch size is adequate for small to average-sized African hedgehogs. Further habitat information may be seen on the Little Flash page of our rescue website.
7. Are there any good pet care books on hedgehogs?
At our rescue, we recommend Hedgehogs – A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual by Sharon Vanderlip, DVM, published by Barron’s in 2010.
8. Why is monitoring a hedgehog’s weight daily important?
Changes in a hedgehog’s weight trend may indicate a variety of health problems from intestinal blockages to cancer to dental problems to intestinal bacteria overgrowths, and anything that may cause a hedgehog to go off of her or his food and/or water. Because the average hedgehog only weighs about 1 pound, it is virtually impossible for a human to discern a weight change trend until it is extreme. Also, because a hedgehog can eliminate considerable waste in “one sitting,” so to speak, daily weighing that is recorded is essential as an excellent indicator of possible health problems.
An ideal scale is a small, electronic kitchen scale that weighs in tenths of a gram, a variety of which is available very reasonably priced (usually less than $20). Weighing a hedgehog in grams is preferable to ounces because at these small levels, grams are far more exact. The “average” African hedgehog weighs between 350 and 450 grams (454 grams is one pound), but, as in humans, weight variability is very wide and a healthy hedgehog may weigh anywhere between 200 and 1,000 grams depending upon body and bone structure.
9. What are some of the downsides to having a pet hedgehog?
There are three major downsides to caring for a pet hedgehog. First, as with other small mammals, the life span of even a healthy hedgehog is only four to six years. A 5-year-old hedgehog is roughly the equivalent of a 76- to 78-year-old human. The recorded world record for longevity in a hedgehog was 11 years, 10 months and 11 days, which was set by a male hedgehog named Packie.
Second, hedgehogs are susceptible to fatal hereditary diseases believed by some to be due to inbreeding, such as various cancers and a hedgehog version of multiple sclerosis (degenerative myelopathy), which is always fatal and usually causes death by 18 to 24 months of age. For this reason, quality hedgehog breeders only breed registered hedgehogs within the International Hedgehog Registry from clear ancestral blood lines.
Third, because they lost their ability to hibernate some 20 million years ago, African hedgehogs must be kept warm (72 degrees Fahrenheit minimum) at all times.
10. Can pet hedgehogs live in groups?
Male hedgehogs tend to be solitary and territorial and will often fight if placed together. Here at our rescue, we have occasionally enjoyed compatible male hedgehogs, but it is a rare event. Female hedgehogs are often compatible and will socialize and snuggle. However, it is advisable to carefully observe female hedgehogs placed together to look for signs of aggression. Here at our rescue, we have housed as many as 10 compatible females together.
Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Life With Your First Hedgehog
Hedgehog Body Language
Three African Hedgehog Health Issues You Can’t Ignore
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See questions and answers about hedgehog behavior