By Craig Sernotti
Hedgehogs have only become part of the pet trade within the last 20 years or so. Fascinating, curious, and downright adorable, this exotic small animal makes a great pet for the right person.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and so are active at night; however, some species are active during the day. They are naturally shy and nervous because they are hunted as prey in the wild. Males should be kept singly—if you want to keep a pair, stick with females only. Depending on the species, if taken care of properly, hedgehogs can live for up to ten years in captivity. Hedgehogs are considered an exotic pet, so keeping one may not be legal in your state. Check with your local government to see if you are allowed to keep one before purchasing this animal.
What About Those Quills?
Hedgehogs are covered with spines, not quills—a porcupine has quills. The quills serve as a defense mechanism—if a hedgehog feels threatened, he will roll up into a ball. What animal would want to eat a ball of prickly spines? The spines are not poisonous or barbed (like the quills of a porcupine), so don’t think that hedgehogs are deadly.
If you are nervous about being hurt by the spines, wear thick gardening gloves to handle your hedgehog. These animals are easily spooked, so always handle your pet gently. Avoid any sudden movements, and do not speak loudly. By being patient and handling your hedgehog regularly and gently, he will eventually feel safe around you. Removing the gloves and allowing him to smell your scent will help him become familiar with you.
If you get pricked by one of the spines, wash your hands with soap and water to prevent a possible allergic reaction.
More than 14 different hedgehog species can be found throughout the world, specifically in Europe, Asia, Africa, and New Zealand. They have been around since the dinosaurs and have changed very little since that time. The Romans used a hedgehog to predict the coming spring season; if he saw his shadow, it meant six more weeks of winter. This tradition should sound very familiar—when it came to the New World, this duty fell to the groundhog because there were no hedgehogs living there at that time.
Hedgehogs were first kept as pets in the early 1990s. They were shipped to New York from Africa because they were overpopulating parts of Nigeria. People fell in love with the hedgehog, and he has been with us ever since.
Enclosure and Setup
You can keep your hedgehog in either an all-glass aquarium with a weighted-down mesh top or a wire-frame cage. Hedgehogs have delicate feet, so the bottom part of the wire cage should be removed and replaced with a solid bottom, or you must buy a cage with a solid bottom. The aquarium or cage must be large enough for your pet to move around and explore comfortably. An enclosure with ample floor space is ideal.
The bedding must be made from hard wood or recycled paper—these will not cause health problems for your small animal, as pine and cedar shavings have been known to do. Because hedgehogs like to nest, change the bedding regularly to keep your pet clean and to help him feel cozy.
The setup must be large enough to fit a hide box, food bowl, water bottle, exercise wheel, and toys.
There are dry commercial mixes available in pet stores that you can offer your hedgehog. Supplement them with fresh fruits and vegetables and live insects. In the wild, hedgehogs hunt insects as their primary source of food. Offering live insects will keep your pet active, stimulated, and healthy. Crickets and mealworms are commonly sold in pet stores and make great food items.
Your hedgehog must always have access to clean, fresh water. Change it regularly.
Sometimes you will have to bathe your hedgehog. Fill a sink with about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) of lukewarm water. Place him into the water, and use a cup to pour the water over his body. Use a toothbrush to get in between his spines. Always use a gentle shampoo, and avoid contact with the eyes at all costs. Rinse him clean, and dry him with a towel.
You will need to trim your hedgehog’s nails every now and then. Have styptic powder on hand to stop the bleeding in case you cut too close to the paw. It’s best to have two people when doing this—one to hold your hedgehog and one to cut his nails.
Health Care and Illness
Preventive care is the best way to keep your hedgehog healthy. If you change his bedding regularly, only offer fresh foods and water, and exercise and spend time with him daily, he will have a good chance of living a long, happy life.
Hedgehogs can come down with various illnesses, injuries, and infections, and a change in behavior or eating habits is a sure sign that something is wrong. If your hedgehog displays any of these changes or seems ill, contact a veterinarian immediately. Because the hedgehog is an exotic animal, you will probably have to search for a vet who knows how to treat him.