In recent years, hedgehogs have become popular pets. Both European and African hedgehogs are kept as pets but African hedgehogs are much more popular. Laws regarding keeping hedgehogs as pets may vary depending on your location. Be sure to check with local authorities to see if special permits or laws are required to keep these animals. Knowing about their biology, reproduction, housing and dietary requirements will help you provide a happy and healthy environment for your new pet.
Originally from central Africa, hedgehogs are members of the family Erinaceidae in the order Insectivora. Hedgehogs have short spines that cover the back and crown of their head, although they are not barbed and do not cause serious injury to handlers. Coarse, dense fur covers the rest of the body. The normal body temperature of an African hedgehog is 97-99 degrees Fahrenheit and the males are usually larger than the females. Their average life expectancy in captivity is 5-8 years.
The African Hedgehog matures sexually with the ability to reproduce sometime between 2 and 3 months of age. However, for ideal maturity and for the safety of the female, wait until your hedgehog is at least 6 months of age before being bred. Gestation, the amount of time from conception to birth, is 34-37 days and litters can range in size from 1 to 7 pups (3-4 is average). Problems during delivery are rare, but during parturition (childbirth) hedgehogs become very sensitive to minor disturbances, and if stressed, will eat their young. Therefore, after delivery allow the female and her young be left undisturbed for several days. In addition, keep the male away as the time of delivery nears. The male takes no part in parental care and may also cannibalize the young. He may also cause stress to the female. At about 4-6 weeks of age, when the pups are weaned from their mother, they should be moved to a separate cage.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, meaning that most of their activity occurs at night. They are also solitary animals, so you should allow them to be housed alone unless they are being bred. They also seem to prefer dim and quiet environments, and are easily startled. When a hedgehog is frightened, he may assume a protective position by rolling into a tight ball, tucking in the long nose and legs, and exposing his spines. Your hedgehog may puff up and spit or hiss if frightened.
Your hedgehog may do a self-annointing activity called “anting.” This is a normal hedgehog activity performed when confronted by a new object or smell in his environment. The hedgehog will lick the new object repeatedly until saliva is produced and he begins drooling. Then he will groom his skin and spines with the frothy saliva.
The exact nutritional requirements for hedgehogs are not known. Despite some research, there is still a lot to be learned. The most current data about diets has come from the observation of the European hedgehogs and application to other hedgehog subfamilies must be done with care. It is very important that hedgehog owners continue to educate themselves on their captive hedgehog’s requirements. This is a relatively new pet and more and more information is being learned about them.
Hedgehogs appear to be omnivorous, meaning they eat both plant and animal foods. The natural diet of hedgehogs includes insects, worms, snails, slugs and occasional fruit. Hedgehogs have survived on a diet of kitten, cat, dog or ferret food supplemented with earthworms, mealworms, crickets and small amounts of chopped fruits and vegetables. There is also a recently developed commercially available hedgehog diet but it is not know if this diet provides all the necessary nutrients. Hedgehogs in captivity are prone to obesity, so their diets should be relatively high in protein and low in fat. This means that the best diets are dry adult cat food or hedgehog food supplemented with fruits vegetables and some insects. The diet should be offered in the evening prior to their most active time. (Remember that they primarily sleep during the day and actively forage for food during the evening hours.) Very limited amounts of food should be offered as snacks during their inactive day period. Water should be available in shallow bowls and changed daily.
Hedgehogs can swim and climb very well, so cages should be high and smooth-walled to prevent escape. Large aquariums (20 gallon) work very well. If you are breeding your hedgehog, you will need to provide a nest boxes. Shredded newspaper or pelleted, paper bedding materials make the best type of bedding, but shavings such as pine or cedar should be avoided since they contain volatile oils that can irritate the respiratory tract, skin and feet. Since hedgehogs are very susceptible to skin problems from contact with feces or urine, change the bedding frequently and avoid the use of wire flooring because this may cause foot and toes injuries.
Hedgehogs require “visual security,” meaning they need places to hide. You can use a cardboard box, PVC tubing, or a clay or plastic flowerpot. Since hedgehogs like to swim, you can also provide a small swimming pool as well.
Exercise wheels are wonderful accessories but keep in mind that hedgehogs will frequently use them at night. You will need to use a hedgehog wheel since hedgehogs tend to get their feet caught in the wires of rodent wheels.
The temperature of the hedgehog’s environment should be kept between 75-85 F degrees. Lower temperatures may induce hibernation and higher temperatures may result in sluggishness or heat stress.
Hedgehogs are susceptible to a variety of illnesses such as stomach and intestinal infections, diarrhea, liver disease, pneumonia, heart failure and cancer. Hedgehogs can also be afflicted with ringworm, mites, fleas and ticks. Although there are no routine vaccinations for hedgehogs, they should have an annual physical exam by a veterinarian who is familiar with hedgehogs. Your veterinarian may detect subtle abnormalities and begin treatment before it is too late.
Treatment and examination by your veterinarian is difficult and frustrating. Their typical behavior of curling into a tight ball makes it nearly impossible. For a thorough physical examination, anesthesia is usually required. A safe, inhalant gas anesthetic such as isoflurane is used.
If medications are recommended, mixing the medicine with cherry or banana flavored syrup may often prompt your hedgehog to take the medication willingly. Mixing the medication with a canned cat or dog food is another alternative.