By Linda Orlando
If you’re looking for a truly unique and unusual pet, you need not look further than a hedgehog. There are 14 species of hedgehogs native to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. In the United States, the species Atelerix albiventris has been imported purely for being kept as pets, but not released into the wild.
In the wild, hedgehogs live for three or four years, and in good climates they may live seven years or longer. Hedgehogs are nocturnal insectivores that hibernate in colder months. Their diet consists mainly of earthworms, snails, beetles, and caterpillars, but they also eat a large range of other insects. The diet of a hedgehog may vary depending on its environment, and some have even been known to eat carrion, small birds, small mammals, or cracked birds’ eggs. As pets, they enjoy being treated to dog biscuits and pieces of sweet fruit. Hedgehogs have poor eyesight, so they rely mostly on hearing and smell to locate their food.
In the wild in cold climates, hedgehogs usually hibernate during the colder months of the year, but when kept inside as a pet, the hibernation period is either eliminated entirely or very short. During hibernation, a hedgehog will seem dead, because its heart rate drops from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute, and its body temperature is lowered by 20% or more.
Hedgehogs as Pets
The quills of a hedgehog feel like a bristly brush, rather than a porcupine. They sport soft fur on their faces and bellies, and their tails are very hard to see because they are nothing more than nubs. The average size of a hedgehog is between 4 and 9 inches in length. Because they are nocturnal creatures, they aren’t the best pets for an early riser if you want to actually see them awake. As for personality, hedgehogs tend to be a bit nervous and not a standard cuddly lap animal. In order to bond with a hedgehog, you need to buy a just weaned, 6-8 week old hedgehog. Look for bright clear eyes, a well-rounded body, and an alert and energetic inquisitiveness.
Hedgehogs have not been kept in people's homes as a pet for very long. Their life expectancy is thought to be 4-6 years. Normally it is the Pigmy Hedgehog that you see for sale in pet shops. Most hedgehogs can be trained to use a litter box, but not all. If their cage is kept cleaned they have very little odor. Some commercial foods tend to cause hedgehogs to have a stronger odor. People that are normally allergic to cats are rarely allergic to hedgehogs.
Welcoming a hedgehog into your home
Before bringing your hedgehog home from the pet store, make sure your house is escape proof. Hedgehogs are masters at escaping and can fit through anything their little head can fit through. They also climb everything, like water bottles in their cages. Several types of cages will work, but be sure that the cage is secure. Wire cages work well, but make sure the squares are small enough so the hedgehog can't get out. An excellent container is a good size Tupperware bin. Drill lots of holes for ventilation, but not big enough for the little guy to escape. Hedgehogs must be kept warm, so it can be beneficial to place a heating pad on the lowest setting under one side of the cage.
Although there are some good quality hedgehog foods beginning to appear on the market, they are not readily available. Their favorite food and treat is mealworms. If a commercial food or mealworms aren’t available, a high quality dog or cat food can be fed in a pinch. The dietary needs of a hedgehog have not been completely established, but you can offer them some fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber.
Hedgehogs are active animals and exercise is very beneficial to them, so a large sturdy wheel is a must. Also empty toilet papers rolls that have been cut through completely across so the animal doesn't get his head trapped. They love to dig and root, so you can make a small sandbox for him, add sand and some mealworms, and he will have a blast! Never use pine or cedar for cage bedding, because they will certainly dig in it, and aromatic softwood is dangerous to their respiratory systems. You can use aspen shavings, or non-dusty clay litter. Choose the bedding carefully because the hedgehog will ingest some of the bedding. Aspen shavings are good because they are digestible.
How to uncurl a hedgehog
To handle a hedgehog, place your hand on each side of him and gently cup him in your hand. Use great caution not to place your fingers in the middle. They can ball up quickly and your finger can get caught in the middle of a bunch of quills being squeezed together by very strong muscles. If this happens, you will need to gently uncurl him to ease his anxiety. First pick him up, and turn him over on his back to identify where the nose is located. Hold the hedgehog by his back with the head under your fingers. Gently rock forwards and backwards, and when the nose starts to show the front legs will also emerge. As the legs reach for the ground, gently put the hedgehog down.
Bonding with a hedgehog is quite different than bonding with other animals. The hedgehog has very poor eyesight, and their hearing isn't much better, so they bond using their sense of smell, which is highly developed. Don't use gloves when handling a hedgehog or he won’t know who you are. If you want him to learn to identify your smell as being that of a friend, don't change your odor each day by wearing different perfumes. Spend a great deal of time with your new friend. It is better to spend small amounts of time frequently than large amounts of time infrequently, so that he gets used to having you around. Find an old article of clothing that has no loose threads or holes, wear it for a day, and then place it in his cage so he can adjust to your smell.
A hedgehog can be a special pet for the right person, but they aren’t as cuddly and cute as they look. Many hedgehogs have suffered because of people purchasing them as a fad item and then losing interest, so be sure to do your research first to be sure you are really interested in taking care of a hedgehog. If you are a responsible pet owner, a hedgehog can make a wonderful little pet for you, especially if you have a busy lifestyle or cramped quarters. They can be interesting and entertaining, and best of all, you won’t have to take them for a walk when it’s raining outside!