Hedgehogs as a species are shown by fossil records to have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, which is longer than most other animals today. Scientifically, hedgehogs are part of the class of Mammals, which means the young drink milk from their mother; the subclass of Eutheria, which designates higher mammals as opposed to those who lay eggs or whose young finish developing in a pouch (marsupials); the order of Insectivora, which is a group of small mammals whose primary diet is insects; and the family of Erinaceidae, which is the most primitive group of living insectivores, and includes all spiny hedgehogs. Within this group, there are several varieties of hedgehog. One of the most frequently heard of, and a popular character in children's books, is the European Hedgehog. A common garden friend of many people in parts of Europe, these larger cousins of pet hedgehogs are often fed and looked after much as bird watchers all over the world care for and enjoy watching their feathered friends. They are especially valued by avid gardeners as a natural (and adorable) means of pest control. The kind of hedgehog commonly kept as a pet is the African Whitebellied, or African Pygmy Hedgehog. These animals are actually a mix of two different African species, the Algerian and the Pruners hedgehog. The crossing of these species, as well as selective breeding by fanciers, has led to the wide variety of sizes and colors found in pet hedgehogs today. Weights can range from 7oz. to 22oz. with a good healthy weight to expect from your adult hedgehog being 10oz. to 16oz., and since hedgehogs have been bred as pets, the original two or three colors have multiplied until hedgehogs come in numerous varieties. Colors listed by the International Hedgehog Club range from the "colorless" albinos, with their pale pink skin, pure white quills, and bright pink eyes; to the pink skin and mix of pale peach and tan quill bands of Cinnacots, to the beautiful black skin and nose and dark black/brown banded quills of "Salt & Pepper" hedgehogs. More important than color though is that your hedgehog is healthy and has a good temperament which will enable it to be your friend.
BASIC CARE INTRODUCTION
When trying to decide how to best to care for your hedgehog, you need to consider what their lives are like in the wild. Foragers and hunters by nature, hedgehogs spend a great deal of thought and energy each day finding food. As a small animal, they also spend this time trying to avoid becoming someone else's food. (Most notably large birds.) A hedgehog left to sit in a tiny cage all day with nothing to do will soon become fat, bored, and not a very good pet. Likewise, a hedgehog kept in an area where it constantly feels threatened (extremely high levels of noise and/or activity) will become defensive and skittish thinking it needs to protect itself.
Another thing to consider is the basic needs of all living creatures. Every living creature needs six basic things, whether a fish, a bird, a horse, a human, or a hedgehog. These things are: Space, Air, Shelter, Water, Food, and Stimulus. In the next few paragraphs I'll cover each one briefly as it relates to your pet hedgehog.
Every living thing needs space in which to move and exercise. A creature which does not have enough space is more prone to obesity, boredom, and sickness. Hedgehogs need a minimum space of approximately 18 x 24 inches to stay fit and healthy. Hedgehogs cover an enormous amount of distance in the wild when hunting for food, and pet hedgehogs still have that urge to run. Some owners with odometers on their hedgehogs' wheels have found them to run more than a mile every night!! If your hedgehog is not going to have a wheel, or frequent chances to run and play outside of its cage, you will want to seriously consider a larger enclosure. One option is to set up a small plastic pool for your hedgehog to play in outside of it's cage, while another is to allow free play time in a bathroom with tile floor. Make sure you check for possible ways to escape! Hedgehogs are experts at finding a hole or crack that you never noticed, or pushing a toy or wheel over to the edge of their enclosure to use as a ladder.
SPECIAL NOTE!! -- Many books on hedgehogs state that they are solitary animals and should not ever be housed together. This is not entirely true. Some hedgehogs do quite well with a friend of the same sex. However, you should never buy a second (or third, or fourth) hedgehog based on the assumption that it can live with one you have!! Hedgehogs who do not do well with a cage mate have done serious injury and even killed one put in with them!! Only after numerous supervised play sessions where the two hedgehogs have explored and played companionably should you try putting them in a cage together, and after doing so you should supervise closely for several days and remove promptly at the first signs of aggression. (Mild huffing is normal, but nothing beyond that) Please, PLEASE do not ever house opposite sex hedgehogs together. If you are interested in breeding please go to Hedgehog World and read the breeding articles in the articles section, and ask questions in the breeding section of the forums. Breeding is not ever something to be done casually or without research!
Every living thing needs air to breathe. Fresh air is very important to hedgehogs. You need to make sure that whatever cage your hedgehog is going to live in has adequate ventilation, whether provided by a screen lid, wire sides, holes, or other means. Hedgehogs also need clean air, which means not using a litter filled with dust, and not keeping them in places that have a large amount of dust, smoke, or fumes in the air. Clean air also means that your hedgehog should have a cage that is cleaned on a regular basis. Hedgehogs whose cages are cleaned at least weekly have almost no smell what so ever.
Hedgehogs need shelter both to keep warm and to feel safe. African pygmy hedgehogs, having originated as desert animals, have very little tolerance for cold. If they are allowed to become seriously chilled (temperatures lower than 70 degrees Fahrenheit) they may try to go into hibernation. Unlike European hedgehogs, the African varieties of hedgehog are not meant to hibernate and this could result in serious illness, a coma, or death. Many houses do not fall below this temperature, but if you find that your house is cooler than this, or you notice your hedgie being cold and sluggish, you will need to look into setting up an under tank heater, heat lamp, or some other source of warmth.
Hedgehogs also need someplace to hide to be happy. This can be as simple as a small box or a towel to burrow under, or as fancy as a custom nesting box or a hedgehog sized sleeping bag. Some words of caution: Wood needs to be painted with a non-toxic, child-safe paint so it does not become waterlogged or rotted, and fabric needs to be checked for strings which could be ingested or wrap around a foot or leg.
As part of your hedgehog's shelter, you will need to consider bedding. Some no-nos are corn cob or clay cat litter, as both of these can cause a blockage in the intestine if eaten, and cedar, as it can cause breathing problems. If you use another form of wood chips make sure they aren't exceedingly dusty, but otherwise both aspen and pine chips can work well. Other options are recycled newspaper (Yesterdays News and Carefresh), Pelleted prarie hay (Mountain Meadows), and Pelleted aspen (Gentle Touch).
While some hedgehogs can become litter box trained, it largely depends on the individual hedgehog. Watch and see if yours is one who chooses to use one corner of it's cage regularly, or consistently goes to the bathroom while running on it's wheel (a common behavior). If so, you can just scoop the corner it uses out, or put a small pan there or under the wheel. Litter pans are nice because you can change them frequently while changing and scrubbing the entire cage less often.
All living things need fresh, clean water to live, and hedgies are no exception. Either a water bottle or dish is fine, as long as you are able to keep it full and clean. Some hedgies will jam bedding under a bottle and drain it, while others will end up filling a bowl with their bedding. You and your hedgehog will have to figure out what works best, just make sure your hedgies has water at all times!. No matter what method you use, make sure you don't give your hedgehog any water to drink that you wouldn't pour yourself a glass of, hedgehogs are small animals and have less tolerance for chemicals than we do.
No argument is more freqently visited amongst those who keep hedgehogs than that of what is best to feed them. There are several commercial hedgehog foods on the market (8 in 1, Brisky's, L'Avian, Select Diet) but they can be hard to find, and not all of them are the best choice of nutrition for your pet. What a hedgehog needs as it's main diet is simple to provide as long as you are willing to do a little label reading. Most commonly these requirements can be met by a mix (around 3 foods is best) of high quality cat food, and many hedgehogs have lived healthy and long lives on this kind of diet. While it may sound complicated to begin with, there are really only two basic steps to remember:
- You will need to look for a food that has 30% or more protein, and around 15% fat (20% at the upper end). This is very important to make sure your hedgehog has enough energy and doesn't become overweight. A fat content much lower than 15%, or higher than 20% could possibly lead to an overweight hedgehog or other health issues.
- The food you choose should have quality ingredients at the top of it's list. A whole meat or meat meal (chicken, beef, lamb) should be one of your top few ingredients. Watch out for general by products or digests (meat by product, poultry by product, poultry digest) as these tend to be the bits and peices left over from the processing of the better parts of the meat and may include such things as hooves, beaks, feathers, and skin. You will also want to watch the corn content of the food. Unfortunately most feeds use corn as an inexpensive filler, and while a small amount of well processed corn is tolerable (and almost impossible to avoid!) it is important to avoid foods who have large quantities of corn or less processed corn (cracked or ground corn) as these do nothing to help your hedgehog and can cause digestive problems when fed in excess long term.
All hedgehogs should get occasional treats from the table. Unspiced chicken, tuna and salmon are big favorites, as are bits of cooked egg and many fruits and vegetables. Cottage cheese and yogurt are okay, but other dairy products should not be given as they can cause an upset stomach. With any new treat give only a small amount to begin with, just in case it doesn't agree with your hedgehogs digestion. Treats of mealworms or crickets are enjoyable, but not necessary, and should never be given in large amounts due to the high fat content. You don't have to feed insects live, but it can be fun watching your hedgie hop around after it's lunch!! Which leads to our next, and possibly most important topic...
Everyone needs something to do. In the wild most of an animals time is taken up with basic survival concerns, such as finding shelter, food, and water. Once we take an animal into our home, put it in some form of cage, and provide food and water for it, it no longer has to spend it's time finding these things. An animal left to sit with no affection and nothing to play with will quickly become miserable. A variety of food is an important part of stimulus. So are places to explore (various tubes and boxes), toys to play with (cat balls, tp tubes, ferret toys), and exercise (time to run or a solid surface wheel in the cage). The most important kind of stimulus for a good pet is play, handling and affection from their owner. Time spent handling your hedgehog will make all the difference between an animal that is nothing more than something to feed and clean up after and one who will be your friend for the rest of it's life.
One of the nicest things about hedgehogs as pets is that they do not require extensive maintenance other than regular grooming! This mostly entails regular nail clipping and the occasional bath. Nails can be clipped either with small animal nail scissors or human nail clippers. You can either have someone else hold the animal or hold it gently in your lap or against your body. (this will take some practice, don't worry, you'll get the hang of it!) Gently hold one foot and clip each nail just a little (about 1/8 inch) above the pink quick. It is almost inevitable that once in a while you will cut one too short. While it's unlikely that a hedgie is going to die of a cut quick, it is always a good idea to have corn starch or some form of styptic powder or pencil around to stop the bleeding.
Some hedgies refuse to unroll to get their nails cut, which leads us to the other part of good hedgehog maintenance, the bath. Hedgehogs, unless they are particularly messy, do not need regular baths, but an occasional one with a gentle dog or cat shampoo (preferrably tearless) will help your friend smell wonderful, and can be a great aid in nail clipping as hedgehogs will almost always unroll in water. Make sure that after you give your hedgie a bath you wrap it in a warm towel and snuggle it until it is dry so it doesn't get chilled. Another possibility is to gently blow dry it with a hair dryer set on low. Some hedgies just love this, others don't, so you'll have to find out what works best for you and your pet.