Caring for a Pet Hedgehog

From Cages to Food to Potty Training

Hedgehog and apple

There is possibly no more dramatic physical expression of a pet's growing trust and affection than a hedgehog's. At first, they are so prickly that gloves are required to pick them up. As time passes and familiarity grows, the prickliness and timidity gives way to boldness, playfulness and touching gestures of love. The hedgehog is truly a remarkable and unique pet and, like any pet, deserves all your love and attention.  

  1. The species. The African Pygmy Hedgehog is by far the most common kind of hedgehog sold as pets in the U.S. Actually a cross between the White-bellied Hedgehog and the North African Hedgehog, this critter is small and easily cradled in two hands.
  2. Food. Many a hedgehog has developed fatal liver problems due to a diet containing too much fat. For many years, cat food has been the default food for domestic hedgehogs, but many cat foods are too high in fat and low in protein to be healthy food for hedgehogs. Over time, hedgehog-specific food has been developed, but don't blindly accept it simply because of the label. The only way you can guarantee the healthiness of your food is to analyze its fat, protein and carbohydrate content.
    • Choose food (whether in the form of cat or hedgehog food) that guarantees a composition of at least 30% protein.
    • Don't feed your hedgehog any food with a fat content of over 12%.
    • Make sure your hedgehog gets a good amount of fiber (food with 10% fiber analysis will work well), because fiber can partially substitute for some of the substances that a hedgehog would normally consume in its primarily insect diet.

    The fact that hedgehogs eat tons of insects in the wild should explain why we want to feed them so much protein without the fat. You might wonder why you shouldn't feed your hedgehog a domestic diet of mainly insects. The answer is kind of complicated. Feeding your hedgehog feed-insects like crickets and mealworms is excellent as an occasional delicacy, but pet food insects contain much more fat than a hedgehog would normally eat in the wild. That spells liver problems. Why not feed them wild-caught insects? Hedgehogs aren't susceptible to much poison in the wild unless it is ingested in insects who have been contaminated. The wild insects you catch in your own backyard (which may have been sprayed with pesticides) might contain poisons that are dangerous for your hedgehog.

    As an occasional treat, you can also give your hedgehog a tiny morsel of lean and cooked chicken or other meat. Your hedgehog will enjoy fruit and veggie tidbits as treats too, but.stay away from sugary foods and dairy products.

    In addition to food, a hedgehog needs clean, fresh water all the time. Water bottles are recommended if you use newspaper shavings for bedding, since the shavings will fill a water bowl. Any food or water bowl should be wide and shallow, so a hedgehog can't knock it over as he scampers!

  3. Habitat. Your hedgehog shouldn't spend all her time in an enclosure, but it's important that you create for her a private sanctuary that is spacious, comfortable and filled with the necessities. It is important to choose among the correct hedgehog cages for your pet.
    • Plenty of room to roam - that's the first rule. Hedgehogs who feel like their mobility is impaired will be unhappy and unhealthy. They need room to run and play. They also need an enclosure with no floor gaps, as in the wire cages that mice, hamsters and other pets often call home; the long hedgehog legs can fall through these gaps. The style of walls in wire cages is also bad for your hedgehog, since he can climb. Consider a large plastic bin (the kind with the industrial look to it); with its large roaming space and smooth walls, it makes a good enclosure for hedgehogs.
    • As for bedding, common wood shavings like pine can contain harmful substances, so steer clear of them. Hedgehog owners often use newspaper for bedding. For a luxurious experience, try giving your hedgehog some Vellux blanket bedding - perfectly safe and soft.
    • Of course, your hedgehog will also want a little cubby hole, a shelter where she can get away from it all. It could be anything from an old box to a piece of pipe, as long as it's large enough for your hedgehog.
    • The temperature of your hedgehog's environment should hover between 72 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid direct sun exposure, but keep your hedgehog in a nicely lit part of your house.
  4. Potty-training? Yes, these intelligent creatures can be litter-trained! Provide a little litter pen in her cage and she will use it. It need only be a couple inches deep. Stick to the regular cat litter that doesn't clump or make lots of dust.
  5. Exercise. Making sure your hedgehog gets plenty of exercise is very important. Consider purchasing a running wheel for your hedgehog. It's important, however, that you buy only a wheel with a solid floor (for the same reason you must avoid wire cages) and without crossbars. You can bring her out of her cage as much as you want, as long as you supervise her. The more you can bring her out for playtime, the happier she'll be! Bring her litter pen out too, so she isn't too disoriented and can use the bathroom if necessary.
  6. Health. An obvious part of hedgehog care is being sure your pet is healthy. Hedgehogs are susceptible to liver problems because their domestic diet often contains too much fat. Cancer is another leading cause of death. Hedgehogs can develop stress-induced bowel irritability (green or runny feces being a symptom). You may also notice your aging hedgehog develop what's known as wobbly hedgehog syndrome, where the characteristic gait of a hedgehog becomes wobbly and uncertain. A hedgehog's average domestic lifespan hovers around seven or eight years. To ensure that your hedgehog enjoys the fullest, healthiest possible life, it is your responsibility to find a good veterinarian and schedule occasional check-ups for your hedgehog (at least once every couple of years - once a year is even better). If you notice irregular behavior, loss of appetite, difficulty moving or defecating, eye or nose discharge, or other physical changes (temperature, skin health), consult a veterinarian and schedule an appointment.
  7. Spend lots of time with your pet. Your hedgehog will quickly become your best friend. To connect with your lovable pet, it's crucial for the hedgehog to become familiar with your scent. A hedgehog is in many ways a one-person pet; the human scent that becomes familiar to him early on will leave an indelible impression on him forever. Consider reserving a long-sleeve shirt specifically for when you hold and play with your hedgehog; the familiarity will bring added psychological comfort to the little guy. And be patient with your pet - after all, in the real world he would see you as a predator.

If you are thinking of adding a pet hedgehog to your life, it may be because you are drawn to the relatively exotic nature of these creatures or perhaps to their adorable faces and the way their heads bob up and down when they catch a whiff of something tasty! No matter what, the pet-owning experience will be rewarding and pleasurable for you and the hedgehog if you are prepared to provide the proper care and environment for your little companion. It baffles me that in some parts of the country, pet hedgehogs are illegal. New York City, Georgia, California, Hawaii, and parts of Ohio and Virginia: you don't know what you're missing!

 

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