8 Things to Know Before You Get a Pet Hedgehog
Hedgehogs are the darlings of Instagram, but they’re not your typical pet. Here, a pro shares how to care for these tiny desert denizens.
If you follow the adventures of Mr. Pokee on Instagram, you’ve probably dreamed at least once about keeping a hedgehog as a pet. Mr. Pokee sits in tiny chairs; he wears heart-shaped sunglasses; he romps through a pillow forest with his cat sibling. Hedgehogs are cuteness personified. But they’re also not for everyone.
Christina Hannigan, a volunteer rescuer for the Hedgehog Welfare Society, says hedgehogs aren’t like dogs or cats. “These aren’t pets that are going to run to the door and greet you at the end of the day.” That’s, in part, due to their biology.
They’re Still Pretty Wild
African pygmy hedgehogs – the variety sold as pets – have only been companion animals in the last 40 or so years. Unlike dogs, cats and other domesticated creatures, their bodies haven’t adapted to living with humans. They see us as predators and, until they learn to trust you, they’ll act like prey.
That means, when you buy a hedgehog, whether it’s from a breeder, pet store or Craigslist, you could be coming home with, as Hannigan says, “a hissing, spiky little ball of hate.” This is the biggest reason so many hedgehogs are returned to the breeder or wind up with rescuer like Hannigan.
They Need to Socialize to Build Trust
Because hedgehogs are still wired to be prey, they assume you’re a predator, and their first response is to ball up and protect themselves. Socializing them helps make them friendlier and more trusting. “Spend as much time as you can with your hedgehog, even if you’re just snuggling them while you watch TV,” says Hannigan. “Trust is built over time.”
Eventually, most will crawl on you and fall asleep sometimes. “Some even sit in your lap,” says Hannigan. “It can be very sweet. But we’ve also had one for more than four years, and he’s just grumpy and doesn’t want to be with anyone.”
They Need To Be Accepted as They Are
Understanding – and accepting – what these wild creatures are willing to give will go a long way toward a happy pet/owner relationship. Because most people know nothing about them, that means owners should get training on caring for their hedgie before they buy. And training can be tough to find.
Pet stores send new owners home with a hedgehog, a crate and some food, but are less likely to provide instructions on how to care for them than breeders or rescues. Breeders are better because most of them want the animals to succeed. They typically provide instructions or basic training on caring for them. Rescues and other organizations often wind up doing the most training.
They Need a Knowledgeable Vet
In the wild, hedgehogs live between 18 months and two years. As pets, they can live as long as seven years. Because captivity is doubling and tripling their lifespans, life itself can take a toll on their bodies. This is why having an experienced vet is so important. A good vet can tell you when your female hedgie has a UTI or reproductive cancer. They know how to deal with their gastrointestinal issues. And they can help manage their heart problems.
Take your hedgehog to the vet when your first get it to establish a baseline. Once your pet reaches a year old, take it every six months for a wellness check. This will help you keep on top of any health issues that may develop.
They’re Desert Creatures at Heart
Because they’re from Africa, hedgehogs are used to warmer temps, so it’s important to keep their cage at a constantly regulated 77-82 degrees. In the wild, hedgehogs hibernate to help save fuel during colder, darker months. But domesticated hedgies don’t face food scarcity or experience the temperature and light fluctuations that cause hibernation. In a domesticated hedgehog, hibernation can lead to an emergency situation and even death.
To keep your hedgie toasty, wrap (or cover) the cage to keep out drafts. Then add a heat source. Hannigan recommends a ceramic heat emitter (at least 150 watts) in a dome lamp attached to a thermostat. Monitor cage temps with a hanging thermometer.
They Play a Lot … at Night
Hedgehogs are predominantly nocturnal and, in the wild, they cover seven to 10 miles in a night looking for food. Exercise is vital for their mental and physical health, and, in captivity, the best way to ensure they get it is via an exercise wheel. Wire wheels can catch and break toes, feet and legs, so look for a specially made solid-surface wheel that’s quiet and easy to clean.
Their nocturnal nature can mean you spend less time with them than you would other pets (assuming you’re not nocturnal, too). So, plan to spend a few hours at night or early in the morning playing or snuggling with your hedgie to get the most of your relationship.
They Should Eat Something Besides Commercial Hedgehog Food
Hannigan recommends feeding a small-batch cat food because it’s more nutritionally sound than commercial hedgehog food. Shoot for a diet with medium protein (around 30 percent), about 10 percent fat and the highest fiber you can find (6 to 7 percent). Too much fat can create issues for hedgehogs, so avoid the processed treats.
They Could Be Outlaws
Some states have outlawed hedgehogs as pets, usually for fear they’ll carry salmonella or because they equate them with rodents. The state is within its rights to confiscate an illegally kept hedgehog, so before you buy one, check out this list of states that allow hedgehogs as pets.
Keeping a hedgehog as a pet is a commitment. After all, you’re pledging yourself to a wild creature that needs special care. But, Hannigan says, it’s worth it. “Having hedgehogs changed my life. If you’re willing to learn about them and interact with them daily, they’re fantastic pets and a lot of fun.”
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