Thanks to recent articles in Buzzfeed, a bevy of cute Tumblrs, and one adorable bubble bath video, hedgehogs have experienced a bit of a renaissance on the Internet lately. The prickly creatures have replaced owls and cats as the go-to animal to grace tote bags, stationary, measuring cups, and more. With all this extra attention, people are clamoring for one of their own. But before you head to your nearest pet store (which is a big no-no), there are some things you should know about your little ball of spikes first. Owning a hedgehog isn’t always a 24-hour cute explosion. If you’re not comfortable with poop, live worms, freeze dried crickets, more poop, strange saliva mixtures, and even more poop, then perhaps you’re better off with a sea monkey. But if you think you’re up for the task, here’s a basic primer on the wonderful world of domestic hedgehogs.
So after “liking” thousands of hedgie gifs on Tumblr, you’ve decided it’s time to own one. First and foremost: is owning a hedgehog legal in your state? If you’re in New York City, California, Georgia, Hawaii, or parts of Nebraska — you’re out luck. Although it is possible to illegally house one, you run the risk of being evicted, having your hedgie live in an unsafe climate, and being unable to find a proper vet when its sick. In short: a prickly situation.
But if you’re in the clear, where do you find one? The pet store is a no go. The few that carry them typically don’t know how to properly care for hedgehogs, and like puppy mill dogs, they usually carry all kinds of diseases that drastically shorten their lives. Secondly, buying a hedgehog is not the same as buying an IKEA kitchen table. Craigslist is not the answer. The owners usually don’t know the hedgehog’s histories, and most likely, purchased them from a pet store.
Your best option: HedgehogBreeders.org. This site will point you in the direction of the closest, USDA certified hedgehog breeder in your state. As someone who adopted her dog from a shelter, I’ve always been wary of breeders and “designer breeds.” However, it’s slightly different in the hedgie world. These are the people who have been trained to raise hedgehogs and give them the kind of care that makes them happy, healthy animals. The most common form of hedgehog in the US is the African Pygmy from, you guessed it, Africa. They need to be properly acclimated to certain climates from birth, and breeders have got this down to a science.
You’ve selected a breeder and maybe even a ‘hog, but before you take it home, you need to make sure it’s got a place to call its own. And no, a soft spot on your bed isn’t going to cut it. An ideal hedgehog home contains the following:
- A large cage with enough room to scurry around. Most hamster and gerbil cages are too small, but larger rabbit and ferret cages usually work.
- Several inches of soft bedding for the cage floor. Most owners use CareFresh pet bedding, while others use cloth cage liners. When selecting bedding, make sure it doesn’t contain pine or cedar shavings, two ingredients many owners are iffy about.
- Exercise wheel. Hedgehogs love to eat — and love over-eating even more. To keep themselves in shape, they usually devote their nights to regular exercising.
- A place to hide. Hedgehogs are notoriously shy, and they need a place to burrow. Anything from a plastic gerbil castle to a snuggle sack can do the job.
- Food and water bowl. The heavier the better, as hedgies tend to get excited during feeding time and knock things over.
- Litter box. Your hedgie won’t always do its business in here, but it will roll around in it now and then to give himself a “dust bath.”
- Toys. It doesn’t take much to keep a hedgehog busy. Sometimes all you need is an empty toilet paper roll, and they’re set for life.
- Heat lamp. This is important, especially if you live in a colder climate. African pygmy hedgehogs are used to hot environments, and their cage should usually be kept around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If the cage gets too cold, your hedgehog could go into hibernation and never wake up.
Make sure the cage is located near a window that gets enough sunlight. Although hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep all day, they need to know the sun is out. It lets them know that they should be tucked into their snuggle sack.
You know how your parents would force you to go on long-distance driving trips, under the guise of “bonding time”? Well, with a hedgehog you’ll have to do something like that every day. I like to call it “mandatory cuddling hour.” If you thought Grumpy Cat was grumpy, try snuggling up with one of the most antisocial, aloof creatures in the animal kingdom. Obviously, it’s going to take some time for your ‘hog to warm up to you.
One thing that tends to scare new owners is the fact that, at first, it will appear that your hedgehog hates you. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal for your hedgie to hiss at your presence, run into its snuggle sack, and squirm, poop, and claw its way out of your grip. One thing you can do when you first get your hedgehog is place an old shirt of yours –preferable one that reeks of you, say a gym shirt– and place it in their cage. It should help your hedgehog get used to your smell. With their less-than-stellar eyesight, a hedgehog’s smell is the key to gaining their trust. Not all hedgehogs are alike, and of course there are some friendly ones, but for the most part, don’t be surprised if your ‘hog is of the Ron Swanson variety.
Oh, and if your hedgehog starts spazzing out one day, frothing at the mouth, and compulsively licking something? Relax. It’s just anointing, a special way hedgehogs familiarize themselves with new smells. It’s pretty fascinating to watch.
I can attest to the fact that bathing a hedgehog isn’t always blissful bubbles and adorable shampoo-ing. It can be a bloodbath at first. If you have a particularly grouchy hedgehog like I did, she will associate bath time with pure torture. But unless you want your little one prone to mites and other parasites, an occasional bath is necessary.
You will need: pet shampoo, a tooth brush, and a clean sink. Brush the shampoo with, not against, the grain of its spines and rinse with warm water. Don’t forget their bellies, too. Many owners use bath time to trim nails — another task that can be a battle of epic proportions. Somehow you have to navigate a nail clipper onto the teeny tiny (but fast-growing) nails of a squirming hedgehog. This is a task for two people, one person to restrain the hedgehog, while the other clips. If you cut too deep, don’t freak out. Just keep some corn meal handy to dip the toe in to stop the bleeding. No, you’re not a bad parent. Hedgehogs are tough creatures, after all.
Between regular baths, you can give your hedgehog a foot bath, by letting it walk on a wet towel soaked with soap. Real talk: hedgehogs poop. A lot. And they tend to walk through it. Clean feet equals a clean cage.
What do hedgehogs eat? A steady diet of dry cat food, supplemented with fresh veggies, cooked chicken, fruits, and most importantly, insects. Hedgehogs can’t get enough of meal worms and crickets. If touching bugs gives you the eebie jeebies, you’ll soon get over it once you own a hedgehog. Nothing brings a smile (or smile-like shape) to a hedgehog like a big fat worm or cricket.
There is “hedgehog food” on the market, but beware. Some of it is packed with preservatives, and it’s often easier to just use cat food, veggies, and fruit. Hedgehogs are also lactose intolerant, but some owners give their little ones yogurt drops. It’s up for debate amongst the hedgehog community, so you’ll have to decide what works best for your pet.
And always keep treats in moderation. Again, hedgehogs love to gorge, and if they’re too heavy for their exercise wheel, things can do downhill from there.
Caring for One
Which brings us to keeping a hedgehog healthy. Like I mentioned before, hedgehogs can slip into hibernation if their cage gets too cold. You can tell this is happening if they’re suddenly unresponsive, lethargic, and not eating. Don’t panic. Instead, wrap your hedgie somewhere warm, like the inside of your shirt or a blanket, and sit in front of a heater or radiator — anything to get its temperature up. It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but many hedgehog owners have experienced it at least once.
Another common ailment is one of the scariest, despite its quasi-adorable name: Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome. Like Multiple Sclerosis, it leaves the hedgehog’s body paralyzed. Its cause is unknown, yet it’s the number one disease behind most hedgehog deaths. There’s no concrete way to prevent the disease, other than making sure you know your hedgie’s history — which is why it’s so important to select a reputable breeder.
Most vets that specialize in exotic animals (reptiles and birds, for the most part) will take your hedgehog for emergencies and regular check-ups, so make sure and find a good one in your area. And if you’re ever worried something is off with your hedgie or just have general questions, the message boards at Hedgehog Central and Reddit are lifesavers.
Hedgehogs are undoubtedly cute, but they require plenty of work, loads of research, and unconditional love (considering how much poop you’re in for, it better be unconditional). If you’re looking for a pet to snuggle with and carry around in your purse, get a kitten. But if you want a pet that will reward you with endless turds to clean up, the most adorable yawns of all time, 24/7 grumpiness, and the sheer satisfaction of caring for something — then consider yourself quilled, my friend.