All About Hedgehogs: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

All About Hedgehogs: A Guide to Your Pet's Habitat, Nutrition and Well-Being

Vanessa LeRoux

Experience Level: Hedgehogs are suitable for older children and adults. A hedgehog may not be for you if you have very sensitive skin.
Mammals: Hedgehogs are mammals covered with porcupine-like quills, but the two species are not closely related. Hedgehog quills are not easily detached; there can be 6,000 of them! They are called -'hedge'-hogs because they build their nests in hedges, bushes and shrubs. The 'hog' is because they snort and grunt like a pig.
Size: Hedgehogs typically reach sizes of 10-30 cm.
Lifespan: Hedgehogs generally have a lifespan of around 4 to 7 years.
Behaviour: These little creatures are night owls! Hedgehogs are nocturnal and can sleep up to 18 hours a day. A hedgehog may not be for you if you're looking for a pet up and about during the day.
Diet: Did you know? Hedgehogs are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and meat.
Social Habits: Hedgehogs are timid, docile creatures who prefer to live solo and require plenty of space to move around, so go for a large habitat.

Shopping Checklist: What will I Need for my Hedgehog?

  • Habitat: Even though a hedgehog is tiny, aim for a space of at least 90 x 120 cm or preferably larger. Ensure the cage’s base is solid to avoid hurting their little feet.

  • Food: Pelleted plain hedgehog food and high-quality cat food. See below for the food guide.

  • Food Dish: Opt for heavy and untippable dishes to avoid any mealtime mishaps.

  • Water Source: Bottles are great, if you're using a bowl; heads up: Bowls can get messy with bedding or food, so they'll need a daily clean.

  • Material for Feeding Station: See below for construction materials and instructions.

  • Bedding: Go for paper bedding; wood shavings and litter meant for cats are not recommended, as they can be dusty and are indigestible if eaten, leading to potential tummy problems.

  • Hedgehog Home/Hideout: The house should be appropriately sized, allowing the hedgehog to enter, exit, and move around comfortably. Respect your hedgehog's need for privacy and avoid disturbing them when they are inside their house, especially during the day when they are likely to be sleeping.

  • Nesting Materials: Provide soft, safe bedding like fleece liners or shredded paper. One-ply toilet paper can be used as well. The bedding must be warm and cosy because hedgehogs do not do well in the cold.

  • Heating Lamp: If the weather gets really cold in your house, use a standing heat lamp with a temperature regulator that switches off when it gets too hot. Do not aim the lamp at your hedgehog or put it on the top of the cage. That is too close and will raise the temperature sharply, harming your little hedgehog. Just place the heating lamp near the cage and watch the temperature closely. Use a thermometer in the cage to measure the heat; it should be no more than 26 degrees.

  • Hammocks? Some hedgehogs like to snooze in a hammock. The key is securely hanging it close to the ground so your hedgehog can climb into it safely. Ensure there are no loose threads to entangle your hedgehog.

  • Fun Toys: Toys like ramps, ledges, tunnels, larger PVC pipes, balls with bells, and foraging toys; use cardboard boxes with holes for this. Small stuffed toys made for cats are also a great idea.

  • Exercise Wheel: Size matters. Ensure the wheel is spacious enough for your hedgehog to stretch out fully while running. A solid wheel, free of rungs and around 15 to 30 cm in diameter, is required. A wheel is necessary to cater to a hedgehog's natural instinct to walk and roam for hours during the night and to prevent potential obesity. If you're a light sleeper, you may be disturbed by their running on the wheel every night.

  • Dental Care: Avoid anything sugary; check their teeth regularly for swollen gums, abscesses, gingivitis and bad breath. To reduce these problems, provide a range of toys to chew and see your vet if anything is abnormal.

  • Nail Care: They’ll need a clean, rough stone or piece of wood in the cage that can help to wear down their nails naturally, but hedgehogs often need additional nail trimming by a professional – a vet or groomer.

  • No Grooming Required: Hedgehogs require no grooming. Sometimes, they get dry skin; in such cases, a vet might recommend a suitable moisturising product. Do not use any product not specifically prescribed by a vet. No water or sand baths are needed. They should never get wet.

  • Litter Box: A great addition for a healthy hedgehog and a fresher-smelling cage.

  • Cage Cleaner: Small-animal cage cleaner or small animal-safe disinfectant like F10Sc will do the trick.

How Do I Set up a Hedgehog Habitat?

  • Location Tips: Choose a quiet, low-activity spot inside your home with low humidity that maintains a warm temperature between 23-26 degrees. And remember, no direct sunlight! During hot and dry weather, hedgehogs will sleep; this is called aestivation. Use warm bedding to retain heat within the enclosure during winter.

  • Bedding and Litter Basics: Lay out the bedding about 7 cm deep, giving your hedgehog ample space to dig and burrow. Remove the fleece blanket over a small area to keep it open for burrowing. Keep an eye out for messes, spot clean when necessary, and change the bedding as per the product's guidelines.

  • Did you know? Hedgehogs often prefer to 'do their business' in the same spot. Place the litter box in that place, and your hedgehog will potentially use it. Provide positive reinforcement with a treat, be patient, keep your litter box clean, and your hedgehog may learn to use it. Line the box with paper-based litter and place it in the corner of the cage.

  • A Quiet Retreat: Add a spacious house and hideout. It's their perfect spot for some downtime, play, and de-stress.

  • Dishes: Ensure your hedgehog's habitat includes accessible heavy food, water dishes, and a water bottle. Put them in a place that makes it easy for you to refill and clean.

  • Toys: Set up a wheel - hedgehogs are noted for becoming obese, so daily exercise is essential. Toys like ramps, ledges, tunnels, larger PVC pipes, balls with bells provide mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. Set up foraging toys that stimulate their natural foraging behaviour; use cardboard boxes with holes. Small stuffed toys made for cats are also a great idea. Provide a range of chew toys to reduce plaque, tarter build-up, and other dental issues.

  • Cleaning Routine: Dedicate some time each week to thoroughly clean the cage. A dash of mild, unscented dishwashing liquid or a disinfectant safe for small animals will do the trick. Remove all the bedding and replace it with fresh bedding once a week. Spot clean daily.

  • Feeding Station: For a feeding station, use a sturdy box, wood or plastic, or a typical hedgehog house. It must be big enough for a hedgehog to fit in and move around with its food and water bowls. Create a hedgehog-sized hole at the base of one of the sides of your box; it should be about 13 cm square so it can get in and out safely. If you're making a food station yourself, cover the edges of the entrance with tape to prevent sharp bits from hurting your hedgehog.

  • Nail Care: They’ll need a clean, rough stone or piece of wood in the cage that can help to wear down their nails naturally, but hedgehogs often need additional nail trimming by a professional – a vet or groomer.

The Hedgehog's Menu: What, When, and How Much to Feed

Hedgehogs can easily suffer from malnutrition, and strict, ongoing focus on their nutrition is required. They build up fat reserves for their long winter hibernation. You will note that they are small creatures with large appetites when they emerge to eat. Hedgehogs can eat one-third of their body weight in just one night, so always have food available. Fresh food is to be given daily. Keep to a strict routine to reduce stress for your hedgehog.

Everyday Meal: Hedgehogs should eat pelleted food formulas manufactured especially for hedgehogs. One to two tablespoons per day is adequate. This food can also be supplemented with high-quality wet cat food; up to one teaspoon to one tablespoon per day should be offered.

Cat Kibble for Hedgehogs: A typical adult hedgehog can eat about 1 to 2 tablespoons of cat kibble per day. Choose a high-quality cat kibble with a high protein (around 30-35%) and low fat (around 5-15%) content. The kibble should be small enough for the hedgehog to eat comfortably. Here’s a sample of the protein and fat values of four popular cat foods:

Dry Cat Food Brand Protein Content Fat Content
Hill's Science Plan 32 - 40% 12 - 17%
Royal Canin 27 - 34% 13 - 19%
Montego Karoo 33% 15%
Montego Classic 30% 12%

Wet Cat Food: If you choose to feed wet cat food, a small amount (around a teaspoon) can be offered as a supplement to the cat kibble a few times a week but should not replace the kibble entirely. Providing wet cat food and kibble on the same day is fine, but the primary diet should be kibble, supplemented with wet food for variety and moisture.

Live and Dried Prey: Their diet should be supplemented with a limited number of insects as they are a natural part of a hedgehog's diet. They usually enjoy mealworms, crickets, and waxworms. These can be purchased live or freeze-dried. As they love to catch live prey, hedgehogs should not be offered large numbers of live insects, or they will choose them over other foods. This can lead to an unbalanced diet, and the hedgehog will likely become overweight.

Vegetables: Hedgehogs can enjoy a variety of vegetables as treats. Vegetables can be offered to hedgehogs daily. A small portion, around a tablespoon of finely chopped vegetables is usually sufficient. Suitable vegetables include carrots, bell peppers, and leafy greens like kale and spinach—no iceberg lettuce.

Fruits: Fruit should be offered less frequently, around 1-2 times a week. A small amount, around a teaspoon of finely chopped fruit is adequate. Suitable options include apples (remove core and seeds), bananas, berries, and carrots. Avoid citrus fruits as they are too acidic.

Fruits and vegetables should not replace high-quality hedgehog food or cat kibble but should be offered as a supplement to provide variety in the diet.

Cooked Meats: Hedgehogs can also have small amounts of cooked lean meats like chicken, turkey or beef as a treat. Offer meat in small, bite-sized pieces once or twice a week, but it should not replace their primary diet of high-quality cat food or specialised hedgehog food. When offering meat to hedgehogs, it is crucial to ensure it is lean, well-cooked, and unseasoned.

Hydration Station (Water): Whether you opt for a bottle or a bowl, ensure your hedgehog has access to fresh, clean water daily. A good scrub with an animal-safe disinfectant for the bottle once a week is required.

Cleanliness: Clear away any food in the morning and refill your dishes every evening. Ensure you wash your hands and wash the feeding dishes thoroughly, as hedgehogs can spread diseases.

Switching Brands: When changing to a different food, you must ‘wean’ your hedgehog onto it by mixing old with new and gradually decreasing the old brand to avoid upsetting the tummy with food he has not had before. Introduce new foods one at a time to see if your hedgehog’s system tolerates it.

Food Storage: Store food in a tightly sealed container in your fridge or freezer to maintain freshness for a lot longer.

Hedgehog Pellets Refresh daily 1-2 Tablespoons per day
Hedgehog Pellets + Cat Wet Food Refresh daily Add 1 Teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of wet food
Cat Kibble Refresh daily 1-2 Tablespoons per day
Cat Kibble + Cat Wet Food 3 Times a week Add 1 Teaspoon of wet food
Live and Dried Prey 3 Times a week 1-3 Crickets or 2-4 mealworms
Fresh Veggies Refresh daily 1 Tablespoon, finely chopped.
Fresh Fruits 1-2 Times a week 1 Teaspoon, finely chopped
Cooked Meats 1-2 Times a week One bite-size. No fat or seasoning
Water Refresh daily 24hr Availability, check regularly

Safety First for You and Your Hedgehog

To prevent the transmission of germs and infection from their spikes, wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water before and after spending time with your hedgehog or its cage. Make sure to dry your hands well, too.

When handling your spikey friend, approach with great gentleness and caution. When they smell or taste something really strong, they do self-anointing, covering themselves with frothy saliva like a cat cleaning itself. Leave them alone when this happens. Remember, they are sensitive little creatures.

When facing danger, hedgehogs roll into a ball and remain still to protect their vulnerable stomachs; they cannot roll while in this state. If a human, dog or cat tries to unroll them, they can get injured by the hedgehog’s spikes. Ouch!

From First Touch to Daily Play: Tips for Hedgehog Handling

Early socialisation is crucial for young hedgehogs to help them become accustomed to human interaction and handling and to reduce fear and stress when interacting with their human caregivers. Here’s a guide on how to socialise a young hedgehog effectively:

  • Acclimatization Period: Give your hedgehog a few days to settle in before trying to handle them. Allow the hedgehog to explore its new environment under your supervision. Introduce the hedgehog to different safe textures, smells, and sounds to enrich its environment and enhance its adaptability.

  • Begin socialisation: As soon as a few days have passed. Young hedgehogs are usually more adaptable and receptive to new experiences. Allow your hedgehog to sniff and hear you open the cage. While they have good hearing and a well-developed sense of smell, they have poor eyesight, and as such, they startle easily. Hedgehogs don't even use their sight to hunt.

  • Soft Gloves: Handle the hedgehog gently and for short periods, gradually increasing the time as the hedgehog becomes more comfortable. Use soft gloves if the hedgehog is too prickly initially.

  • Gentle Handling: Each hedgehog is unique, but most don't care for human interaction. Training a hedgehog to tolerate being held takes a lot of time and effort. If you are going to hold your hedgehog, scoop them up gently from underneath rather than grabbing from above to reduce stress and painful contact with its quills, which will stand up as a result of feeling anxious or threatened. They are best gently held in a small towel until they relax.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Associate handling and human interaction with positive experiences such as treats or favourite foods. Feed treats from your hand to build trust.

  • Daily Interaction: Interact with the hedgehog daily, ideally during the evening when they are most active. Regular handling and interaction help in building a bond and reducing fearfulness.

  • Have Patience: Some hedgehogs may take longer to socialise, requiring patience and consistent, positive interactions. Avoid forcing interaction; allow the hedgehog to approach you at its own pace.

  • Safety First: Always handle your hedgehog over a low surface. This minimises the risk of falls.

  • Daily Adventures: Allow your hedgehog some out-of-cage time every day for exercise and socialisation, but wait until you have a bond and ensure it's supervised in a safe area.

Hedgehog Health Checklist: When to Call Your Vet

Hedgehogs require specialised veterinary care, so locate an exotic vet who treats them before any health issues arise. Get your hedgehog complete checkup by a vet when you first purchase them and annually after that. Their poop needs to be checked for parasites as well. Their nails will also require trimming by a professional. Do not attempt this yourself. A good rule of thumb is to be aware of any changes in your hedgehog's condition or behaviour. Here is a rundown of potential health concerns:

  • Ringworm and mites result in lost quills and exposed areas of dry skin. Ringworms are transmittable to humans.

  • Dental problems like tartar, gingivitis, infection and abscess formation result in pain, salivation and decreased appetite.

  • Obesity causes calcium deficiency in brittle bones. It also prevents them from curling up into a ball to protect themselves.

  • Heart disease is treatable when diagnosed early.

  • Salmonella causes an array of symptoms, from diarrhoea to lethargy. It is also transmissible to humans.

  • Wobbly hedgehog syndrome causes nerve damage, progressive paralysis and tremors, and seizures.

  • Tumours, most commonly carcinoma of the mouth. Most noticeably occurring as the hedgehog ages.

  • Ear infections causing loss of balance, head tilting, discharge and odour, redness or swelling and scratching of the ear. Lethargy and loss of appetite occur as well.

Wonders of Nature: Fun Facts About Hedgehogs

Unique Footprints: Hedgehogs have a unique footprint; their hind feet are plantigrade, meaning they walk on the soles with the heels touching the ground, much like humans.
Nocturnal Wanderers: A wild hedgehog can travel up to 2 km in one night in search of food. They really need a nice big wheel!
Ancient Mammals: Hedgehogs are ancient mammals that have been around since the dawn of time.
Speedy Runners: Despite their tiny legs, hedgehogs can run surprisingly fast, up to 6 km/hour.
Moonlight Births: Hedgehogs are usually born under the light of the full moon, and a group of baby hedgehogs is called a litter.

Final Thoughts on Caring for Your Prickly Pal

In conclusion, adopting a hedgehog as a pet requires a commitment to providing a nurturing and safe environment rich in mental and physical stimulation. These nocturnal creatures, with their unique and charming characteristics, necessitate a well-balanced and diverse diet consisting of high-quality cat food, vegetables, fruits, and occasional treats of cooked meats and insects. The importance of toys and exercise cannot be overstated, as they not only prevent obesity but also offer much-needed mental stimulation to these intelligent creatures. A well-structured habitat, complete with a comfortable hideout and ample space, is crucial, and the significance of maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in their living space is paramount to avoid health issues.

Handling hedgehogs demands patience, gentleness, and caution, given their timid and solitary nature. Early and consistent socialisation is vital to establishing trust and a bond with them. It is essential to approach them carefully to avoid startling them and to be mindful of their quills when handling them. The commitment to their well-being also involves regular veterinary check-ups and being vigilant for any signs of health concerns. In essence, providing love, care, and a suitable environment will ensure that your spiky companion thrives and brings joy to your life.