African Pygmy Hedgehogs

Hedgehog in hands
Hedgehogs that are relaxed will allow being held on their backs. Christopher Li / Getty Images

About Pet Hedgehogs

The hedgehogs commonly kept as pets in North America appear to by a mix of species, originally native to Africa. The term "African Pygmy Hedgehog" is a descriptive term (coined by breeders), rather than a true species name. Pet hedgehogs come in an array of colors but they all have backs covered in short, prickly spines and bellies coated in soft fur. When they are relaxed, their spines lay almost flat but when they feel threatened, they will roll into a tight ball with their spines sticking up.

Hedgehogs are fairly low maintenance pets and while they don't mind being handled once used to it, they don't really seem to crave human interaction. Hedgehogs have grown in popularity but are still illegal as pets in some areas.

Hedgehogs are quite compact, reaching a size of around five to eight inches in length. Estimates of expected life span vary widely, anywhere from three to eight years, although four to six years is probably most typical. They are considered primarily insectivores since insects make up the largest part of their natural diet.

Choosing a Pet Hedgehog

Locate a reputable breeder who breeds for good temperament and makes sure their young hedgehogs are handled regularly. Getting a young hedgehog (six to eight weeks of age) is the best way to make sure your new pet will get used to being handled.

If possible, try to pick up the hedgehog you are considering to gauge their reaction. Choose one that will allow itself to be picked up and maybe even turned on its back without rolling into a tight ball. Look for bright eyes, clear nostrils, and healthy looking skin, quills, and fur. Watch out for flaky skin, missing quills, discharge around the eyes or nose and evidence of diarrhea. Also, make sure the hedgehog has a good body condition, neither too thin or too heavy. Check around their legs and watch out for rolls of fat since obesity is a common problem among pet hedgehogs.

Males and female hedgehogs generally make equally good pets so it shouldn't matter which sex you choose. Since hedgehogs are solitary animals though, plan on only one hedgehog to a cage. Most hedgehogs are perfectly happy to be kept alone and actually often fight if kept with other hedgehogs.

Housing Pet Hedgehogs

Allow a bare minimum of 2-3 square feet of floor space (though bigger is better) for your pet hedgehog. You can use many types of cages but always avoid wire floors and be cautious about the spacing of wire sided cages. Aquariums, plastic commercial cages, or even modified plastic storage bins with ventilation holes cut out can all make decent hedgehog cages.

For bedding, try aspen shavings or newer alternatives to wood shavings such as recycled paper bedding, but avoid cedar shavings. Pine may be okay, especially kiln dried kind, but there are better alternatives available. Some people use indoor/outdoor carpeting such as Astroturf or fleece fabric to line the cage instead of loose bedding material but make sure there are no loose threads that a hedgehog can get tangled in.

Provide a small shallow pan with dust free cat litter which may become the hedgehog's primary bathroom area. Do not use clumping litter though. Also, include a cardboard box or some other enclosed hiding place as a place to sleep for your hedgehog.

Exercise for Pet Hedgehogs

A running wheel provides great exercise for pet hedgehogs. An open sided, solid surface wheel is necessary and should be quite large (greater than 10 inches) to allow room for your hedgehog to run in place comfortably. Wild hedgehogs travel great distances each day so they need a lot of space or at the bare minimum, a quality wheel, to run on.

Feeding Pet Hedgehogs

For many years, high quality cat food was the recommended food of choice for pet hedgehogs, supplemented with mealworms or crickets and other treats. More research has been done throughout the years to give us more insight on what our prickly pets need and we now know what is vital to a pet hedgehog's health. Grain-free cat food or high quality hedgehog foods are what your hedgehog should eat.

Hedgehogs tend to love mealworms and they do make a good occasional treat but be sure to feed the mealworms nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables, and dog food before giving them to your hedgehog. Crickets can also be fed and your hedgehog will love to catch them.

Small amounts of hard boiled egg, baby food, or fruit can be given as occasional treats, but feed these goodies in moderation.

Handling Pet Hedgehogs

Most hedgehogs do not particularly like to be cuddled but most will allow some gentle handling. They will even allow themselves to be picked up and will readily climb all over their people. In order to tame a hedgehog, gentle and frequent handling is necessary but many breeders will have already hand tamed their hedgehogs prior to you taking them home.

Initially, an untamed hedgehog may curl into a spiky ball when you try to pick them up. However, if you just cradle a balled up hedgehog in your hands they will unroll within a few minutes and start exploring once they realize you mean no harm. Just be sure your fingers don't get trapped inside that spiky hedgehog ball!

When starting out with a new hedgehog, practice handling them at times when they are awake (e.g. early evening) as a sleepy hedgehog will be more grumpy. Try hand feeding favorite treats such as mealworms to gain the trust of your hedgehog. If they are really resistant to handling at first, a thick towel should be all you need to be able to pick him up.

Hedgehog Self Anointing Behavior

Hedgehogs have an interesting habit called "self-anointing" which can be somewhat startling the first time you see it. Particular smells seem to send a hedgehog into a flurry contortions as it starts to salivate profusely and spread saliva over their back. No one is entirely sure why hedgehogs do this and some seem more prone to it than others, but it is not a cause for concern.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT