African Pygmy Hedgehogs as Pets

Hedgehog in hands
Christopher Li / Getty Images

Hedgehogs are small, spiny, insect-eating mammals native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and New Zealand. And while they don't exist in the wild in North America, many domesticated hedgehogs are kept as pets stateside and are often mistaken for porcupines. However, unlike the porcupine, hedgehogs have smooth quills similar to the bristles of a brush, making the creature a lovable pet rather than a dangerous predator. The African Pygmy Hedgehog (or four-toed hedgehog)—the smallest of the bunch—is a great companion. They're a wonder to the eye, too, as selective breeding yields an array of color patterns like salt and pepper, snowflake, and cinnamon.

Scientific Name: Atelerix albiventris
Lifespan: Three to six years
Size: Five to eight inches long and 1/2 to 1 1/2 pounds
Care difficulty: Intermediate

hedgehog pet care sheet
Illustration: Lisa Fasol. © The Spruce, 2018

Hedgehog Behavior and Temperament

Pet hedgehogs are quiet, active, entertaining, and low maintenance. They are nocturnal, making them a good pet for someone who has a 9 to 5 job. These solitary animals prefer to be housed alone and may fight if kept with other hedgehogs. And, sorry, they don't really crave human affection, so cuddling isn't their strong point. Even still, gentle and frequent handling seems to tame these creatures and many breeders sell pets that have already been "hand tamed."

Even a tame hedgehog needs to get used to you. So, at first, this discerning pet may curl into a spiky ball when you try to pick it up. Be patient. Just cradle this ball in your hand, allowing your hedgehog to unroll itself and start exploring in its own time. When your hedgehog realizes you mean no harm, it will seem more active and its spines will lay flat.

Hedgehogs have an interesting "self-anointing" habit which disgusts some people the first time they see it. Certain unfamiliar smells send a hedgehog into a flurry of contortions; it then starts to salivate and spread this saliva over its back. No one is entirely sure why hedgehogs act like this and some seem more prone to it than others. But, it is not a cause for concern. While this behavior seems strange, some say it's a stress release, while others call it a form of protection.

Housing the Hedgehog

Active hedgehogs need room to explore, so a bare minimum of 2- to 3-square-feet of space is sufficient (though bigger is always better). Any type of cage will work, but avoid those with wire floors and be cautious that the spacing of wire-sided cages is small enough so your pet can't squeeze through it. Large aquariums and even modified plastic storage bins with ventilation holes both make decent on-the-fly hedgehog enclosures.

Aspen shavings or recycled paper alternatives make great bedding. As does kiln-dried pine. But avoid cedar shavings, as the scent can be toxic to small mammals. Some hedgehog owners use indoor-outdoor carpeting or fleece fabric to line the cage, instead of using loose bedding material. If you choose this route, make sure to clip loose threads that can tangle up your hedgehog and always have a backup for easy cleaning and replacing.

Like a cat, hedgehogs need a small litter pan in their abode to act as a primary toilet area. A shallow pan containing dust-free, non-clumping cat litter works well.

Include a cardboard box or another enclosure for a hiding and sleeping space.

And since hedgehogs like to exercise, a running wheel makes a great playscape. Buy an open-sided, solid-surface wheel that's large enough (preferably bigger than 10 inches) to allow room for your hedgehog to run in place comfortably. Wild hedgehogs travel great distances daily. So, when kept as pets, they need a viable outlet for exercising.

Food and Water

High-quality cat food—supplemented with mealworms, crickets, and other treats—used to be the go-to food choice for pet hedgehogs. But now you can buy high-quality hedgehog food that provides the exact nutrients your prickly pet needs. That said, if you do feed it cat food, make sure it is a grain-free variety.

Hedgehogs love mealworms. But when using them as a snack, make sure this source of food is also fed a quality diet (fruit, vegetables, and dog food) before giving them to your hedgehog. This process called "gut-loading" operates off the same principle as "you are what you eat," assuring proper nutrition.

Hedgehogs like chasing and eating crickets (which should also be gut-loaded). This action mimics their foraging efforts in the wild and provides mental stimulation for captive hedgehogs. And small amounts of hard-boiled egg, baby food, or fruit can be given as occasional treats, but only in moderation.

Provide water in either a water bottle with a metal tip for drinking or in a small bowl. Some young pets may need both until they get used to using the bottle. Whatever you choose, make sure to change your hedgehog's water daily and check that the bottle tip is in operating order.

Common Health Problems

Most hedgehog health problems can be avoided with good husbandry. Still, if you feed you hedgehog too much or inadequate types of food, it can become sick. Sadly, obesity is a common problem in pet hedgehogs (resulting from too many treats) and oftentimes leads to problems walking and running. Skin and ear mites can also be avoided with regular and proper cleaning of your pet's enclosure. Respiratory infections may also appear in hedgehogs as a result of an unkempt cage or a drafty living space.

A genetic condition known as Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS)—a type of progressive paralysis—can pop up in a domesticated hedgehog. This condition presents in hedgehogs of any age and looks like wobbly hindquarters.

Lastly, since hedgehogs have protruding eyes, eye injuries and irritation may become a problem. If you see your pet pawing at its eyes or holding an eyelid closed, call your vet for a diagnosis.

Purchasing Your Hedgehog

Instead of buying your spiny pet from a store, research and locate a reputable breeder. Look for someone who breeds for good temperament and handles their young regularly. Obtaining a pet hedgehog while it is still young (around six to eight weeks of age) is the best way to make sure your new pet will grow accustomed to handling.

If possible, handle one yourself to gauge its reaction. Select a pet that's not resistant to handling and turns over onto its back instead of rolling into a tight ball. Male and female hedgehogs generally make equally good pets so it shouldn't matter which sex you choose.

Look for an animal with bright eyes, clear nostrils, and healthy skin, quills, and fur. Beware of flaky skin, missing quills, or discharge around the eyes or nose. Also, make sure the hedgehog has a good body condition—not too thin, not too heavy—and shows no and evidence of diarrhea. Check around its legs and watch its hindquarter movement for signs of both obesity WHS.

Similar Pets to the Hedgehog

Contrary to popular belief, there are several exotic animals that fall into the "low maintenance" category. Among these are prairie dogs, degus, and short-tailed opossums. The rodent varieties (prairie dogs and degus) are extremely social and have relatively reasonable caging requirements. And the short-tailed opossum is docile in nature and rarely bites.