The hedgehogs commonly kept as pets in North America appear to be 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. Despite their popularity, it's still illegal to own hedgehogs in some areas.
Hedgehogs grow to around five to eight inches long and typically live between three and six years. They are considered primarily insectivores since insects make up the largest part of their natural diets.
Choosing a Pet Hedgehog
Locate a reputable breeder who breeds for good temperament and makes sure young hedgehogs are handled regularly. Getting a hedgehog while it is still young (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 its 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 its legs and watch out for rolls of fat since obesity is a common problem among pet hedgehogs.
Male 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 may fight if kept with other hedgehogs.
Housing Pet Hedgehogs
Allow a bare minimum of 2 to 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 enclosures.
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, non-clumping cat litter which may become the hedgehog's primary toilet area. Include a cardboard box or some other enclosed hiding place as a place for your hedgehog to sleep.
Exercise for Pet Hedgehogs
A running wheel provides great exercise. An open-sided, solid surface wheel is necessary and should be large enough (greater than 10 inches) to allow room for your hedgehog to run in place comfortably. Wild hedgehogs travel great distances each day so when kept as pets, they need a lot of space, or at least a quality wheel, to get their exercise.
What to Feed Pet Hedgehogs
For many years, high-quality cat food was the recommended meal of choice for pet hedgehogs, supplemented with mealworms or crickets and other treats. There are high-quality hedgehog foods available which may provide more nutrients for your prickly pet. If you do feed it cat food, make sure it is a grain-free variety.
Hedgehogs tend to love mealworms, but be sure to feed the mealworms nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables, and dog food before giving them to your hedgehog (this is a process known as "gut-loading"). Hedgehogs also like chasing and eating crickets (which also should be gut-loaded prior to feeding).
Small amounts of hard-boiled egg, baby food, or fruit can be given as occasional treats, but feed these in moderation.
Most hedgehogs do not like to be cuddled but most will tolerate some gentle handling. In order to tame a hedgehog, gentle and frequent handling is necessary. 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 it up. However, if you just cradle a balled up hedgehog in your hands it will unroll within a few minutes and start exploring once it realizes you mean no harm.
When starting out with a new hedgehog, practice handling when it is wide awake, as a sleepy hedgehog will be more grumpy. Try hand-feeding favorite treats such as mealworms to gain the trust of your hedgehog.
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 its 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.