4 Things You Need to Know About Pet Hedgehogs Before Adopting One
4 Things You Need to Know About Pet Hedgehogs Before Adopting One, Here’s how to care for one of these prickly cuties.
Petting a happy hedgehog is a bit like affectionately stroking a bristly hairbrush. Attempting to pet an upset hedgehog is more like trying to soothe a wriggly cactus of doom.
That’s the answer to the most common question I get when people learn I’m caretaker to a hedgehog: What do they feel like? That’s followed closely by asking why I have such an unusual pet.
So, why do I have a pet hedgehog? Initially, I decided to look for a pet that I could cuddle, but that didn’t make me sneeze. But now it goes beyond my allergies and has become an ongoing nightly lesson in slowing down, dimming the lights, and being a bit more calm in this fast-paced world.
People do debate whether hedgehogs should be kept as pets. Wild animals should stay wild, the argument goes. Others note that cats and dogs were wild once, and domestication has to start somewhere. If you’re considering adopting a pet hedgehog, it’s important to know about — and accommodate — their habits in the wild.
1 Find a Responsible Breeder
Just as with other companion animals, it’s important to do your homework before buying a hedgehog. Pet hedgehogs have an average life span of four to six years and weigh about a pound. Most owners will feed them a low-fat dry cat food supplemented with vegetables, mealworms, and crickets, and keep them in a large, flat-bottomed cage.
A lot of initial domestication efforts are done by amatuer hobby breeders with spotty training and nonexistent oversight. Before getting my hedgehog, I spent a year researching my local hedgehog community and checking for voluntary participation in the International Hedgehog Association, which sets standards for care and breeding. I spent a morning with my potential hedgehog’s parents, determining they were healthy hedgehogs cared for by breeders who saw them as pets, not products. I looked up their lineage, making sure no wild hedgehogs were taken into captivity in recent generations. Everything checked out.
2 They’re Very Sensitive
When I got my hedgehog, he was a tiny baby, just weaned from his mother. I was expecting a step up from a pet rock — a cute but rather dull pet that slept all day. But while he does snooze away the daylight hours, he’s packed with an outsized attitude for such a tiny creature. He’s deeply shy, but if I’m gentle and calm, I can coax him into delighting me with his unadulterated moxie.
Every day, my hedgehog wakes up as the sun goes down. He munches on a light breakfast of kibble, then takes a quick jog. This is when I scoop him up for snuggles. My hedgehog is small enough to be a pear-shaped handful of quills with a fuzzy belly, but he’s squirmy enough that I use two hands.
His quills betray a wide range emotions — calm when flat, raising in uncertainty, and transforming him into an impenetrable ball of spikes when he’s frightened. He likes to climb around his humans, scaling their ever-changing topography. When he’s feeling feisty, he tries to steal shoelaces, socks, and drawstrings. But he’s happiest when his damp twitching nose finds a new and fascinating smell.
3 They Love Unusual Scents
My hedgehog responds to fantastic smells the same way every hedgehog does: by anointing, i.e. rubbing them all over his body. Wild hedgehogs have been spotted anointing on cigarettes and turpentine, taking advantage of their natural resistance to toxins. This unusual hedgehog behavior involves licking vigorously to build up smelly froth, then contorting like an uncoordinated kitten to spread the foamy spit all over their quills. Weird, but cute.
Scientists aren’t confident on why hedgehogs anoint, but the best guess is that it’s to camouflage their scent. My hedgehog’s favorite scents to steal are carrots and — oddly enough — musical instruments. With the former, he dyes his quills bright orange. With the latter, I suddenly have a smug prickly ball who worked hard to reek of dusty wood, nickel, and the faintest trace of oil.
I always let my small friend keep his artificial stench for at least a day, but eventually it’s time to wash it off. Hedgehog bath time involves using a toothbrush to gently scrub his quills.
4 Respect Their Nocturnal Schedule
Exotic pets come with complications beyond adapting toothbrushes to off-label use. They’re expensive and require specialized veterinary care. Domestic hybrids from an irregular mix of African hedgehog species are only a few generations separated from their wild kin and not entirely tame. They also have stringent environmental demands.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal – and it’s important to respect that, and not force them to be active during the day. We only get a few hours of overlap to visit between when he wakes up and I go to sleep. His eyes are sensitive, so I keep the lights dim or borrow a trick from astronomy by swapping in red light bulbs.
Late at night after I go to sleep is when my hedgehog really gets out his energy. He’s a marathoner, running miles upon miles on his wheel each night. But hedgehogs aren’t the most graceful creatures, so I need to make sure he has a solid surface to run on too.
When dawn breaks, my hedgehog burrows into a dark den and I’m left reconstructing his activities from the aftermath.
Food and water dishes are emptied, betraying midnight breaks from the runs to rest and refuel. His jingly ball, reset to the same place at the start of each night, gets shoved and pushed into the strangest places. But the most fun is when he takes his plush dinosaur toy on an adventure. I’ve found the pink triceratops midway through a tunnel, propped onto his wheel, and even pulled under the blankets to join my hedgehog for a cozy day’s sleep before another night’s adventure.