Caring for Hedgehogs as Pets

Mychelle Blake
holding a hedgehog in a ball

If you've ever seen a hedgehog up close, you can't deny that they're adorable little creatures. This small pet is gaining in popularity but before you start to consider bringing one home, it's critical to learn more about their care as owning a hedgehog isn't as easy as you might think it will be.

What Should You Know About Hedgehogs?

Before you consider getting a hedgehog, there are a few key characteristics of these pets that you should know. How you care for your hedgehog as far as housing, enrichment, health, grooming and handling are related to this animal's unique needs.

Hedgehog Quills

The first thing you should be aware of is that hedgehogs sold as pets have the same physical features as wild hedgehogs. This means quills, and plenty of them! No matter how carefully you handle a hedgehog, you will get pricked by their quills at some point.

Finding a Veterinarian

You should also research local veterinarians prior to bringing home a hedgehog. Not all veterinarians will be familiar with the medical needs and physiology of hedgehogs. You don't want to find yourself unable to bring your hedgehog in for medical care if he or she becomes sick.

Can You Have One Legally?

Because hedgehogs are classified as an exotic pet, there are some states where they are illegal to own or restrictions apply. You cannot legally own a hedgehog in California, Georgia, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and within the five boroughs of New York City. You may own one in New Jersey and Wisconsin but a permit or additional veterinary paperwork is required.

Baby hedgehog in human hands

Risk of Salmonella

Anytime you interact with a hedgehog, it's important to wash your hands thoroughly once you are done. You should also never bring the hedgehog near your mouth to give it a kiss. The Centers for Disease Control has found that there is a risk of salmonella transmission from handling hedgehogs. You should also never let the hedgehog roam anywhere that food is prepared, such as around your kitchen or on a dining table.

Hedgehog Personality

Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals, which means they are most active at night and sleep during the day. They are also very active so putting them in a cage and leaving them with nothing to do will lead to a very unhappy pet. They also can be very timid and need places to retreat to when frightened. Caring for your hedgehog successfully means providing an environment that fits their personality.

What Do Hedgehogs Eat?

Hedgehogs require a specialized diet consisting of protein, fats and fiber to stay healthy. You can purchase pre-made commercial diet for hedgehogs, although they also can eat dry kibble made for adult cats if it's a reduced-calorie recipe. Good examples of cat food that would work well for a hedgehog are Blue Buffalo Weight Control Natural Adult Dry Cat Food and Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Green Pea and Duck Formula Cat Food. Your hedgehog should always have access to clean, fresh water which can be placed in a heavy non-tippable bowl. You can use cage bottles for their water but there's a potential for their teeth to become damaged from using it.

Acceptable Dietary Supplements for Hedgehogs

You should provide your hedgehog with a variety of items to supplement their dry kibble diet including:

  • Dark, leafy vegetables cut up into easily digestible pieces in a quantity of one tablespoon three to four days a week. Good choices are arugula, collard greens, dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, and spinach.
  • They also will enjoy chopped up fresh asparagus, broccoli, carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes and turnips.
  • Live or frozen insects such as crickets, mealworms, waxworms and silkworms, no more than three to four times a week.
  • Baked, roasted or boiled fresh meats, chopped up, such as poultry, tuna or salmon, with no seasoning, offered no more than a few times a week to avoid obesity.
  • Fresh fruits in small amounts and choose fruits that are lower in sugar. Examples of hedgehog appropriate fruits are apples, bananas, berries, cherries, melons, peaches, and pumpkin.
  • Baby food (for humans) of about one to two tablespoons a few times a week. Choose foods that are in stage 2 or lower, as higher stages have a higher sugar content.
  • You can feed a tablespoon of boiled or scrambled eggs a few times a week.
Hand Holding Hedgehog

How to Feed a Hedgehog

Since hedgehogs are nocturnal, the best time to feed them is in the evenings when they're active and awake. Some hedgehog owners "free feed" their pets but obesity can become a problem easily and controlling their intake can keep your pet from getting fat. An excellent way to provide them with their dinner is through food foraging toys. These allow the hedgehog to use his natural behaviors which can have a calming influence, as well as contribute to keeping him trim and fit. For food bowls in their cage, ceramic bowls that they cannot tip over work best, and likewise for water. Avoid using cage bottles as these can cause injuries.

How Much Food Does a Hedgehog Need?

Since hedgehogs are tiny, you do not need to feed them a lot for their daily diet. In general you can feed about one to two tablespoons of kibble per day but you'll want to observe them in the beginning to make sure you're not feeding too much.

Foods to Avoid For Hedgehogs

There are many foods that hedgehogs cannot eat. To avoid making your pet ill, do not feed them:

  • Anything containing dairy products, as they are lactose intolerant. You may give them a teaspoon of yogurt or cottage cheese once a week but discontinue if you notice stomach upset and diarrhea.
  • High-fat, rich meats like beef should be avoided in favor of leaner cuts and fish.
  • Insects from the wild or from fish bait shops. Only feed insects from a pet store that are designated safe for hedgehogs.
  • Some fruits are toxic including grapes, raisins, citrus, pineapple and avocado.
  • Vegetables that are toxic to hedgehogs are garlic, mushrooms, onions, potatoes and tomatoes.
  • No nuts of any kind should be given to a hedgehog.
  • Kibble made for kittens as these formulas are usually too high in fat and adult low-calorie cat food is more appropriate for a hedgehog.
  • Never feed your hedgehog chocolate or human sweets and candies.

The Best Housing for Hedgehogs

You can keep a hedgehog comfortably in a cage designed for a Guinea pig, rabbit or ferret, although the floor needs to be solid and not wire to protect their small feet from injuries. The minimum size should be four square feet per hedgehog but the larger you can do the better. A cage that is all one level is better than a multi-level one as it's easy for a hedgehog to fall and hurt himself. Keep the cage away from areas with cold drafts and loud noises.

hedgehog swimming in water

Hedgehog Bedding

You should provide soft comfortable bedding for your hedgehog. Cage liners made from cotton, corduroy, flannel or fleece are good choices. You can also cut up fabric on your own but make sure that there are no frayed ends. You will need to change their bedding every day to keep them clean.

Hedgehog Cage Substrate

The substrate for the bottom of your cage should be soft without any small bits that can harm your delicate hedgehog so wood shavings like pine, cedar and aspen are not recommended. CareFresh, Purina Yesterday's News and OxBow Pure Comfort Bedding are good choices. These need to be changed regularly to keep the cage clean.

Hedgehog Litter Box

You can place a small litter box designed for other small pets like rabbits in the cage and line it with Carefresh or paper towels. Do not use kitty litter as this can harm your pet hedgehog.

Lighting and Temperature

Hedgehogs do best when not in an area with heavy sunlight during the day, as they are nocturnal and will prefer to be sleeping at this time. They also require an area that is warm so keep them away from windows and doors where they will be a draft. A room temperature of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit is best for them and if you have a house that's cooler, you should provide some type of additional heating element to your hedgehog cage to keep them from hibernating. You can use a small space heater, an under-tank heater or a heat lamp with a red bulb during the day.

Hedgehog Hideaways

Because hedgehogs are shy creatures, they need to have places in their cage where they can hide and feel safe. You can purchase pre-made hiding places like plastic igloos and sleeping pouches at a pet store or make your own using small boxes or a small section of PVC pipe. They also enjoy burying and hiding under bedding, so giving them an area with several sheets of fabric is another option.

Can You House Hedgehogs Together?

Because hedgehogs are solitary animals, it is not advisable to have more than one in a cage.

Strolling Hedgehog

Keeping Your Hedgehog Occupied

Hedgehogs have regular daily exercise needs that must be met to keep your pet behaviorally sound, as well as from getting obese. A wheel made for a rat or chinchilla, provided it has a diameter of at least 12 inches with a solid surface, is a good choice. Hedgehogs will also enjoy toys made for cats such as small balls (solid, not wire) and tunnels. A cheap DIY toy that a hedgehog will love is the center of toilet paper or paper towel rolls. You can also make an easy foraging toy buy placing some strips of fleece and fabric in a box or bowl and sprinkle some food treats inside.

Time Outside the Cage

Your hedgehog will also do better if he or she gets regular time outside of his cage to explore. Only do this when you can sit and supervise them and keep any other pets in the home out of the area.

Handling Your Hedgehog

Hedgehogs will require daily interaction from you to tame them and keep them that way. You should keep these sessions short in order to socialize him but not overly stress him out. Hedgehogs that are not socialized will bite if they feel cornered and frightened. One trick for getting a hedgehog used to you is to place an old t-shirt, sweatshirt or a towel or blanket in their pen. By snuggling into it they will get used to your scent. Always use two hands when scooping up and holding a hedgehog so they feel fully supported. In the beginning you may want to hold your hedgehog in a towel to protect your hands from his quills until he's used to you.

Grooming Care for Your Hedgehog

You will need to bathe your hedgehog regularly to keep him clean from walking in urine, feces and food items in his cage, as well as his saliva. You can bathe your hedgehog in your kitchen or bathroom sink and use a soft toothbrush to clean their quills with a hedgehog-safe shampoo. Keep your bathed hedgehog wrapped in a warm towel with you until they are try as you don't want them to catch cold while they're damp. Regular nail trims with some small rodent clippers are necessary as well.

African Pygmy Hedgehog

Common Hedgehog Health Problems

Hedgehogs have a lifespan of about four to six years. There are several medical issues you should be aware of to care for a hedgehog properly :

  • Wobbly hedgehog syndrome is a disorder of the nervous system that does not have a cure at this time. It is a congenital disorder that can cause problems for your pet's balance.
  • "Spit balls" or "self anointing" occur when a hedgehog smells something that triggers a reflex reaction. The hedgehog will coat his quills with saliva in response. It's not an actual medical concern but if you notice your hedgehog doing this, consider what odor is triggering it and see if you can remove it from the environment.
  • Obesity is very common with hedgehogs.
  • Bloat can happen due to too much gas in the hedgehog's bowels.
  • Gastrointestinal issues can include obstructions from eating inappropriate items.
  • Pneumonia and respiratory disorders are common to hedgehogs, especially if they are exposed to anything containing ammonia. Always use mild cleaners when disinfecting and cleaning your hedgehog's cage and the surrounding areas.
  • Heart disease is also common with hedgehogs as they age.
  • Hedgehogs need regular dental care to keep them from developing gingivitis and infections in the gums. Cancer in the mouth is also very common and dental visits can help identify tumors before they get worse.
  • Parasites can afflict a hedgehog, including ringworm, fleas, mites and mange.
  • Hedgehogs shed their quills at least twice as they age and their skin can become dry and irritated during this time. You can use olive or coconut oil on their skin to keep them comfortable.

Caring for Your Hedgehog

Owning a hedgehog can be a lot of work. They have specific dietary needs, need slow and gentle socialization and warm, clean housing with places to hide and play. If you learn all the basics and follow through on their care, owning a hedgehog can be a rewarding experience.

Caring for Hedgehogs as Pets