By: Sara Burnside Menuck | Reviewed by Dr. Clayton Greenway | Mar 26, 2017
For many of us in today’s world of tiny apartments and urban living, owning a dog or a cat can be unrealistic. You might not have the space, time or financial resources for a cat or a dog. Dogs, for example, need to be walked daily, which can be a major obstacle if nobody is home for long stretches in the day. Cats may not need walking, but they do need ample space to run and play to keep themselves occupied during the day, or they can become destructive.
Among the small pets, hamsters, rats and gerbils are extreme escape artists and can be smelly and messy to boot. Is there any pet suitable for someone living in a small apartment with a busy schedule?
Meet the African pygmy hedgehog.
Wait, a hedgehog as a pet?
An unusual little animal related to the echidna, these spiky little guys are nocturnal, shy creatures that make surprisingly excellent pets for apartment dwellers who may not have a lot of time during the day to commit to them. While their initial setup requires some creativity and special equipment, hedgehogs are low-maintenance animals that largely take care of themselves, and will offer endless entertainment with their quirky personalities and funny behaviors. However, like any exotic pet, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to properly take care of them. Here are 5 important pieces of information about African pygmy hedgehog care that your pet store probably won’t tell you before bringing home your prickly new pet.
Food branded especially for hedgehogs is one of the biggest myths on the market. So, what do hedgehogs eat? Hedgehogs are what’s called “opportunistic omnivores,” meaning they’ll eat just about anything they can find as they trundle around after dark: insects, meat, even fruit and vegetables. The ideal diet for optimal hedgehog health is 30-33% protein, 10-12% fat, with the primary ingredients being meat. Most commercial ‘hedgehog’ foods, unfortunately, consist of highly-processed ingredients: including ground soybean hulls, and even ground aspen, which is a type of tree and purely used as filler. Most of them are mediocre at best, and harmful at worst.
What most pet store employees don’t know is that hedgehogs thrive best on a high-quality cat food – yes, cat food. Look for ingredient lists in which the first one or two ingredients are meat (chicken or duck are popular choices), vegetables such as peas or carrots, and whole grains. Hedgehogs only require 75-100 calories a day, so one bag of cat food can last a long time! Supplement 1-2 tablespoons of kibble a day with treats such as live mealworms, unseasoned cooked meat, and fresh vegetables and fruit (but avoid citrus, onions and garlic).
It may be No. 2 on this list, but equally important—and equally overlooked—is the fact that hedgehogs require a certain environmental temperature. If you think about their name, it makes sense: the African pygmy hedgehog. Although they’re a fully domesticated breed now, the hedgehog you find in stores originated in a hot continent and will attempt hibernation if it gets too cold. Because the breed is now domesticated, hibernation attempts can be deadly as the hedgehog cannot bring itself back out of hibernation, and will eventually die.
This sounds scary, but is easily avoided! To keep their habitat at the ideal temperature of 72-80º F (22.2-26.7º C), install a heat lamp for hedgehogs or what’s called a ceramic heat emitter (CHE), which looks like an opaque light bulb set in a metal dome. As the name suggests, these bulbs emit heat, but no light. Make sure to hook the bulb up to a thermostat, which you can set to the specific temperature you want (again, 22.2 -26.7 º C), and will regulate the temperature, turning the bulb off and on to keep within the desired range. The CHE, dome, and thermostat are all products easily found in the reptile section of any well-stocked pet store.
Despite their pudgy appearances, hedgehogs are actually extremely active creatures. In the wild, they can travel up to five to 10 miles a night in search of food. Even if you have a big cage (which, by the way, should have at least three square feet of floor space), a wheel is essential to maintain your hedgehog’s mental and physical health. Pick a hedgehog wheel that is at least 11 inches in diameter, with a solid running surface. Who knows – maybe hearing the pitter-patter of tiny hedgehog feet for hours every night will inspire you to stick to your own running regime!
Most of the time, when you see a hedgehog for sale in a pet store, it’s sitting in an aquarium or cage with some kind of wood shavings as bedding, a food and water dish, and…not much else. But hedgehogs are shy, burrowing creatures, and, like any animal, thrive when they live in an enriching environment. Naturally curious, they love having toys to investigate and obstacles to climb over, around and through, in addition to their wheel.
A big, open space could be intimidating, discouraging them from exploring and being active. Instead, feel free to clutter up their habitat with jingle balls, crinkly cat toys, stuffed animals, even toy cars! (Avoid anything with small parts that could be ingested.) In addition to toys, they will also appreciate PVC-pipe tunnels and boxes to hide in: a must-have is a hide such as a plastic igloo, filled with fleece, where they can burrow and sleep. The all-time favorite hedgehog toy? An empty toilet-paper cardboard tube.
The one thing on the list that money can’t buy. Unlike guinea pigs, hedgehogs are shy, often defensive animals that may take time to warm up to you. New owners are often discouraged by hedgehogs’ defensive behaviors, which include hissing, “popping” and puffing up into a spiky ball reminiscent of a puffer fish. These behaviors often leave new owners fearing that their hedgehog “hates” them, sometimes to the point of returning the animal to the pet shop or giving it away.
What the pet store won’t tell you is that hedgehogs require patience. Each hedgehog is different: some may open up after a few days, while others may take weeks or even months to grow used to you. They are incredibly rewarding, entertaining animals to care for, but understanding that they may not be cuddly and affectionate right away is important. Gaining your hedgehog’s trust requires consistent, confident handling for at least 30 minutes a day (or night, considering they’re nocturnal). This may seem like a lot, but in reality, that often translates into letting your hedgehog hang out on your lap while you watch an episode of your favorite show. Consider it a new age of “Netflix and quill.”
The biggest tip your pet store probably won’t tell you is that your best bet for buying a healthy, friendly hedgehog is not to buy from a pet store. Armed with all this new information, you may be tempted to rescue any hedgehog you see from a store, but if you’re a first-time owner, it may be best to seek out a local hedgehog breeder instead. Breeders are often knowledgeable and usually handle all their hedgehogs from an early age, increasing the likelihood of bringing home a friendly, sociable hog.
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