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Prickly Pets

posted March 8th, 2015 by
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Hedgehogs

Prickly Pets

 

From hedges to households, hedgehogs reign as the latest pet trend.

 

By Bria Bolton Moore

 

When he was 9 years old, Mary Dickey’s son Ryan didn’t beg for a rowdy puppy or a purring kitten like most kids. He wanted a palm-sized prickly playmate, a hedgehog.

Mary granted Ryan’s wish, and they got their first hedgehog, Tiggy, in 1995. The Dickeys began breeding and caring for hedgehogs at their home in Stillwater, Okla.

 

“We went from having them in my son’s bedroom to the bedroom being overtaken by being the ‘animal room’,” Mary Dickey said.

Today, 20 years after Tiggy became part of their family, Dickey has eight hedgehogs, three females and five males, and operates Atlantis Hedgehogs.

It seems more and more people are interested in welcoming a quill-covered animal into their homes. Due to exotic animal ownership restrictions, keeping a hedgehog as a pet is banned or restricted in at least     six states. However, their popularity as American pets grows.

Dickey said she has seen sparked interest at Atlantis Hedgehogs with an influx of calls as more people question if a hedgehog is the right pet for them. Similarly, Kimber Knight, who owns Parkplase Heggies in Ramona, Okla., has also experienced more inquiries.

“I have gotten more emails and calls in the last six months than I ever have,” said Knight, who has owned hedgehogs since 1999 when her family got their first heggie, Sonic.

Dr. Rachael Davis, DVM, is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at VCA Woodland South Animal Hospital in Tulsa. She said she has cared for more hedgehogs recently, three in the last few months, and has about five in her client base.

People are fascinated by the small, cute creatures. Social media celebrity Biddy the Hedgehog has an Instagram account with more than 480,000 followers featuring snapshots of Biddy at the beach, on road trips and hanging out with a fellow pet, Charlie the Mini Mutt. The April 2014 cover of National Geographic highlighted Jade, a female hedgehog from South Carolina, who attracted attention to the magazine’s piece on owning exotic animals.

While there are 15 hedgehog species, most domestic hedgehogs in the United States are African Pygmy hedgehogs. They generally have white bellies, of course fur, with more than 5,000 spines covering their crown of the head and back. Male hedgehogs weigh about 1.5 to 2.5 pounds, while the females weigh half a pound to 1 pound. Hedgehogs live about four to six years.

The right pet for you?

Kristen Zorbini Bongard is a board member of the Hedgehog Welfare Society, a 501(c)(3) committed to the health and welfare of hedgehogs through rescue, education and research. The society has more than 1,600 members who reside in 31 countries.

“I originally became interested in hedge-hogs because I was allergic to many of the more traditional furry pets,” Bongard said. “I read a couple of books about them and then adopted an unwanted hedgehog from a friend of a friend.”

As a rescuer, Bongard said she sees “many, many instances of buyer’s remorse” because people don’t know a lot about hedgehogs before they bring them home. She encourages people to do their research, talk to someone who owns a hedgehog and meet a hedgehog before deciding to get one as a pet.

“They’re really interesting pets, but they’re not for everyone,” Bongard said.

She said she has spent thousands of dollars in vet bills through the years.

“They are exotic animals and require a knowledgeable vet and frequently require anesthesia just to be examined—the downside of a pet that can enclose its body in sharp quills,” Bongard said. “For all you put in, you will still not have an animal that will miss you when you’re gone or greet you at the door with a wagging tail. Make sure it’s worth it to you before you commit to owning a hedgehog.”

Hedgehogs can be interactive pets, but they’re naturally shy, rolling up into a ball when they feel threatened or uncomfortable.

“They require a little bit of effort, but they can be a lot of fun,” Dickey said. “They’re not social like a dog or a cat that seeks to be friends with you. You have to handle them a lot. So, if you’re not willing to handle your hedgehog, you may end up with a little pet that sits in the corner, and you never see it. And it’s prickly,” she said between laughs.

Dr. Davis echoed Dickey’s comments on hedgehog temperament.

“Some aren’t really interested in being handled,” Dr. Davis said. “They want to just roll up into a ball. But, most of the time, that can be overcome with gentle handling and getting them used to people. Then, I see some that are just out, walking around and aren’t even phased by coming in to see me (in the veterinarian’s office).”

Dr. Davis said some hedgehogs are stressed by new people, small children, or dogs and cats that may be perceived as predators.

Another unique characteristic is anointing. When hedgehogs encounter a new smell or object, they pick it up or chew at it until they begin drooling excessively. Then, they rub the saliva all over their quills and body in a process called self-anointing. No one knows why the animals anoint, but it’s a common behavior.

Hedgehogs can be purchased from a breeder or a pet store that offers exotics. A hedgehog from Atlantis Hedgehogs costs $125 while a hedgehog from Parkplase Heggies costs $150.

Caring for a hedgehog

“They’re easy to care for,” Dickey said. “They’re not rodents, so they don’t have     any odor.”

A hedgehog should be housed alone in a large cage with a solid base, at least 2 feet by 3 feet with shredded newspaper or Aspen shavings. A hiding place or shelter as well   as an exercise wheel are recommended. The cage should be cleaned weekly.

In the wild, a hedgehog diet consists mostly of insects. However, pet hedgehogs usually eat two to three teaspoons a day of commercial hedgehog food or low-calorie cat food. Their diet should be supplemented with one to two teaspoons of mixed vegetables or fruit as well as insects, such as crickets or mealworms.

“The most common issue I see with [hedgehogs] is obesity,” Dr. Davis said. “It’s hard, because there’s not a readily-available hedgehog diet.”

Dr. Davis said other common health problems are mites and dental disease.

Hedgehogs are also nocturnal, sleeping during most of the day, so Dr. Davis advises owners to house their pets in a non-sleeping room.

“A lot of people will get [hedgehogs] for their children, put the cage in the child’s bedroom, and then the hedgehog’s up, running around all night long.”

Dr. Davis also recommends that owners take their hedgehogs to see an exotic veterinarian at least once a year for a check-up.

Bongard has cared for more than a dozen hedgehogs since getting to know her first hedgehog in 2004.

“Hedgehogs are really fascinating creatures,” Bongard said. “They are independent and sometimes standoffish,  but that’s part of their charm. There’s something magical about earning their trust over many, many days and watching them splat out, unafraid, on your lap. They have adorable little faces, too.”