There is only one species of hedgehog that is designed to be kept happily in captivity, and that is the African pygmy hedgehog, a hybrid breed of two other African hedgehog species. These are now becoming very popular as pets across the world and within the UK, and are undeniably adorable and highly entertaining little animals! It is vitally important to remember that only this captive-bred species is suitable to keep as a pet, and you should not seek to find and domesticate wild hedgehogs within the UK; they will not thrive in captivity, and their numbers are already on the decline.
If you think the African pygmy hedgehog sounds like a good choice of potential pet for you, read on to learn more about these little animals and the care that they require.
So, do African pygmy hedgehogs make good pets, and should you consider owning one? This article on their care and maintenance will help you to decide.
About African pygmy hedgehogs
The African pygmy hedgehog is a hybrid of the four toed hedgehog and the Algerian hedgehog, and is the most popular species of domesticated hedgehog in the world. The practice of domesticating hedgehogs and keeping them as pets began in the 1980’s, a relatively recent time frame in animal husbandry terms.
They are very delicate little animals, and not suitable as pets for younger children. Hedgehogs, like any domesticated animal, can bite when alarmed or hurt and so you will need to treat them with respect. They need gentle, patient handling, and you must be willing to spend the necessary amount of time taming them and getting them used to you during the initial months.
In order to thrive, African pygmy hedgehogs require a balanced diet composed of various different foodstuffs. A good quality dry meat based cat food (not containing fish or fish meal) which is high in protein is one of the commonly fed staples, and a balanced and varied diet can be achieved with supplemental feeding of meat based (not fish or fish meal) cat food from tins or pouches, boiled or scrambled egg, fresh fruit and vegetables, and lean cooked chicken, lamb or mince. When choosing suitable dry cat food/biscuits you should look at the percentage of fat and protein. The recommended fat percentage is 10%-15%, and the maximum protein should be 30%. When looking for suitable foods meat content should be the first ingredient, the higher the percentage the higher the quality. Hedgehogs are insectivores, which means that their diet in the wild is composed mainly of insects. In order to promote natural feeding and cater for all of their dietary requirements, you should include mealworms, crickets/small locusts/cockroaches, wax worms and silk worms in their feeding routine. Hedgehogs are nocturnal and so eat at night, and the best time to feed them is just before you go to bed.
The following foods should NOT be fed to African Pygmy Hedgehogs:
Milk/Cheese/Diary Products – Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant
Avocado/grapes/raisins – potentially fatal
Chocolate – dairy aspect, unhealthy and toxic for many animals
Citrus Foods – too acidic
Onion/Garlic – toxic for many animals
Fish – it is believed that hedgehogs cannot digest fish or fishmeal properly.
When changing your hedgehogs diet whether to a new biscuit food or introducing a new vegetable, remember to do it gradually and in small amounts to prevent stomach upsets.
Your hedgehog should also have free access to clean, fresh water, such as from a wall-mounted water bottle.
Like any animal, how tame your hedgehog will become depends on how often and how well they are handled, and ideally, handling should start while your hedgehog is young. As very small animals, the pygmy hedgehog may become frightened or alarmed by overenthusiastic handling, so approach them calmly and quietly and move slowly. If your hedgehog curls up into a spiky ball, they are likely alarmed and feeling defensive, so back off until they relax. In order to pick up your hedgehog, scoop them up into your hands, supporting their underside. Once your pygmy hedgehog has got used to the approach of people and being handled regularly, they will usually learn to sit quite happily in your hands or lap for a while.
Hedgehogs have very poor eyesight, and so they are not apt to use visual cues to pick one member of the family out from another; instead, they use their sense of smell to work out who is handling them. You might find that they are much more outgoing and welcoming of the person that handles them the most!
Housing and environment
Like most hedgehogs, the African pygmy is rather solitary by nature, and in the wild hedgehogs only generally come together to mate- so keeping one African pygmy hedgehog on their own is best. Keeping more than one male in the same cage will generally lead to fighting which can result in death, and this is often the case with females kept together as well.
A lone African pygmy hedgehog will need a cage at least three feet by 1.5ft by 1.5ft, more if possible.
You should not use a cage with a wire floor, or alternatively cover any wire flooring, as it might damage your hedgehog’s paws or claws. Take care that the spacing of the wire on the walls is small enough that your hedgehog won’t get his head stuck between the bars- or be able to escape! Those with horizontal bars should be avoided, as hedgehogs are not great climbers and could fall and injure themselves.
Suitable choice of bedding is shredded paper fleece liners ( checked regularly and loose stitching/threads removed), Finacard as other wood-based product such as shavings, sawdust or wood chips can cause injury and may contain oils from the wood, such as cedar or pine, which can irritate the skin and your hedgehog’s respiratory system. It is also best to avoid straw or hay, carpet or towels (anything with loops or threads) as this can get wrapped around paws and cause injury.
An exercise wheel similar to the kind you can buy for hamsters should be provided, but this should be made of solid metal or plastic and not mesh or wires to avoid injury to their paws.
Hedgehogs need to be provided with bed space and a hiding place. Fleece snuggle pouches, plastic igloos, wooden huts, squares of cutup fleece, finacard or similar are all suitable.
Hedgehog housing should be placed in an area that has access to 12 hours of daylight and must be free from draughts. African pygmy hedgehogs are sensitive to cold and changes in temperature, so you will need to heat the cage by means of a heat pad. Heat mats and ceramic heat emitters should always be used with a thermostat attached. Reptile heat mats get very hot so are not recommended for use with African Pygmy Hedgehogs. UV lighting in cages should not be used either. These hedgehogs need to be kept at a constant temperature at a range of between 18 – 28 degrees centigrade, with the ideal being 21 to 24 degrees Celsius at all times.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, meaning that they will be sleepy and inactive during the day, and you must respect this and allow them to sleep without interruption until the time that they naturally wake up and become active. Hedgehogs are also rather messy animals, and you will need to clean their cage and any equipment within it on a daily basis in order to keep them happy and healthy.
You will need to provide a sturdy ceramic food bowl for your hedgehog’s meals, and clean and remove any uneaten food daily. A water bowl that cannot easily be knocked over is advised for drinking.
A nesting box with a small opening should be provided for your hedgehog to hide and sleep in during the day. It is advised to use recycled cardboard, such as Fina Card, as a bedding/substrate, or alternatively a fleece liner. It is not advised to use wood shavings due to the dust, as it can be irritant to your pet’s skin and eyes. Pygmy Hedgehogs are prone to upper respiratory problems and wood shavings can cause this.
A thermometer should be put in a safe place in the cage, to make sure that the temperature remains constant and at a suitable level.
Your hedgehog will require twelve hours of light per day, in order to regulate their natural rhythms. A broad spectrum bulb or a standard light bulb on a timer is fine to use.
You will also need to provide toys and entertainment for your hedgie, in the form of plastic cat balls to chase and roll about, rags to burrow in, cardboard boxes and tubes to play in, and other pet safe toys.
In the wild, hedgehogs are always on the go during their waking hours, and cover some fairly wide distances when out and about foraging for food. As fairly rounded little animals anyway, domestically kept pygmy hedgehogs can be prone to obesity due to a lack of exercise, so it is important to provide for their natural need to be active. There are a great many different types of toys and pieces of equipment that you can use within the tank to allow your hedgehog to stretch their legs and stay interested, including specially designed hedgehog exercise wheels!
They will also enjoy running through tubes and pipes, and being allowed to walk around loose in the home when carefully supervised.
Remember that the African pygmy hedgehog is still considered to be a very unusual pet in the UK, and lots of vets, even those specialising in exotic animals, will not be experienced in their care or equipped to deal with any problems.
Most pets need veterinary care at some stage of their lives, so it is essential to find a veterinary surgeon that is capable and confident in their ability to treat your pet before you consider buying.
You should always check with your local veterinary surgery before you bring home an African pygmy hedgehog, to make sure that they are able to provide advice and assistance to you and your pet, should you ever need it. If your local practice feels unable to provide a service for your pet, they may well be able to recommend a colleague who can. Alternatively, local breeders and other experienced keepers of pygmy hedgehogs should be able to help in recommending an appropriate veterinary surgery for your needs.
It’s important to research thoroughly in order to make an informed decision when buying any pet, but this is particularly true in the case of unusual and exotic animals like the African pygmy hedgehog.
Visit the National Exotic Hedgehog Rescue website for for more information or download their full care sheet here