One of my dogs had an ‘up close and personal’ (and a little bit painful) encounter with a hedgehog recently. I didn’t even know we had hedgehogs in my neck of the woods to be honest, although I have seen the sad remains of a few on our roads. The one in my garden was tightly rolled into a neat prickly ball, and it would have comfortably fitted into my cupped hands had I been brave enough to pick it up (which my dog obviously has tried to do with her mouth).
They are quite common in Portugal, welcome to most gardeners for their diet alone, as they eat creepy crawly pests, with the most important being worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs and millipedes, plus a wide range of other insects. Generally, they are nocturnal, and any seen during the day might be in trouble. The one I found I picked up (with gardening gloves!) and placed in a pile of leaves, but when I checked later it had disappeared into the undergrowth, hopefully to happily carry on with his hedgehoggy life.
But did you know that some people keep them as pets? Hedgehogs, like all other small animals, are complex and unique individuals who require a lifetime of special care, food, and supplies. So before you go looking online for a hedgehog because you love Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, read on to find out why a hedgehog is anything but an ideal ‘pet’.
Hedgehogs are solitary animals who don’t want to interact with humans, and hedgehogs purchased as ’pets’ are hybrids commonly known as African pygmy hedgehogs. But these animals are only a few generations from their natural cousins, and many die or are abandoned by the people who purchased them when the novelty wears off, or they suffer from malnutrition and the overwhelming stress of captivity in an unnatural environment. Hedgehogs could be seen as a fun and low-maintenance pet for your household, but they would need some special care. They have sharp quills that can make handling difficult, and although consistent and proper daily handling will help them relax and feel comfortable with you, they truly should live in the wild.
Did you know how noisy they are? The most common hedgehog sound is a high-pitched squeak, similar to the sound you might hear when squeezing a toy duck. If it has recently eaten, it may make a noise that sounds like quacking. They also make grunting sounds when scavenging for food at night, which are similar to the noises a hog or pig makes. Hedgehogs make a variety of noises, ranging from coughs, squeaks, grunts and squeals, high-pitched to low, including chuffing like a steam train in the mating season! They cough, and you may even hear a purr if you are lucky.
They have an unpleasant ‘self-anointing’ habit where they contort and smear their own frothy saliva all over their bodies. We may find this repulsive, but it’s just another sign that we have no business trying to handle these sensitive individuals.
Hedgehogs have fleas, but these do not live on dogs, cats, humans or inside houses - they are host specific, so your pet cannot catch fleas from a hedgehog. They might also have ticks (seen as greyish shiny lumps, often behind the ears) which are not usually a problem unless there are dozens, which can lead to anaemia. They can also carry Salmonella bacteria in their droppings, maybe also carry viral and fungal diseases, and even if they seem healthy, they could infect anything they come in contact with.
Although keeping a hedgehog as a pet isn’t recommended, by all means ‘adopt’ the one you keep finding in your garden, just don’t try hugging it! Feed it if you must - they will relish any combination of meat-based wet dog or cat foods, or dry cat/kitten food, as these are high in the protein that they need, together with water, not milk. Just remember, they will be getting most of their food from the wild, so what you give is only supplementary and not really necessary.