Hedgehog quirks and characteristics
The hedgehogs commonly kept as pets in North America are African hedgehogs, sometimes called African Pigmy hedgehogs. These are distinct from their larger, darker cousins in mainland Europe and the U.K., the European hedgehogs.
There are several species of African hedgehog, most of which have been interbred to produce the domesticated African hedgehog in North America. This breeding resulted in a surprisingly wide variety of colors and markings. African hedgehogs can be found over much of the continent, primarily in savanna or lightly forested areas. They prefer a warmer climate than their European cousins and do not hibernate, although they do engage in a heat-related torpor called estivation. Pet hedgehogs need to be kept warm, generally above 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and cannot generally tolerate hibernation attempts.
Hedgehogs have modified hairs on their neck and back called quills. These quills are not barbed like a porcupine, as many people assume. Hedgehogs cannot “throw” their quills, either. A hedgehog with spines erect feels somewhat like a rough scrub brush. These quills are for defensive purposes only; when a hedgehog is threatened, he curls into a ball and uses specialized muscles to raise the quills into a network of little points. This discourages many predators and has enabled hedgehogs to remain largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs.
Hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal animals. Pet hedgehogs’ daily routines can often be gradually changed to a more compatible schedule with their human companions by gentle changes in handling and feeding times. However, their first instinct is to sleep during the day and be active at night. Their senses are adapted to work best at night. They have poor eyesight but excellent senses of smell and hearing. Two of the most noticeable traits of a healthy hedgehog – once you have become accustomed to the quills! – are their moist, active nose and large ears.
Hedgehogs in the wild are insectivores. However, they are also opportunists, meaning that in addition to insects, they will eat carrion, eggs, fruit, and just about anything else they come across. This kind of natural diet leads to some confusion about the proper diet for domesticated hedgehogs. In the past, cat food was recommended as a staple diet. Now, with advances in nutritional knowledge, commercial hedgehog foods are available, as is more detailed information on supplemental offerings. See the Shopping Guide for help in choosing an appropriate staple food.
One of the oddest behaviors that hedgehog engage in is self-annointing. Hedgehogs, when encountering a new or strong smell or substance, will often lick the substance, produce foamy saliva, and apply it to all or part of their quills. One of our Lowcountry Hedgehog Society members recently had the unpleasant experience of having their pet self-annoint with a dead caterpillar! Other hedgehogs are captivated by leather, garlic, and a host of other items. Some hedgehogs self-annoint frequently, while others do it only once or twice a year. Males tend to self-annoint more often than females. Although no one is exactly sure why hedgehogs self-annoint, the most commonly accepted theory is that the hedgehog, which is resistant to many toxins, is spreading a potential toxin or camouflaging smell on their bodies for protection.
Further online reading:
Hedgehog Hobby on Introduction to Hedgehogs, Hedgehogs in the Wild, Behavior, and Quills
Hedgehog Fact Sheet from Sea World / Busch Gardens’ Animal Bytes