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Of the 17 different species of hedgehogs found throughout the world not a single one is native to North America, but that has not stopped these cute little immigrants from making their way into our homes and hearts throughout the United States. African pygmy hedgehogs, the most popular species to have as a pet, are adored for their cuteness and uniqueness in the animal kingdom. They are highly active nocturnal animals that spend their days resting and come alive at night to collect (and chase) their meals, which usually consist of fruits, vegetables, and insects in the wild. Hedgehogs enjoy a simple life of solitude, and they rely on their spikes and ability to curl up into a ball to protect them from the terrors of the outside world, which can include anything from owls and wolves in the wild to loud noises or new people in our homes.
Hedgehogs usually live for anywhere from 4-6 years, and males should weigh between 500-700g (17.6-24.7 oz) whereas females should weigh around 250-400g (8.8-14.1 oz). As with any other species, there are certain diseases that we commonly see in hedgehogs ranging from obesity to neurological problems, and veterinarians can use the specific signs associated with each disease to determine which part of the body is being affected and what the best treatment will be.
Skin diseases are fairly common in hedgehogs, and they typically lead to dry, scaly skin. Diagnosing these conditions can be done by taking skin scrapes and looking at them under a microscope or culturing them to see what irritants are causing the problem. Dermatophytosis is a skin disease common to hedgehogs that involves scaly areas around the base of the spines, which can be treated with topical antifungals. Mite infestations also include crusting and flaking of the skin and anti-parasitic drugs are used to eliminate the infestation; however, it is also important to keep your hedgehog’s environment clean and treat any other hedgehogs living in the home, as mites are very good at spreading through the environment- don’t worry, these mites are specific to hedgehogs.
Obesity is a common issue seen in hedgehogs because most pet hedgehogs have unlimited access to food, likely in addition to not being active enough throughout the day. This combination can lead to a variety of problems from not being able to roll into a ball for protection to other more serious diseases like hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). Prevention is the best way to approach obesity, which is why it is important that you feed appropriate amounts of high quality food to your hedgehog, provide enrichment opportunities that promote activity, and monitor their weight so that you can catch any weight gain early and adjust their diet accordingly. Getting a food scale to weigh your hedgehog on weekly is a great way to stay on top of their weight. Once an animal has become obese, treatment involves a weight loss program, which means fewer calories a day and more enrichment to promote activity. Offering insects to eat is a great way to increase a hedgehog’s activity level while also supporting their natural feeding behaviors and providing a valuable source of nutrients.
Gastrointestinal diseases include anything that affects the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestine, colon, or rectum. Signs to look out for include diarrhea, dehydration, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Salmonella infection, which is the most common type in hedgehogs, can be diagnosed with a fecal culture. Treatment involves supportive care and antibiotics. It is also important to consider that this bacteria can be spread to humans – Salmonella is a zoonotic disease - therefore, we must be careful when handling and treating potentially infected animals.
Fractured teeth can make it difficult for your hedgehog to eat, which can lead to unwanted weight loss and excessive salivation. Dental radiographs and an oral exam can diagnose those bad teeth, and treatment includes pain medicine, antibiotics, and potentially even tooth extractions if the fracture is causing additional problems.
Diarrhea and intestinal inflammation are somewhat non-specific signs, which means they can result from a variety of different problems ranging from an inappropriate diet to a bacterial infection. The specific cause of these issues can be diagnosed using diet trials, fecal cultures, and radiographs, and the specific findings will guide the treatment. One specific disease, Hepatic lipidosis, is relatively common in hedgehogs and can develop as a result of any disease that leads to a sudden lack of appetite, like infections or cancer.
Cancer is unfortunately common in hedgehogs above the age of 3 years old. They can get many different types of cancer including squamous cell carcinomas, cutaneous mast cell tumors, mammary gland tumors, cutaneous hemangiosarcomas, and reproductive tumors, all of which must be removed. Signs vary based on the type of cancer that they have, but they can include difficulty eating, lethargy, weakness, swelling of the belly, weight loss, blood in the urine, or vaginal discharge. Diagnosis can potentially require bloodwork, radiographs, ultrasound, or a biopsy, and treatment involves removing the tumor, supportive care, and possibly chemotherapy and radiation.
Heart disease in hedgehogs is usually in the form of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which means one or more of the heart’s chambers are enlarged. Hedgehogs with DCM can experience difficulty breathing, lethargy, weight loss, and potentially a heart murmur, but it can also lead to sudden death if not treated when these signs arise. Therapy involves medication to manage chronic heart failure, but unfortunately the damage to the heart is irreversible.
Hedgehogs are sensitive to respiratory disease caused by Bordetella, Pasteurella, and Corynebacterium infections. Watch out for sneezing, nasal discharge, or difficulty breathing. Diagnosis involves radiographs and a culture of their discharge and is treated with antibiotics. . In severe cases, oxygen and opening of the airways may be needed to avoid a serious lack of oxygen.
Wobbly hedgehog syndrome is a neurologic condition characterized by progressive loss of control of their limbs and weight loss that ultimately leads to paralysis. It can potentially be fatal. The cause of wobbly hedgehog is unknown, however, genetics is believed to play a role. Treatment involves supportive care and hand feeding. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition.
Musculoskeletal injuries involve those that affect the hedgehog’s ability to move and use their muscles. Some common injuries include strangling of their little toes and legs due to frayed cloth in bedding (chewed by hedgehogs, of course) and overgrown toenails that get caught in the cage or grow into their footpad. Avoid injuries like these with consistent grooming and monitoring of their environment.
Should you be concerned about your own safety if your hedgehog gets sick? Some of the diseases we discussed, like Salmonella and dermatophytosis, can spread from hedgehogs to humans. Also, foot and mouth disease, which is highly contagious in humans, has been documented in wild-caught hedgehogs but not in any that are captive bred. Diseases like this are a great reminder of why it is so important to:
- Acquire exotic pets from appropriate and reputable breeders, and
- Give wildlife their space and call a professional if they are in need of help.
Hedgehogs are vulnerable to many different diseases, as are most pets. When it comes to finding and diagnosing these problems, attentive owners are vital to a veterinarian’s success. You know your hedgehog better than anyone else, so you are the best equipped to determine when they are acting out of the ordinary and need to be seen by a veterinarian.