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Advice on Animals

Hedgehogs: African Pygmy Hedgehogs

See also:
Hedgehogs: European Wild Hedgehogs
Books on hedgehogs

 

African pygmy hedgehogs are the variety offered as pets in the UK, and are smaller than our wild British (ie European) hedgehog. They are used to a warmer climate, so have to be kept in warm room, and may need heating. They live from between 4 to 6 years, on average, though some can reach up to eight years. They are longer-lived than some small and furries, like hamsters, giving you a better chance to get to know them well as individuals. There are different species of small hog found in Africa and you may not always know which one you get when you buy an 'African pygmy hedgehog'. Nigel Reeve's 'Hedgehogs' gives an interesting account of the natural history of these southern hogs, and their history as pets. All of them like insects and mealworms as part of their diet, so hogs are not for you if you feel squeamish about feeding them creepy crawlies. They don't need as much attention as a dog, but do need you to check the temperature and make sure they are not cold, and they are friendlier if you handle them regularly, so they aren't exactly low-maintenance pets either. They are happiest when they can have regular exercise, so ideally you should be prepared to give your hoglet a supervised run at least 20 minutes a day. African pygmy hedgehogs are suitable pets for older children with some adult supervision, but are nocturnal, and need careful handling, so are not really suitable as pets for younger children.r wild hog friends.

Choosing your African pygmy hedgehog

It's best to buy your African pygmy hedgehog just after weaning, at between six and eight weeks' old. Make sure you know the history of older hogs, especially how old they are, and whether they have been handled much, since they aren't very long lived, and are likely to be shy at first unless handled properly from a young age. Older hogs can be tamed, but it takes a little while, and you can develop a closer relationship with a hog you have known since he or she was a hoglet. Try to find a reputable breeder so that you have more chance of buying a healthy young hog. Your choice should be lively, with no discharges from eyes or ears, and no signs of diarrhoea.

Finding a good breeder is not easy. If you live in London or another big city, it's worth phoning round and talking to local vets. This is a good way to find a vet who knows how to treat African pygmy hedgehogs, and with any luck, you'll get some useful information on where to buy a healthy hoglet, and which sources you should avoid.

Breeders are more likely to sell you males than females. You can tell which is the male, because the penis sheath is visible on the hog's abdomen. If you can't find a penis, it's probably a female, though wriggling baby hogs are not always easy to sex. Both males and females are easy to tame. What most affects how they relate to you is how much they have been handled before you get them, and how well you handle them once you have them.

Hogs are usually kept alone, and may fight if kept together, especially two males, so there's no need to buy two hogs to keep each other company. Opposite sex pairs are likely to breed, and this can result in the female having babies too young. Young female littermates may get on fine for a while, but keep a spare cage handy in case they need to be separated, and give them plenty of room - any animal is more likely to be tetchy if kept in overcrowded conditions.

Housing

Your new hoglet needs an escape-proof, draught-free home that is big enough to allow the inhabitant to explore a little, has a den, food bowl and water bottle, exercise wheel and other toys, suitable bedding, light that mimics the hog's 'natural' environment, a heat source in case the room gets too cold, and a safe area outside the cage to have adventures in.

Hogs are expert climbers, can get through small holes, and move fast. They can also chew, so if you use a plastic cage, make sure there are no edges or holes that they can chew on. Many hog keepers use glass or clear plastic cages, with a perforated lid - you need the lid because they can surprise you with their ability to escape. Hogs need around one square metre of space. You can build them platforms, but do make sure that you keep the lid on their home, since a platform is an invitation to a hog to escape.

A den gives the hog a feeling of security, somewhere to hide if outside gets worrying. Curved pieces of bark, terracotta flower pots with straw as bedding, or small cardboard boxes with a hole cut for a door can be used as dens. Pots can help keep hogs' nails short, while cardboard boxes can be thrown away and replaced, so you don't have to clean them. Plastic dens can be cleaned easily, but can make hogs sweaty. The food bowl should be heavy enough not to tip when stepped on, so ceramic pots are better than plastic, and are more hygienic, since you can clean them more thoroughly. Hogs will often defecate in their water if it's left in a bowl, so a water bottle, as used by rabbits and guinea pigs, is more hygienic than a water bowl.

Exercise wheels are especially useful for hogs that don't get out much. They keep the hog fit and healthy, and less prone to obesity and related health problems. You need a larger wheel than that sold for hamsters. A ferret or rat wheel with a diameter of about 26 cm is about right. Hogs do tend to get their little feet caught in the wire of ordinary wheels, though, so you need to provide a solid surface for the hog to run on, which may involve adapting a ferret wheel, if you cannot find a special hog wheel. One way to adapt a ferret wheel is to use self-adhesive vinyl strips with a good gripping surface - go round a DIY store and see what they have that you can use to make your hog wheel safe. Hogs do tend to defecate on their wheels, so make sure that what you use for a running surface is easy to clean. It's also worth padding spokes so that they do not injure hogs, which are a little clumsier than ferrets or rats. Thin, clear, flexible plastic tubing sold in pet stores for aquaria can be slit and used to cover spokes. Most hogs love wheels, and they like other play equipment in their cages, like hollow logs, or short lengths of plastic drainpipe. The advantage of a log is that the hog can climb on it more easily than a pipe, though a pipe is easier to clean.

Hogs defecate a lot, and not always in the same place, so use bedding that is easy to clean. Many hog keepers use straw for dens, and wood shavings for the rest of the cage. Straw can be a source of mites, so change the type of bedding you use if your hog appears to suffer from these parasites. As with all small mammals, avoid cedar shavings and sawdust. Cedar can be poisonous, while sawdust can create respiratory problems. Soft, washable, astroturf is another possibility, if you can get hold of it. Shredded newspapers can be used in an emergency, though the ink may not do your hogs any good. You may want to put in a litter tray, especially if your hog favours a particular corner of his cage. Choose non-clumping cat litter because the clumping kind can get stuck to the hog. Male hogs sometimes have problems with bedding or litter getting stuck under the sheath of the penis. You can very gently bathe your hog in tepid water if this happens.

You do need to clean your hog's cage of droppings every day, with a thorough clean every week, or it can get very smelly. It's easier to clean if you can persuade your hog to use one corner of the cage as a toilet, and some hog owners manage this by putting the hog there after feeding, or by putting a few droppings there - especially effective if they are another hog's droppings, and you have a male. Even the most fastidious hogs will sometimes defecate on their wheels, however! The smell varies according to what you feed your hog. Some tripe-based dog foods will make your hog's poo very smelly.

Lighting is important, because this affects a hog's activity levels. Hogs are nocturnal, so too much light may stress them and affect their immune systems, while too little light may trigger hibernation if the temperature also drops. Ideally you want lighting that mimics the hog's 'natural' environment, with daylight (but not direct sunlight) reaching the cage where possible, and much dimmer lighting or darkness in the evening. Bear in mind that African hogs come from a part of the world where there is less difference between the length of summer and winter days, so you can pull the curtains of the room where your hog lives, at night in summer, opening them in the morning for an 'African dawn', and give your hog some artificial light in winter to make up for the shortfall in daylight.

Hogs can get used to bright light in the evening, and may come out to feed and play, but it's not really good for them to be stressed in this way. Put the cage in a part of the room where the lighting is dim in the evening, if you have your hog in your living room, and want to watch him, and this also applies to his play area, if you let him out of his cage in the evening.

The temperature at which you keep your hog affects his activity levels, including how much he eats, and a drop in temperature to below 20 degrees C can trigger hibernation. Make sure your hog isn't subject to cold draughts, and have a back-up source of heat in case your central heating is not reliable. Much of the equipment sold for reptiles can be used at low settings to keep hogs warm, though it's a good idea to make sure that any heating pad doesn't cover the whole of the cage floor, in case it gets too hot, and that whatever you use is not a fire hazard. Remember that hogs can climb and chew through wires!

Hogs' cages should be dog and cat proof if you have these pets. Cats can frighten hogs. Some dogs are capable of killing wild European hogs, and could certainly kill or seriously injure an African pygmy hedgehog. You can train your dog to respect your hedgehog, but it's still safer for all encounters between your hog and other pets to be supervised, especially your hog's playtime outside his cage.

Hogs enjoy playtime out of their cages, but they are fast movers, and can get into small holes and even roll downstairs, so it's safer to create a play area for them than to give them the run of whole rooms, especially upstairs rooms. Before you know it, your hog may be making a bid for freedom - and African pygmy hedgehogs cannot survive in the wild in Britain. You need to block off part of a room, and ensure that there are no hanging sleeves or other hedgehog 'ladders'. Put toys in the enclosure to entertain your hog, and supervise his play. Keep a torch handy in case he does escape, and check carefully under furniture, and in any potential 'den' such as a jacket sleeve. You can try putting out food to lure your hog from a hiding place. Make very sure that all exits to the outside world are hog-proof, including windows, (hogs can climb up curtains), keep the room warm and quiet, and with luck, you should be able to hear your little friend and even see him nonchalantly ambling up to his bowl to take a bite.

Feeding

It is difficult to buy specialist hedgehog food, and when you can find it, it may be expensive. There is also no guarantee that particular specialist hog food is suitable for your particular hog, firstly there has not been a great deal of research on the diets of captive hedgehogs since they are a relatively new pet, and secondly because your hog may not be used to this particular food. As with all young animals, the safest course is to find out what your hoglet has been eating, and feed the same thing, with changes made one food at a time and gradually. Too much variety too soon can cause digestive troubles and even allergies.

Many hog keepers who cannot easily find specialist hedgehog food use good quality cat or dog food, supplemented by mealworms, pinky mice, boiled or scrambled eggs, and small amounts of fruit and veg. Cow's milk is not good for hedgehogs, nor is yoghurt made from cow's milk, but cottage cheese made from cow's milk has less lactose, so is safer. Dairy products based on goat's milk are better for hogs.

Do some research before choosing a cat or dog food for your hog. Write and ask the manufacturers if their food is suitable for hedgehogs, and check whether the ingredients remain constant. Some pet food companies vary the ingredients of pet foods, depending on whatever ingredients are cheaper, and it helps to be sure that the manufacturers are not going to change the formula in case new ingredients not mentioned on the can or pack upset your hog. If the company doesn't answer your questions, don't use their product. Reputable companies are prepared to give advice on the suitability of their products for pets.

Generally, fishy foods and canned foods with a lot of jelly are best avoided, as are high-fat diet formulations, which could trigger liver disease. Either canned or dry food can be given, though switch from one to the other gradually. It's worth giving crunchy supplements, like crickets, if you feed wet food, and moist supplements like mealworms if you feed your hog dry food.

Some owners have successfully used ferret food with their hogs, but again not all brands are suitable, so introduce new brands gradually and stop feeding the food if it does not appear to suit your hog.

Hogs are mainly insectivorous, with slightly different needs from cats, dogs and ferrets, so using food designed for other pets is not ideal. Again, it's well worth writing to a number of pet food manufacturers and asking about whether they make specialist hedgehog food, and where you can buy it, both so that they know that there is a demand, and to find out the easiest way to buy hedgehog food, if they make it. Ask your local pet store if you don't see it in stock. If we just carry on buying cat food and grumbling to ourselves about lack of availability, manufacturers and retailers have no incentive to offer us food geared to our hogs' needs.

Dog food has a lower protein level than cat food, so supplements are especially important if you use dog food. You can visit the reptile supplies section of pet stores to find insects such as crickets, mealworms, and pinky mice. Some hog keepers also feed their hogs earthworms from the garden. Hogs will also eat small amounts of fruits, and some root vegetables. Watch your hog to see which foods he most likes, and you can use these foods as treats, to get him to come close to you. Make sure he doesn't overdose on his favourite foods, though, because this could lead to diarrhoea. Give your hog live grubs to eat - dead mealworms and earthworms could harbour nasties, and hogs like to catch their prey.

African pygmy hedgehogs don't eat much compared to European hogs, and you do need to ensure that your hoglet doesn't get too fat, both by regulating his diet, and by giving him enough exercise. Hogs are more likely to become obese on diets that rely too much on cat and dog food, especially those pet foods with concentrated formulations. How much they eat depends on a number of factors, such as temperature, age, how much exercise they get, and whether they are pregnant or have little hoglets to feed. They like to eat at least twice a night, which is fine if you are a night owl! Feed your hog when he wakes up in the evening, and don't put more in the bowl than he can eat at one sitting. You can give your hog titbits during his exercise period. Then leave him a little meal before you go to bed. Hogs often defecate in their feeding bowls, so it's more hygienic to remove the bowl and wash it as soon as the hog has eaten his first meal, and it's not a good idea to leave out food for two meals in the bowl.

Health

The main health problems you need to watch for in an African pygmy hedgehog are hibernation, respiratory problems, digestive problems, tumours, parasites, and injuries.

Hibernation is a health risk because pet African pygmy hedgehogs do not have the reserves to survive more than a brief spell of hibernation. Wild African hogs will sleep through hot, dry periods when there is no food about, a habit which is called 'aestivation' rather than 'hibernation'. Pet African pygmy hogs are unlikely to go through hot spells when they are deprived of food and water, but hibernation can be triggered by drops in temperature to below some 20 degrees C. Affected hogs will go off their food, their gait may become unsteady, and they will eventually roll into a ball and fall soundly asleep. Gradually raise the temperature, and your hog should recover. Prevention is better than cure. Keep your hog warm, and give him the right amount of light.

Respiratory problems can be triggered by hogs getting too cold, or breathing in too much dust from bedding, or during their explorations under your furniture! Hogs tend to make snuffling noises, but keep an ear tuned to how yours breathes so that you can tell if he is having breathing difficulties. He may also go off his food if he has respiratory problems, sneeze, and look 'snotty', ie have bubbles and/or a discharge from his nose. Get help from a vet if you suspect respiratory problems, since in the worst case it could be pneumonia, which can be fatal, but can also be cured if caught in time. Make sure he is kept warm if you take him to the vets on a cold winter's day.

Changes in the colour of your hedgehog's stools may be simply due to your having fed him on a new food, but if his stools change colour without a change in diet, or he develops diarrhoea, keep a close eye on him, and if diarrhoea persists, or he goes off his food for longer than a day, get help from your vet. Diarrhoea will tend to leave your hog dehydrated, and moist food will help to combat this - you could even mash water into your hog's meals. Always seek veterinary advice if you find blood in your hog's stools.

Hogs may go off their food for a number of reasons, especially because they are too cold. Make sure your hog is warm enough, the lights are low, and he isn't disturbed by unusual noises. If he still won't eat even his favourite foods, check his mouth for problems like bits of food lodged in it, or open sores, and get him to a vet if his mouth looks nasty. Get veterinary advice fast if he doesn't eat for more than a day, and you can find nothing wrong with him, in case he has a bowel obstruction or other digestive problem. You can feed a liquid diet with a syringe, if your hog is too weak to eat, and your vet advises this. Use goat's rather than cow's milk if you include milk in the liquid diet.

Hogs may also get too fat, and suffer from obesity-related conditions. Liver disease and cancers, for example are more common in obese hedgehogs. Obesity is a particular problem in pet hogs because they are programmed to eat enough to survive hibernation, but letting them hibernate is too much of a risk. Just give your hog less food, and make sure he has lots of exercise if he seems to be getting too fat. Tumours are more common in middle-aged hogs, from the age of three-years-old. Some tumours can easily be removed with a rapid recovery, so get any strange lumps checked by your vet.

Parasites can be a problems for African pygmy hedgehogs. The most common sources of infestation are bedding and other pets, though hogs can also become infested while enjoying the sun out of doors, and even from live food. Your vet should be able to advise you on safe treatments. Always change bedding and thoroughly clean the cage after treatments, in case any little bugs and beasties are lurking there. Ticks are less common in African pygmy hedgehogs than in wild European hedgehogs, and are easily visible as grey sacs that become engorged with the hog's blood. Fleas are visible as little black hopping specks, while mites are less visible, but tend to cause crusty deposits round the quill base, and can even lead to quills being lost. Some hog keepers use vegetable oil to deal with mites, but this may not be enough with serious cases. Leave the oil on for a few hours to 'drown' the mites. Take care to use a very mild shampoo designed for young animals to remove the oil, and make sure your hog does not catch cold as a result of the bath.

Hogs may suffer injuries, especially when outside their cages, and one common problem is damage to legs when a hog is caught in threads from clothing or trapped in other ways, so you do need to supervise their adventures. They can also damage toenails, which should be checked if a hog is limping. Toenails should be cut if they get long, so they are less likely to get caught, and giving your hog a rough surface to walk on and scratch will help keep the nails short. Eyes can be damaged from hogs bumping into things like wheel spokes, so keep your hog away from sharp obstacles. Hogs don't see well, so may bump into things because of this, and they can also live happily despite losing an eye.

Sometimes hedgehogs' ears look ragged as though they are injured, but when you look at the ears they are actually coated in nasty waxy stuff. Tattered ears may be caused by mites, fungal infections, or diet-related problems. Clean them with vegetable oil, and get your vet to check them out to see if a fungal treatment cream is needed.

Handling

First, please be patient! You have a little hedgehog who has been subjected to strange sounds, smells and jolts on his way to your home, and he has been put in a new cage. If he's a youngster, he has to get used to being alone, with no companionable squeaks from his litter-mates, and no warm mum to snuggle up against. Keep him warm, keep the lights low in the evening, and try to keep the noise level down. Leave him in peace until he has had a good day's uninterrupted sleep. Then, after you have just put food in his cage, and leave your hand there for a few minutes. Eventually he should come up and sniff you - especially if you leave some tasty food on your hand. He may even try to nibble you - if so, withdraw the hand and the titbit, gently, so as not to startle him.

It may take days for your hog to be bold enough come up to your hand and sniff you. Just wait until he is ready. He will eventually pluck up enough courage to climb on you. That is when you can start lifting him up. Use gentle, slow movements, and cup him safely in both hands, keeping your fingers away from him tum, as he will probably curl up, and you don't want them trapped there. Let him uncurl and offer him a titbit, so he associates your smell and being lifted with nice things happening. He may well poo on you at first. This often happens with young hogs and hogs that are startled. Hogs can be quite vocal, so listen to what your hog is telling you, and you will be able to tell which sounds mean he is happy, and which sounds mean he is upset.

Let your hog have a run outside his cage every evening, somewhere where you can catch him easily, and just handle him for very short periods at first. He only needs five minutes of so of actual handling every day to get used to you, and a maximum of around fifteen minutes each time he is out once he is used to you, so you don't stress him out too much. It's important that you are gentle and get him used to being handled, because hogs that are nervous of being handled can't be caught or treated for medical problems easily, and may even bite. Be considerate of your hog too, and give him a chance to wake up before you lift him, or he could nip out of fear, and is more likely to poo on you.

Hogs may nibble or nip you inquisitively, or nip from fear. You can try blowing a very gentle raspberry to discourage exploratory nibbles, though if the hog is nipping because he frightened this could make it worse, and you should just put him down and take getting to know him a bit more slowly. If you keep still on being bitten, hogs usually release their little jaws quite fast! You can also move your hand towards them, to persuade them to let go, but it tends to hurt more if you try to pull your hands away. Wear gloves if your hog is a little nipper - it will help you handle your pet with more confidence and means you are less likely to drop him. This applies especially to older children, whose skin damages more easily than adults, while younger children should not really handle hogs. Always wash your hands afterwards, even if you have not been pooed on. This is because hogs can carry germs, and they have a curious habit called 'self anointing'.

'Self-anointing' involves a hog foaming at the mouth and turning round, then depositing this foam on its spines. Hogs can do this when they find interesting smells and tastes, for example a human that smells interesting! It's not quite clear why hogs do this, but it could be a way of putting off predators.

You may need to get a friend to hold your hog if you have to clean his ears or cut his nails if they get too long. Use nail clippers designed for pets. Ask your vet to clip the nails if you are worried about cutting in the wrong place. Bathing hogs should be done with care in case they catch cold. Just put them in shallow water and pour water on them, keeping it away from their ears and eyes. Always rinse out shampoos, which are not necessary unless your hog is very stinky. A soft pastry brush can be used as a bath brush. Make sure he has somewhere warm to dry out after his bath.

Breeding

Ideally, you really need to be an experienced hog keeper to start breeding African pygmy hedgehogs, and have a breeder friend on the other end of the phone to advise you, as well as a friendly vet. You may be lucky and be rewarded with lots of little hogs, but things can and do go wrong, for example the mother could die, or eat the babies. You may end up having to hand rear some or all of the babies, in which case you need help if you are to get any sleep. And of course you have to find good homes for them, which it's best to do before they are born. You can't make any definite promises, but could put people on a waiting list.

You first need a pair of suitable hogs, who should not be closely related, and should be healthy with nice temperaments. They should be at least five month's old. African pygmy hedgehogs are actually able to breed from some eight week's old, but they are less likely to produce good litters if they breed at younger than five months' old, and the mother's health could be affected. First-time mothers should be younger than one and a half-years, and it's best for any breeding female to be under three three-years-old. Two litters a year is enough for any mother - more than that and you are likely to shorten her life significantly, and the babies may be weaker.

Females should be put in with males, rather than vice versa, since the female is more likely to attack the male if he invades her territory. Check that the female is ready to mate - if the two just fight, and the female shows no sign of interest, then separate them. Leave the couple for two or three days, since they mate more than once. Male hogs are quite noisy when they are courting, so don't be surprised at the squeaks. Do watch out for fights, and separate the couple if there appear to be serious disagreements. You can try again later. Female hogs have cycles, and you need to catch her at the right time, which is why help from an experienced breeder is useful. Different breeders have different methods, but observation is important whatever the method you use.

The gestation period is about 35 days, and the female will start to get fatter and her nipples will become more noticeable if she is pregnant. She may also smell more, and start nesting. She may go off her food briefly just before she gives birth, but will eat enormous amounts just after the babies are born. Cottage cheese or goats milk may help her if she looks a bit ragged from feeding her babies. Get her to a vet if she looks seriously off colour.

Mother hogs need peace and quiet or they may eat their babies. Keep other hogs away from her, and be careful when you feed her, both for a week or so before she gives birth, and for three week's after. Don't try to look at the little ones until they are a week old. Then you can entice the mother away with a treat and have a peek, if she is not too nervous, but don't touch the babies until they are three weeks' old. The babies start to open their eyes when they are three weeks' old, and begin to eat solid food, though they aren't weaned until they are around six weeks' old. They need moist food at first, so gradually move the mother onto moist food when she is pregnant, if you are feeding her dry food. It's important to sex the babies after weaning and separate the males from the females by the time they are eight weeks' old, or they may start breeding far too young!

Hand rearing hogs is a very difficult task, so if you lose the mother, or she rejects the babies, it helps to have a breeder friend who will find a foster mother for some or all of the babies. You do need some help, since the babies need to be fed every few hours round the clock, and you will need some sleep! Some breeders have successfully used goat's milk fed with a plastic syringe, and you can try a raw egg beaten in with the milk. You can also try puppy and kitten milk formula from the vet or pet stores. Little hogs need help with weeing and pooing - you stroke down their tums to stimulate their bladders and bowels. Hand rearing is a lot of work, and the hoglets may not survive, so wait and see what happens if one or more of the babies appears to be rejected - maybe the mother will change her mind.

There are risks involved in breeding African pygmy hedgehogs, but the babies are so enchanting that you will be captivated if all goes well, and mum manages to raise a healthy brood of eight or so youngsters.

 

References:

Reeve, Nigel (ed) (1994) Hedgehogs, Academic Press.
Wrobel, Dawn and Susan A. Brown (1997) The Hedgehog : An Owner's Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pet, Howell Books.

 

See also:
Hedgehogs: European Wild Hedgehogs
Books on Hedgehogs

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