by Luisa Depta
Although hedgehogs have been domesticated for a significant period of time (dating back to B.C. times), they remain for the most part the solitary, relatively unsocial creatures that they are in the wild.1 Despite their rise in popularity, especially in recent years, there has been little research completed on hedgehog behaviour, and particularly that of the domestic hedgehog.
Due to the lack of behavioural information available specific to hedgehogs, for the purpose of this article, I have extrapolated and inferred information from other animals. Although best attempts have been made to provide information from the animals most closely related to the hedgehog, due to limited studies having been completed, for the most part I’ve been limited to studies of other mammals.
Fortunately, as we follow the taxonomic classifications, we find that throughout the diverse orders, families, genuses, and species that the animals’ neuroanatomy remains similar to that of other mammals and can therefore be considered in a similar way as that of the more popular dog or cat. For example, in an article by Elisabetta Mancinelli DVM, she asserts that “The neuroanatomy of rabbits, rodents, and ferrets is similar to that of other mammals. Therefore, one can approach the neurologic examination on companion exotic mammals in a similar manner to that described in dogs and cats”.2
If we extrapolate this slightly further, it appears fair to hypothesize that the neuroanatomy of hedgehogs is also similar to that of other mammals, and that information that we’ve gleaned from studying other animals can also be utilized when beginning the investigation of hedgehog behaviour. Further, in the same way that the science of behaviour applies in a very similar way across the different species of humans, dogs, horses, or cats, I believe it is reasonable to assume that these principles would apply to hedgehogs, too. Certainly, species-specific considerations must be made, and further research would greatly benefit both hedgehogs and owners.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of readily available research, hedgehog owners have been left to seek out word of mouth or anecdotal information on how best to care for and handle their hedgehogs. Although at times helpful, anecdotal evidence is often inaccurate, and the advances of technology have allowed for such advice to be shared quickly and readily. One such common piece of advice, and the piece that I would like to address in this article, is that an owner must handle their hedgehog often and force them to cuddle, no matter how they may react. In fact, if a hedgehog reacts poorly, it is often advised to further force interactions. When considering that hedgehogs are naturally solitary, defensive prey animals, one can begin to see how this advice can perhaps have the opposite effect of that intended.
When we consider hedgehogs that come from unknown backgrounds, that may not have been handled regularly or properly and that come to us with pre-existing fears as well as their own unique personalities, it is prudent as hedgehog owners to respect our hedgehogs and change our handling to match their needs.
Hedgehogs are unique animals that do not require friends (most, in fact, should not have hedgehog friends3) or even human interaction in order to live a happy life. Much interaction with hedgehogs is done for the human’s benefit rather than the hedgehog’s. For a hedgehog that has been mishandled or not handled, handling (even handling done with the most kind-hearted intentions) can be extremely scary. Even if nothing “bad” actually happens during the handling session, a hedgehog that is stressed out may perceive the session as being very traumatic. It’s important to understand that stressors may be actual or perceived, and can be psychological or physiological in origin and that perceived stressors can vary from individual to individual.4
The stress from each stressful event can compound, thereby increasing the hedgehog’s total stress levels (even during the time they are not being handled), thereby causing future handling sessions to be entered into at a higher level of stress than the previous one. Bearing this in mind, it’s easy to see how a number of stressful incidents can begin to compound into chronic stress, which can begin to significantly affect the hedgehog’s health and lifespan. We know from studies of other animals including humans that chronic stress can lead to a variety of health problems, including increasing the risk of illness,5 delaying wound healing6 or even causing immune issues and increasing susceptibility to diseases such as cancer .7
There are many hedgehog owners who will advocate for the efficacy of the “cuddle ‘til they love it” method, having experienced success with it in the past. Despite likely not knowing it, these owners have taken part in a form of exposure therapy by exposing the hedgehog to what it feared: human touch or handling.
Exposure therapy can be a very effective treatment when it comes to dealing with fears,8 when conducted by an educated professional in appropriate circumstances and when the therapy is entered into with consent and understanding from the subject. When these conditions are not met, well-intended exposure therapy can instead turn into flooding, which can be overwhelming and can worsen fears over the long term.
Because of the lack of hedgehog behavioural knowledge, through no fault of their own, the human doesn’t break the interaction down into the appropriately small steps that would allow for progress, and inadvertently causes increased stress for the hedgehog. Perhaps most importantly, the hedgehog is not able to consent to the interaction or to remove themselves from it. It’s easy to see why it can be so difficult to get a hedgehog to trust us!
As a slight aside, I’m curious how many hedgehogs are mistakenly seen as loving and tolerating cuddles or pets but are in reality quite literally immobilized by fear.9 A specific situation that springs to mind is when a hedgehog is turned on their back and held belly up. From this position, a hedgehog is hard pressed to flip themselves back into their normal, belly-down position. Being held belly-up is not a natural position for a hedgehog to be in, as their natural defense mechanism of rolling into a spiny ball exists to protect their most vulnerable area – their soft bellies.
So, what can those who care for hedgehogs, as owners or behavior professionals, do instead?
Research and educate yourself on general hedgehog behaviour and body language. A hedgehog cannot use words to communicate with you, but they are communicating nonetheless. I wish there were more information on this available to owners of small and exotic pets, and hopefully someday soon there will be. For the time being, one of the most comprehensive sites I’ve been able to find on this subject is Critter Connection.
Ensure that your hedgehog is healthy and is not in pain. Regular vet checks are important for all pets, especially for our little critters who have evolved to hide signs of pain and sickness. A healthy hedgehog will be more likely to become a happy hedgehog. Think about how unlikely you are to be friendly if you have a toothache or headache, or how difficult it is to learn when you have an upset stomach or a head cold.
Pay close attention to how your hedgehog communicates. I often find it helpful to video interactions so I can look back after the fact and observe things that I would have missed in the moment. Does your hedgehog ball up when you lean over them? Did you accidentally push things too far and end up being bitten? What happened leading up to the bite, what warning signs did you potentially miss, and what can you do differently in the future? What do you notice that your hedgehog likes? I also find it helpful to observe my hedgehog’s regular behaviour when he is not stressed and to note any changes that follow after a stressful event like a vet visit. Perhaps after a vet visit he doesn’t run on his wheel that night or doesn’t eat all his food. This information can be helpful for me moving forward and evaluating whether my hedgehog is stressed after different events.
Lower or change your expectations. I think this is particularly difficult and even painful for those who have had hedgehogs in the past and perhaps subconsciously expect their current hedgehog to behave similarly. Your hedgehog has come to you with their own past, their own likes and dislikes, and their own personality. Try to remove your expectations for how they should behave, meet them where they are, and enjoy the process as you both get to know each other and grow together.
Give your hedgehog a break! This is especially important if your hedgehog has just moved into your home or if they have recently experienced something especially stressful. I won’t rehash this excellent article on Cortisol Vacations by paws4udogs, but it’s definitely worth a read and consideration for how you can adapt it to suit your hedgehog.
CAPTION: Harvey waking up from a nap
Meet your hedgehog where they are. If your hedgehog is only comfortable having you talk to them while they are in their cage, do this! Talk calmly to your hedgehog, maybe bring them their favourite treats when you’re nearby, and just let them get to feel comfortable with you. This is a great time to observe your hedgehog’s behaviour as well as to notice different things that you do that makes them more or less comfortable. Perhaps your hedgehog is more comfortable when the lights are dimmed or when visits are early in the morning versus late at night. This information will be important as you move forward.
Remember that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The only way to befriend a hedgehog is one step at a time. Once your hedgehog is comfortable with you standing near the cage, you can progress to talking to them. Once your hedgehog is comfortable with you talking to them, perhaps you can progress to letting them smell you. And so on and so forth.
If possible, give your hedgehog the gift of choice. A lot of hedgehogs’ lives are full of things that they can’t control, like their food, their bedding, or their owners. If we can give them even a tiny bit of choice (for example, to choose to climb up on the owner’s hand to be removed from the cage versus being picked up and removed) it will do wonders for our their stress levels as well as our bond with them.
Show your hedgehog love in their “love language.” There’s a rather popular theory that humans each have one of a few love languages: For some it’s touch, for others it’s words of affirmation or gifts. We tend to try to show love in our own love language, and this can cause disconnects if our partner has a different love language than our own. A hedgehog’s love language may not be touch and cuddles. Perhaps it’s gifts of favourite treats. Perhaps it is in quality time spent together while they play in a forage box or explore outside in the grass when it is warm out.
Harvey exploring the world
Despite their prickly appearance, it is possible to develop a bond and a relationship with pet hedgehogs. With education, patience and understanding, we can begin to know the best ways to go about developing and maintaining this relationship and thereby improving our hedgehogs’ welfare and quality of life.
- Bradford, A. (2015). Hedgehog Facts. Retrieved March 5, 2020 from Livescience.com
- Mancinelli, E. (2015). Neurologic examination and diagnostic testing in rabbits, ferrets, and rodents. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 24:1, pp. 52-64.
- Quesenberry, K., & Carpenter, J. (2012). Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery. St. Louis Missouri: Elsevier.
- Packer, R., et al (2019). What can we learn from the hair of the dog? Complex effects of endogenous and exogenous stressors on canine hair cortisol. PLoS ONE 14:5, e0216000.
- Salleh, R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences 15:4, pp. 9-18.
- Christian, L. et al (2006). Stress and wound healing. NeuroImmunoModulation 13, pp. 337-346.
- Dhabhar, F.S., (2009). Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology. NeuroImmunoModulation 16, pp. 300–317.
- Olatunji, B., Deacon, B., Abramowitz, J. (2009). The cruelest cure? Ethical issues in the implementation of exposure-based treatments. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice 16:12, pp. 172-180
- Buffington, T. (2020) Untitled article. Retrieved March 5, 2020 from FearFreePets.com
Luisa Depta lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, three dogs, turtle and hedgehog. Luisa is a professional behavior consultant with a special interest in working with fearful animals. Hugo is the newest addition to the Depta clan and is still working on trusting people. You can follow Luisa and Hugo’s journey on Instagram at _hugo.and.me_ and on Facebook at Hugo and Me.