What I Learned About Hedgehogs After I Graduated From Vet School

Mites, cancer, wobbly hedgehog syndrome and more are some of the health issues commonly faced by hedgehogs that veterinarians must treat.

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This hedgehog is healthy, but skin mite and ear mites are one of the common ailments of pet hedgehogs. Via Andrew/Flickr
Dr. Jerry Murray

When I went to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University, hedgehogs were not a popular pet yet, so hedgehogs were not covered in the exotic/small mammal pet class. They were not covered in the optional zoo and wildlife medicine class either. Needless to say, none of the traditional veterinary textbooks covered hedgehogs at that time. The Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine textbook only had a small section on insectivores, and it had nothing specific on hedgehogs. I would have to wait 13 years for the second edition of “Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery” (the pink book, 2004) to add hedgehogs so I finally had a good reference book. I had to quickly learn about hedgehogs after one of the clinic’s employees decided to get one.

Hedgehog Self-Anointing Is Bizarre But Normal

Pet hedgehogs are small, quill-covered mammals that originally came from Africa, but most pet hedgehogs in the United States are now born in captivity here. In the wild, hedgehogs forage at night and mostly eat insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. One of the really unique things that hedgehogs do is called self-anointing. Hedgehogs frequently put new objects into their mouth and produce a foamy saliva. They then lick and apply this saliva over their quills and body. Many first-time hedgehog owners — and even some veterinarians when they first start treating hedgehogs — can confuse this normal behavior with vomiting or regurgitation. It is not known why hedgehogs do this rather odd behavior, but it may be to add that odor to their skin and home territory.

Mites And Hedgehogs

One of the first things I had to learn about hedgehogs was how commonly they have skin and ear mites. Most of the early hedgehog cases I saw had skin mites that were causing the quills to fall out, itchy skin or crusty lesions on the skin. Some of the worse cases even had a decreased appetite and were lethargic. On the other hand some of the mild cases had no visible signs of infestation.

Fortunately skin mites are fairly easy to find on a skin scraping or on the plucked quills. Skin mites can be treated with ivermectin, selamectin (Revolution) or fipronil (Frontline). Your veterinarian should determine the dosage and frequency.

Hedgehogs are also prone to ear mites. This can cause a very itchy ear along with crusty ear flaps and crustiness on the face. Ear mites can be treated with ivermectin, selamectin or ear mite drops. Again, your veterinarian should determine the dose and frequency.

In addition to treating a hedgehog with mites, the bedding in the cage must be replaced. Newspaper or other paper can be used to line the cage until the skin or ear mites have been cleared. It is also important to treat all of the hedgehogs in the household to eliminate mite problems.

Think you know about hedgehog health? Take the Hedgehog Health Quiz!

Hedgehogs And Cancer

Older hedgehogs are also more prone to oral cancer than most of the pet species that I work with. Squamous cell carcinoma is their most common cancer of the mouth. This can cause loose teeth, swollen gums, bad breath, decreased appetite and a large tumor in the mouth. This is an aggressive cancer and usually ends up being a fatal problem. Unfortunately, older hedgehogs are also prone to several other types of cancer.

Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome

Another hedgehog problem I had to learn about is a neurologic condition called wobbly hedgehog syndrome. In the early stages, a hedgehog may show subtle signs like an inability to curl up into a tight ball. Then the hedgehog becomes wobbly when he walks. Gradually, the hedgehog develops tremors and seizures. Eventually a paralysis starts with the back legs and then the front legs. The disease causes permanent damage to the brain and spinal cord, and it has no effective treatment. I recommend euthanasia when the quality of life is diminished. It has been estimated that roughly 10 percent of the pet hedgehogs will develop this slowly progressive and fatal disease.

Eye Problems In Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs frequently have eye problems. Corneal ulcers are common in hedgehogs. This may be secondary to trauma to the eye. Hedgehogs like to go through tunnels and burrows and will try to stick their head into small openings. This may be how they scratch their eyes. It can be hard to diagnose an eye problem when the hedgehog curls up into a tight ball, so some sedation may be needed to get a good look at the eyes. Most of these cases are easy to treat using the same antibiotic eye drops that veterinarians routinely use for dogs and cats, but sometimes it is difficult to get the hedgehog to remain still and uncurled long enough to apply the drop to the eye.

Heart Failure In Hedgehogs

Pet hedgehogs are also prone to heart disease (dilated cardiomyopathy). It is not known if this is diet related or possibly a genetic problem. This heart problem can be hard to diagnose. It usually takes radiographs (X-rays) of the chest and ultrasound of the heart to determine the size of the heart and thickness of the heart walls. It is difficult to treat hedgehogs with heart disease. Sadly most hedgehogs do not respond as well to standard treatment as dogs and ferrets do, and eventually they die from congestive heart failure.

I had to learn a lot about these little insectivores from Africa after I graduated from vet school, and I am glad I did. Hedgehogs can make a great pet for the right person.

Article Categories:
Critters · Hedgehogs