African Pygmy Hedgehogs

Pygmy hedgehogBack in the early 1980s, a number of African hedgehogs were imported from northern parts of the continent to zoos in the USA. At this stage, very little was known about them, but since then, they have become much-loved pets, although their ownership is restricted in some parts of North America.

As more was discovered about the requirements of these cute insectivores, so breeding successes became increasingly common. The resulting youngsters proved very friendly and their cute appearance meant that many people fell under the charm of these small hedgehogs.

Albiventris  But what we now call the African pygmy hedgehog does not occur in the wild. Instead, it is the result of cross-breeding between two similar African species - the white-bellied (four-toed) (Atelerix albiventris) (see right) and the Algerian (Atelerix algirus) hedgehogs.

African pygmy hedgehogs are quite easy to care for, and can be housed in a variety of enclosures, although breeding females particularly are usually kept in box-type cages, affording them more privacy. They are naturally solitary by nature, so it preferable to keep them individually, although two females, especially those that have grown up together, may live together in relative harmony. Under no circumstances should males be housed together, as they will fight. The sexes can be distinguished easily by the difference in their reproductive organs.

Lifestyle

African pygmy hedghog seen from belowPygmy hedgehogs become most active after dusk. They typically wander over quite wide areas, and so need to be housed in spacious surroundings. One of the largest sizes of indoor rabbit run now available, with a detachable wire mesh top through which you can service your pet’s needs, is to be recommended.

Be sure to provide a box for sleeping purposes here, or a similar alternative, such as a piece of cork bark, under which your hedgehog can curl up and sleep. Some cages come with a suitable sleeping area incorporated into their design, and safe, small animal bedding should be placed here to allow your hedgehog to make a soft bed.

It is better to use wooden cat litter pellets to line floor, rather than sawdust, given the way in which hedgehogs walk with their hindquarters close to the ground. Their sensitive noses will be affected by dust, which is another reason as to why pellets bedding is better. Dry leaves can be used to provide a more natural covering, if available.

Pygmy hedgehog rooting aroundThese hedgehogs do like to root around in the substrate, particularly if there could be a mealworm here that has escaped from the feeding bowl. Cedar-based wood products, including shavings, are said to be toxic for them, so avoid this type of bedding completely.

When kept in the home at room temperature, these small hedgehogs display no tendency to hibernate, and should not be encouraged to do so, as this is likely to be fatal for them. They soon become tame and can be picked up without curling into a ball. In fact, if the room is safe and escape-proof, a pygmy hedgehog can be allowed out of its quarters to explore its surroundings regularly each evening for a time.

Feeding

Curious pygmy hedgehogThese hedgehogs will eat both wet and dry cat foods readily, favouring chicken recipes, although they may develop a taste for a particular brand. These provide a good mix of vitamins and minerals. Offering a range of such foods, mixing them together early in life helps to prevent problems of this type, but avoid changing their food rapidly, as this can trigger digestive disorders. Avoid fish-based foods, and any fish. Alternatively you may prefer to use one of the specialist hedgehog diets now available on the market.

Invertebrates such as mealworms or earthworms specially bred as animal food, rather than those that can be dug up in the garden, can also feature in their diet, being provided in an earthenware food dish that cannot be tipped over easily. Canned livefoods, such as crickets will also be eaten, and in contrast to their living counterparts, there is no risk of these escaping into the home. Pieces of sweet corn represent a healthy, low-calorie treat, compared with livefoods. Keep a check on your hedgehog’s weight. A typical adult should weigh around 453g (16oz).

Fresh drinking water should always be provided, but do not offer milk, because of the likelihood that this will cause serious digestive upsets. Cottage cheese is given occasionally however, along with hard-boiled or scrambled eggs.

Cleanliness

It is usually quite easy to persuade a pygmy hedgehog to use a litter tray. This should be lined with cat litter that clumps when it becomes moist. The tray can then be spot-cleaned, and the hedgehog’s quarters will then need cleaning weekly. Watch for green or loose droppings, which will indicate a digestive upset and require veterinary advice. 

Pygmy hedgehog walkingExercise

In common with Syrian (golden) hamsters, African pygmy hedgehogs will wander long distances at night - up to 16km (10ml). In order to provide them with adequate exercise therefore, a closed plastic wheel (which has no open rungs that could trap the feet) should be provided in your pet’s quarters. Stable, free-standing wheels of this type, as sold for rats, are large enough for these hedgehogs too.

Handling

Roll-free pygmy hedgehogIn North America, stock is often advertised as ‘roll-free’. This means that the animals are instinctively tame, and will not roll up into a protective ball, unlike their wild counterparts that are scared by human contact. Although they have sharp teeth, these are not normally used in anger, with passive defence being preferred by the hedgehog.

When you buy a youngster, do take the opportunity to handle it, scooping up carefully from below, but avoid lifting it off the floor, so it will not be injured if it falls off. Should the youngster be slightly nervous, so not worry too much.

Pygmy hedgehog and towelWith regular daily handling, you should be able to win your new pet’s confidence quite easily, with young hoglets being easier to tame than adults.  Hedgehogs generally rely heavily on their sense of smell, and your hand will be full of new odours that the hedgehog does not recognise at first, and will need to become familiar with your scent, so as to realise that you represent no danger.

A towel as shown here, or gardening gloves can be used to pick up a reluctant pygmy hedgehog if necessary. In addition, hedgehogs are more likely to roll up during the daytime, when they would normally be asleep. Your pet will probably be happier being handled in the evening, when it would usually be awake.

Frothing at the mouth!

This behaviour can be very alarming, until you realise that it is quite normal in these hedgehogs, and not a sign of an imminent fit or worse. It usually occurs after you have introduced a new item to your pet’s diet, and the hedgehog will then seek to wipe off the foam over its back - a process described as self-anointing.

Health issues

Pygmy hedgehog groomingThese hedgehogs can suffer from tiny mites that can cause serious skin irritation, but you are unlikely to encounter fleas on them. Repeated scratching and soreness are typical signs of the presence of mites, but seek veterinary advice to obtain a confirmative diagnosis and safe treatment. Simply being nervous and in unfamiliar surroundings can also cause these hedgehog to scratch themselves repeatedly as well.

When buying stock, always make sure it is unrelated as far as possible. Some lines can be affected by a neurological problem, causing them to be unsteady on their feet. There is no cure for this condition.

Did you know?

A hedgehog’s spines are modified hairs, which are actually very light, and can serve as shock absorbers in the event of a fall. Pygmy hedgehogs also have evident fur around their eyes and on their underparts. When mating, the female hedgehog will lower her spines, so as not to injure her partner.

Reproductive matters

Baby pygmy hedgehogSince the number of African pygmy hedgehogs which led to the development of today’s domesticated strains was rather limited, so it is important to ensure that breeding stock is unrelated, as far as possible.

For mating purposes, the female is placed with her partner for two days and then transferred back to her quarters. They are then introduced again ten days later and finally again for a third time, after a similar interval.

This is necessary because female hedgehogs do not ovulate on a regulate basis, and so repeatedly putting them together in this way has proved to be the best way of ensuring a successful outcome.

Immature pygmy hedgehogThe young hoglets will be born after a gestation period of 32-36 days, in a nestbox provided on the floor of the female’s enclosure. It is important that she is left undisturbed on her own in the later stages of pregnancy because otherwise, she may eat her offspring at birth, right through until the youngsters are about three weeks old. They are born without spines, and then will moult their baby spines in due course as they grow older.

The youngsters should start feeding on their own from about a month old. They should be fully weaned around 6-8 weeks of age, and will have a potential lifespan up to ten years or so, although 3-6 years is more typical. Although females mature early, sometimes when just eight weeks old, it is not recommended to allow them to breed until they are at least five months of age.

Colours

Mutation pygmy hedgehogAn increasing range of colour varieties is now becoming established, with darker shades such as brown and chocolate being more traditional. US breeders now distinguish up to 90 different colour varieties, but the variations can be subtle in some cases. Paler colours include apricot (orangish, with ruby red eyes); champagne (with what could be described as blond colouring) and albino, with hedgehogs of this latter variety having red eyes.

The pinto is a patterned variety - essentially a pied form, with white and dark areas over the body, as is the snowflake. In this latter case, solid white quills are mixed through the coat, rather than being isolated in patches, and young in this case often darken with age.

Looking to the future

It is ironic that while these hedgehogs are cherished as pets, their wild relatives in Africa are often treated as little more than vermin. In some areas, they are frequently caught and sold for a matter of a few coins as food in local markets. Until they started to become popular in North America, and more recently in Europe, virtually nothing was known about them. Hopefully, their growing popularity as pets will now serve to raise awareness about their plight in the wild.