What to Feed a Pet Hedgehog

The hedgehog, a small insect-eating and usually (in the wild) nocturnal animal is characterised by having spines, i.e. sharp quills, that stand up from its back, which spines serve to provide protection for the animal when it is frightened at which times it curls itself up into a ball exposing only the spines which then pose a danger to any predator.

The hedgehog has long been domesticated by man. As far back as the 4th century BC, the Romans raised hedgehogs for their meat and for their quills. It is not clear whether the ancient Romans kept hedgehogs as pets, as we understand the idea of pets today, or whether the domestication of the animal was purely for utilitarian purposes. Whatever the case with the ancient Romans, the domestication of hedgehogs purely as pets has become increasingly popular. From at least the 80s of the last century, there has been growing interest amongst pet lovers in the keeping of hedgehogs as pets.

Before anyone rushes out to pick up his or her new pet, it is well to keep in mind that, other than the general laws that regulate the keeping of pets, some jurisdictions have hedgehog-specific requirements, whilst some have none. For instance, in certain jurisdictions like California (US) it is simply illegal to keep hedgehogs as pets. In Australia as well as in Pennsylvania (US) importation of hedgehogs is prohibited, whilst in Virginia (US) one needs to wait for some 12 months or so in order to obtain a license in order to keep a hedgehog. In Quebec (Canada) as well as in much of Europe, certain hedgehog species may be kept as pets whilst other species are prohibited from being so kept. So, it is well worth the while of the would-be hedgehog keeper to take some time and know what obtains in his or her jurisdiction so as not fall foul of the law.

The most common species of domesticated hedgehog is the African Pygmy hedgehog, a hybrid between the East African four toed hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris, and the Algerian hedgehog, Atelerix algiris. Other species which have found favour with hedgehog fanciers include the long-eared Egyptian hedgehog, Hemiechinus auritus auritus, as well as the long-eared Indian hedgehog, Hemiechinus collaris.

As with any animal that one keeps as a pet, diet plays a very important part in the relationship between pet and owner. As we have seen, the hedgehog is an insectivore although when in its natural state it will eat a wide variety of things as opportunity presents itself. Nevertheless the majority of its diet will consist of insects, and this fact immediately sets some preliminary dietary rules as regards the pet hedgehog.

The diet should be a high protein/low fat one. The pet owner should be aiming at a diet that is more than 30% protein and less than 12% fat with a fibre content of between 10% and 12%. Hedgehogs can easily become obese when the fat content of their diet is too high and there is some evidence that obese hedgehogs have a predisposition to fatty liver disease. In addition, the diet should have a relatively high amount of chitin, a substance which comes from the exoskeletons of insects, or some suitable substitute which may be derived from adequate fibre in the diet.

There are formulations available from pet stores that are specifically made for insectivores including hedgehogs which are made from or contain insect components. Alimentary powders are also available that can be sprinkled upon preparations which are not insectivore-specific so as to provide chitin and other nutrients that hedgehogs require. It is advisable that when buying such insectivore pet foods, the hedgehog owner carefully scrutinises the label in order to assure that the food has a protein basis rather than a carbohydrate basis.

However, the more widely held opinion amongst hedgehog breeders is that most of the ready-made preparations are not entirely satisfactory. Rather than use such products most caretakers prefer to use high quality low fat and iron dry cat food as a base for the hedgehog’s diet. In the view of many, chicken-based cat food is best for preparing the hedgehog’s food. In addition, the hedgehog can be fed such ordinary household foods like cooked lean chicken, turkey and beef. Because the animals eat some amounts of vegetable matter in their natural state, small amounts of fruits may be added to their diet as treats from time to time. Some folk also feed the pets some types of baby foods, but it should be kept in mind that hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so that dairy foods should be avoided. Apart from the natural sugars in any fruits that are added to the diet, sugar should not be fed to the animal.

Fresh, canned or freeze-dried mealworms, waxworms and crickets may be fed to the pet in moderation, but care should be taken as many feed insects have a fairly high fat content. Bait shop insects and wild caught insects ought probably to be avoided as there is always the possibility that they have been contaminated by insecticides. Additionally, hedgehogs ought not to be fed with nuts as the shape of their mouths is not conducive for eating of nuts; raw meats, eggs, onions, processed foods, chocolates, etc. should also be avoided.