How to tame your hedgehog
African pygmy hedgehogs are becoming more popular as pets and with this rises the question on how to handle them. A quick glance at hedgehog fora and Facebook groups shows threads and posts titled “my hedgehog doesn’t like me” or “my hedgehog hates me”, “anti-social hedgehog”, “very angry hedgehog” and so on.
In order to understand the behaviour of our pets we have to look at the animal itself. What kind of animal is the hedgehog?
First off, hedgehogs do not “hate” people, nor are they “angry”. They are physically incapable of feeling such a human emotion. When handling hedgehogs we need to be careful not to project our own emotions and feelings onto the animal; this does not help us understand the needs of our pets. Instead, we need to go back to the root of it all: the natural instincts and behaviour of the hedgehog.
African pygmy hedgehogs (Atelerix albiventris) became more widely available to the exotic pet trade around the late 80′s/early 90′s in the US (and a decade or more later to other parts of the world). This isn’t that long ago. We need to realize our pet hedgehogs are not fully domesticated yet - in fact, they’re basically still the same (behaviour-wise, at least) as their wild cousins. I have seen wild caught animals which were more “social” than captive bred ones, and the other way around. This is also why I chose the word tame for the title of this post. While they might be captive born, our pets are still quite wild.
We cannot compare hedgehogs to animals we share an extensive, sometimes thousands of years old relationship with. But besides that, hedgehogs will most likely never become like a dog or a guinea pig simply because certain behavioural treats are not in their nature.
Learning how to handle your hedgehog starts with having the right expectations of its behaviour.
Hedgehogs are relatively small prey animals. They are nocturnal, spend the nights foraging for food and sleep in their burrows during the day.
They are solitary animals and only come together to mate.
They are not aggressive by nature but have a marvellous defence instead: thousands of sharp quills. When threatened, they roll into a tight ball and wait until the predator has left (or in rare cases, fight, but only if they’re forced to).
So what does this mean for someone who has a pet hedgehog?
1. Do not expect a similar bond as with e.g. a dog. Dogs are social animals that were bred from an animal that lives in packs. Hedgehogs are solitary. They are not social by nature. They do not need you and while they might get used to you being around, you’re mainly the Food Bringer and the Warm Thing To Sleep On but little more. There will not be much interaction. Your hedgehog will not come up to you when you call its name nor will it “love” you as its owner, simply because it can’t.
2. Being defensive prey animals, you can seem threatening to them. Balling up is an automatic response to a possible threat. This is totally normal hedgehog behaviour.
3. Since they’re nocturnal all they want to do during the day is sleep, not interact with you. And they do not interact or play the way some other mammals do. Most of the time you’re spending together will consist of the hedgehog either running around and doing stuff on its own, or sleeping on your lap.
These things are all very important in helping you understand the behaviour of your hedgehog. There are reasons your hedgehog is displaying these behaviours and if you know those reasons, you can use them to make your hedgehog feel more comfortable around you.
Arguably, other than looking cute hedgehogs don’t really have much going for them when it comes to being what most people think of as a “good pet”. They are definitely not suitable for everyone, but if they’re your type of pet they can be very interesting and wonderful animals to have!
Tips on handling/taming your hedgehog
Before I start I’d like to point out that every hedgehog is different and there’s not just one right way when it comes to handling. This is how I do it, coming from my experience with captive bred and wild caught (as well as actual wild hedgehogs) and from well socialized to not socialized at all. Besides the socialization of hoglets by the breeder, character plays a major part in hedgehog behaviour. Some hedgehogs seem to be naturally social and more open towards interaction (or at least let you interact with them) while others will remain more defensive for their entire lives.
The key with hedgehogs is patience. Do not expect a hedgehog to stop huffing and balling up within a week. If you just got a hedgehog it will need to get used to its new environment and owner, which takes time. How much time varies. Some will get used to you within a few weeks, others take months.
“Used to you” is also relative, as this doesn’t necessarily mean your hedgehog will stop balling up or quit huffing at you entirely - that’s very unlikely, since this is normal hedgehog behaviour.
Hedgehogs have bad eyesight and rely mainly on their excellent noses. You can make use of this by giving your hedgehog an old, worn t-shirt which has your scent on it. Alternatively, if you don’t have an old shirt, you can sleep with a piece of fleece in your bed for a day or two and give that to your hedgehog.
By putting this in the enclosure for the hedgehog to sleep in it will get more used to your scent.
The more you handle your hedgehog, the faster it’ll get used to handling. Don’t be afraid to handle your hedgehog; use your bare hands or a piece of fleece but no (leather) gloves, because then your hedgehog won’t be able to smell you properly. Do not reward unwanted behaviour (such as biting or extensive huffing/clicking) by putting the hedgehog back into its enclosure. Instead, enforce positive behaviour, e.g. by offering treats like live insects (I always use tongs so they do not mistake my hands for food).
Some people prefer a more “manhandling” way when handling hedgehogs, I personally don’t really like this for most hedgehogs but it’s a thin line: after all, you’re always forcing your pet to be with you when you get it out. If a hedgehog clearly shows it doesn’t like to be petted on the quills, I don’t go on petting it that way. But I don’t put it back either. Instead, I try to search for a way of handling with which this particular hedgehog is more comfortable right now. And yes, sometimes you have to do something they don’t particularly like, but be sure to reward positive behaviours - you don’t always need to reward with food, but it could also be simply “releasing pressure” (like giving them some space for themselves for a bit instead of continuously petting them, for example).
Handling should be seen in a very broad sense. Some hedgehogs prefer to sleep when out while others are active explorers. Try to adjust your ways of handling accordingly.
Because hedgehogs are nocturnal, some do much better when you take them out in the evening and/or when there’s dim lightning in the room.
When I have a new hedgehog which isn’t well socialized or simply has to get used to me and its new surroundings first I like to start by having it explore the (hedgehog safe) room or play area. I sit down on the ground and let the hedgehog do its own thing. If it likes to explore it can explore, if it likes to sleep it can sleep on my lap (most hedgehogs don’t like to sleep out in the open so a fleece bonding bag works great for this).
In the following days I will start to move around more. First still in a sitting position, then walking around, so the hedgehog gets used to my movements and me simply being there without me really interacting with it directly. You can do this both when the hedgehog is exploring or in its cuddle bag on you lap. For many hedgehogs it’s a combination of the two, some explore time and then back to sleep (especially during the day).
Depending on how much time I feel the hedgehog needs I keep repeating this for the following days or even weeks. With some, the slightest movement causes them to raise their quills. Others don’t react at all and could do fine with skipping these steps.
After that I start doing more “hands on” interaction, touching them more, trying to see if they mind petting on the quills or not, or the face, belly etc. Again rewarding wanted behaviour. It’s a constant search for what they really don’t like, what they tolerate, and what I think is necessary for the process. This is something you can’t just know without experience, it’s something you will have to learn and that’s completely fine! And simply being around them, having them sleep on your lap is bonding too. You might not be really doing much but the hedgehog will get used to your presence.
Even if you bought a hedgehog with the intention of not handling it much (which should be fine, as long as it gets enough enrichment from its habitat) handling should be a part of hedgehog ownership. You need to be able to check for injuries, clip the nails, etc. These “medical checks” are part of my handling routine: I hold the feet, check the hedgehog all over including their teeth (if possible). Your vet will thank you for this as well! Even when I have no intention of clipping their nails I still hold their feet, not only to check them over but also to make them comfortable with me holding them, which makes for easier nail clipping.
So it all boils down to this: have lots of patience, take small steps, and don’t have expectations a hedgehog simply cannot live up to. Accept that some hedgehogs, even with extensive handling, will never be “cuddly” simply because that’s how they are. All those hedgehogs you see on the internet, the ones that are getting belly rubs and petted while looking extremely chill: these are not the majority. This is rare. And even if you see a hedgehog that tame, remember there’s a lot you’re not seeing: possibly many weeks, months or even years working towards that moment, and it still is just a few minutes out of the hedgehog’s life. They don’t show you the times the hedgehog is huffing and clicking and balling up. Don’t feel bad if yours is, be open and willing to learn about hedgehog behaviour and never stop asking questions. And most importantly, listen to your hedgehog by watching its body language, because that’s going to tell you more about your hedgehog than my posts about general hedgehog behaviour ever could!