Loving a Pet That You Can’t Touch

I’m part of several hedgehog groups on Facebook and everyday, without fail, there are heartbreaking posts by people asking why their hedgehog “hates” them. Frequently, these owners feel defeated and that they are bad animal parents because they can’t get their prickly little friend to warm up to them. This post is for them.

Hedgehogs are solitary by nature. Even in the wild they’re not hanging out with their buds or snuggling up with someone they love. Their natural instinct is to be introverted little day sleepers. Even though our pet hedgehogs are domesticated, depending on a number of factors (genetics, personality, early life experiences), we are working against their natural inclination when we are trying to convince them to be sociable and each hedgehog will have a different degree of sociability. (Some hedgehogs, especially those who are hand raised and handled frequently as young hogs, will be more likely to be friendly and social. Some of these tips may not necessarily apply to these hedgehogs, although they can definitely help improve their quality of life.)

Some hedgehogs don’t mind cuddling with their owner or having a romp around a playpen. However, many of the posts I see of hogs “snuggling” or “playing” really looks more like learned helplessness or pure panic. Oftentimes, our hedgehogs don’t realize that we love them very much and that we are safe people who can be trusted. When they are lifted out of their cage (often from a dead sleep) by someone so much bigger than them and subjected to a forced interaction that terrifies them, they learn they cannot leave the situation that is scaring them and instead just give up. Other times, they can be so upset by the situation that they attempt to escape and squirm and run all over in an attempt to get somewhere safe. These are both coping mechanisms that the hedgehog uses to attempt to feel safe again, but they can easily be mistaken for cuddling or playing. This confusion is worsened when, after communicating in all the ways they know how, the hedgehog finally bites (seemingly out of nowhere, to us humans) in an even more intense attempt to get themselves somewhere safe.

Frequently, the advice in the Facebook groups is to not give up, to force the hedgehog to be handled for a period of time everyday (an excellent example of flooding, which we try to avoid in animal training!), to carry them around in bonding scarves and to ignore biting behaviour to teach them “it doesn’t work”. Kindly, I’d like to suggest a different option if you’re struggling with your hedgehog. Leave them alone, meet their needs, and try to make all interactions positive from their perspective.

Instead of trying to force our hedgehogs into our world, which is bright and loud and huge to our hedgehog friends, what if we entered their world and tried to make it as enriching and enjoyable for them as possible? What if we changed our idea of “love” from cuddles and playing together to meeting the hedgehog’s needs and respecting their communication? Here’s some ideas for easy ways to improve your relationship with your hedgehog and enrich their lives in a hands-off way, as well as suggestions for improving handling for when it does occur.

  • Try building a bioactive cage for your hedgehog to live or play in. I’ve seen some amazing examples of bioactive setups for hedgehogs that allow them to naturally forage for insects which is fun for them and so interesting to watch! It is also super fun as a human to design these setups!
  • You can also make dig pens with strips of fleece or pompoms and hide their food in there, use snuffle mats or utilize food toys (under supervision) or scatter your hog’s food throughout the cage for them to snuffle for.
  • Hedgehogs are excellent runners, so it is important to make sure they have a well operating wheel in their cage for them to toodle about on. I love sneaking into the room at night to watch our guy on his nightly run. Please, please, please don’t use hamster balls to encourage running, aside from them being dangerous to the hedgehog’s feet and spine they are a prime example of the animal attempting to escape a situation and being unable to.
  • Make sure you have plenty of hides (tunnels, tents, etc.) for them to rearrange and utilize as they like. In our guy’s cage, we have so many that the cage looks “cluttered” by human standpoints, but feels safe from a hedgehog point of view because there are lots of nearby options for him to go to, no matter where he is in the cage.
  • If you’re going to utilize a play pen area (of which there is nothing inherently wrong with doing), make sure there are lots of tunnels and hides for your hog and pay attention to their behaviour. Are they doing their best to find a safe place to hide or are they interacting with you or the toys in the pen? This will give you an excellent idea of how much they’re enjoying their time.

Handling Tips

Because there are times that you’re going to need to handle your hedgehog (nail trims, cage cleans, baths), it is important to work with them to slowly become more comfortable with being handled in these situations. They might never want to sit and cuddle with you, but it is possible to help them feel more comfortable during these shorter, necessary interactions. It is important to take this slowly, step by step, progress only when your hedgehog shows he’s ready and to have short, positive sessions rather than one longer, stressful session.

  • Biting, popping, hissing and balling up means your hedgehog is scared and is trying to defend himself. It doesn’t mean he hates you. It doesn’t mean he’s trying to show you who is boss. It means that something has scared him and he is trying to communicate this and keep himself safe. If everything was going smoothly and you moved too quickly and your hedgehog hissed, he might just be startled and you can continue on as you were. But if your entire interaction consists of a spiky ball of hissing and popping, it is probably for the best to return your hedgehog to his home and let him destress. Try again on a different day and backtrack to a more hands-off interaction so your hedgehog can feel safer.
  • Don’t turn your hedgehog onto his back. I know we want to see their cute little faces whenever we can, but when I put myself in their shoes, I imagine being flipped over onto one’s back is absolutely terrifying, since they feel completely exposed and can’t right themselves. I’ve also read speculation that it is possibly harmful to their spines, but haven’t seen scientific literature yet.
  • Become familiar with your hedgehog’s body language and what it means. Our hedgehogs can’t talk to us but they are constantly communicating.
  • Try to make interactions positive events for your hedgehog. This might mean feeding your hedgehog a favourite treat while you’re holding him if he’s comfortable with it (if he is ignoring a super delicious treat it may be a sign that he isn’t comfortable) or even just feeding him a delicious treat while you’re standing nearby and talking to him. Once he’s comfortable with this, you could put your hand near him in the cage so he can sniff and interact with it while you feed him treats. You can build on this by allowing him to step onto your hand while you feed him treats. With time and patience, you can absolutely help your hedgehog learn that your presence is something to look forward to because it predicts good things happening. Again, he may not ever end up being a cuddler and may always prefer to be left alone, but by building a foundation of trust, you can make necessary interactions much less stressful.

Hedgehogs are still a relatively uncommon pet, so there’s quite a lack of information (and abundance of misinformation) floating around. As humans, I think it’s natural to want to have a pet that will snuggle up with us and show us love. It is so important, however, when considering adding a pet to the family or when interacting with a current pet, that we consider their natural inclinations and behaviours. Most hedgehogs don’t want to cuddle. If having a pet to cuddle is hugely important to you, I kindly suggest a different pet. Sometimes, leaving our hedgehogs alone isn’t neglect, it is actually meeting their needs.

Do you have a hedgehog? Are they big cuddlers or more reclusive?

For more information, I also wrote a post for the IAABC on pet hedgehogs.