Hedgehog socialization: the missing instruction manual

Admittedly, the last video is a little awkward looking, simply because it’s hard to hold a squirming animal and a camera at the same time, but the three of them in sequence should demonstrate the contrast I was looking for. The secret to making friends with the spiny creatures is to learn to ignore their defense mechanisms. At first, nearly everything will startle them and make them appear to be terribly upset, but this is actually just the animals natural instinct.

Unfortunately, many hedgehog owners eventually relent and return the animal to its living space, which both reinforces the behavior and leads to minimal contact between them. This is a natural instinct in non-hedgehog mammals, and it’s part of the reason hedgehogs only have a couple of predators. It’s proof of Archilochos’s observation that “[while] the fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one, but it knows it well”.

Another important (but less frequently mentioned) issue to be aware of when befriending a new hedgehog is that when rolling into a ball of pain and huffing at you like a gas-powered two-stroke fails, hedgehogs will frequently resort to IBS. That’s right; if your anti-tribble can’t startle you into abandoning it, it will resort to pooping on you. In my experience, being burrowing mammals of very small brain, the toileting habits of hedgehogs are random at best, but I found out through trial and error that when I returned them to their cage or Tupperware bin after being shat upon, it reinforced this behavior and it would be repeated regularly (and instantly) in the next few socialization sessions.

Lastly, and most obviously, you should be prepared to be poked and possibly even bitten. Huffing hedgehogs “pop”, that is, they launch themselves upwards and attempt to strike at you from below if you put your hand near them. If need be, they can be carried in a towel until you can sit down with them, but my honest advice is to use your bare hands as soon and as regularly as possible. Because their quills are hollow and they anoint themselves with scat and other strong-scented findings, breeding bacteria, being poked can irritate the skin, however this is easily remedied with anti-bacterial soap and is short-lived. Unless a hedgehog has been mistreated, is in severe pain or otherwise feels genuinely threatened, they tend NOT to bite as hard as they might. Most of the time, they instead administer a light “warning nip” that is not painful, but instead startling. Your hedgehog might also lick your exposed skin and this may lead to gnawing or soft bites if they’re doing to to anoint themselves with whatever is on your hands (antibacterial soap residue, for example).

The key is to regularly spend a couple of hours a day with your animal. While you can pick your animal up by its scruff, like a cat (do not pick them up by the spines, as this would be like someone picking you up by your hair), its best to scoop them up from beneath with your hands, palm up.  To paraphrase an explanation I’m fond of, hedgehogs are very two-dimensional animals and find the support reassuring. At first, they’ll tend to ball up; run your hands over their spines starting at the neck and working down their back towards the tail, pushing the spines down if you can. You’ll probably want to avoid putting your hands near the animal’s face or underside for the first few days, as this will tend to encourage it to pop. Eventually you’ll see the spines begin to relax on their own. When the hedgehog is completely relaxed, its spines lie flat against its skin. To capitalize on this state, massage its neck and shoulders with your fingertips; remember, the object is to encourage your hedgehog to relax and they respond to massages the same way all mammals respond to social grooming behavior. With pleasure.

When your animal is comfortable enough with you that you can h0ld it in your palms without it curling into a ball, another good technique is to place it directly to your chest, right over your heart. This is more than just a Hallmark card pose, however. Being much smaller than you, your hedgehog’s heart beats much faster than your own. However, when held next to your own heart, the hedgehog’s will slow to match pace with it. The drop in your hedgehog’s blood pressure will encourage it to be calm.

A hedgehog’s most acute sense is its hearing, and you’ll notice that loud or abrupt noises will startle it. This is unavoidable and while this reaction never completely goes away, its also important that you talk to it in a regular tone of voice. Its easy to imagine that, being sensitive to noise, the thing to do would be to whisper to the animal, but counterintuitively, the opposite is true; whispering startles them as well.

When your hedgehog is completely comfortable with you, you can roll it over onto its back and rub its belly and it won’t curl up on you (and eventually will learn to do this unprompted). In the wild, african pygmy hedgehogs maintain large, personal territories and do not socialize with each other unless breeding. Males have to be kept separate from other males to prevent them from fighting and even female pairs will throw down occasionally if they share a room. But this is a classic case of nature versus nurture.

While the solitary nature of your pet is one of its greatest virtues and should be respected, this should not be mistaken for it being unfriendly and the trick is not to internalize its defensive behavior as being a value judgment made against you. It just doesn’t know you, yet. When you’ve become familiar to it and it feels safe, it will respond to you much like any other pocket pet, and eventually climb all over you like a jungle gym (mine were fond of climbing onto my shoulders and burrowing into my hair). This is also important as you want to be sure to let your pet out into a hedgehog-safe environment to run around and explore once in a while. A hedgehog left to its cage, even with a good exercise wheel and a steady supply of fresh toilet paper tubes, becomes depressed.

Ideally, hedgehogs should be run on smooth, fiber-free surfaces like vinyl flooring, however the most important consideration is to inspect its paws when you let your hedgehog out to play. Hedgehogs are prone to getting hair and other fibers wrapped around their paws, which can lead to loss of circulation and even amputation if not discovered soon enough. A good rule of thumb is just to keep them off the carpet until they’re comfortable enough with you that you can grab each paw and check it with your fingertips before returning it to its living space. This is also a good time to check to make sure their nails aren’t getting too long as well.

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  • Comments (3)
    • babaganusz
    • August 5th, 2010

    pleased to infer that your heart rate is lower than tobias’. 😛

    • Laroquod
    • August 5th, 2010

    Very interesting stuff! Obviously tough animal to domesticate, seems like quite an accomplishment.

      • Max Bell
      • August 7th, 2010

      Mostly a rant on the number of people I’ve encountered who were former hedgehog owners with a kind of ‘meh’ reaction to the animal because they hadn’t succeeded in socializing it.

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