A comprehensive guide to keeping African Pygmy Hedgehogs in captivity, written by Christy Bruckner who has been keeping and breeding African Pygmy Hedgehogs since 2006.
African Pygmy Hedgehogs are growing in popularity worldwide as an exotic pet that is easy to care for and very rewarding to keep. We keep and breed African Pygmy Hedgehogs at Reptile Cymru and have sold our offspring as pets to people from as young as six years old to as old as seventy! The African Pygmy Hedgehog is an artificial hybrid that only exists in captivity. It is a cross between the Four Toed Hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian Hedgehog (Atelerix algirus). It has now been bred for decades in captivity and is well established as an easy to care for exotic pet. People are always amazed to see a hedgehog as a pet and if you are looking for a new exotic pet, read on and see what you think!
African Pygmy Hedgehog Housing
We recommend two choices for African Pygmy Hedgehogs.
1 – Vivarium
2 – Plastic Cage
Both have pros and cons. We don’t consider that either is the best completely, but you may prefer one or the other when you take everything into consideration. Here’s what you need to know to make a decision.
I’ve also included glass tanks in the comparison, although we don’t recommend them, you might want to see why.
Hedgehogs are not a smelly animal but all animals will produce a certain odour. The odour of urine can be very strong in an enclosed space, unpleasant for you and your hedgehog. You need to have adequate ventilation for air flow. If using a vivarium you may want to remove the glass panels at the front and modify to mesh or you might want to add plastic ventilation panels to the sides or rear; in a glass tank, you may want to have a full mesh lid but can’t add ventilation panels otherwise.
Vivarium – Needs to be modified by adding extra ventilation.
Plastic Cage – With bars on the top, a plastic cage has adequate ventilation without modification.
Glass Tank – Inadequate ventilation and requires lid modification.
Hedgehogs are very active. In the wild, a hedgehog will run many miles in one night. They are constantly moving and foraging. Furthermore, hedgehogs are very inquisitive! Provide as much space as you can. I personally recommend a space of around 36 x 24″ as a minimum. You can get indoor rabbit cages that go up to 48 x 24″ and if you provide more space then they will use it.
Vivarium – Available in lots of sizes and one of the only options for sizes bigger than 48 x 24″
Plastic Cage – Set sizes but some good options manufactured for rabbits.
Glass Tanks – Usually not deep enough at all as they are designed for fish, very expensive and heavy to get in large sizes.
Do African Pygmy Hedgehogs need light?
Although hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal, they are still aware of the light cycle. They can become confused and stop eating when housed with no light at all. A 12 hour light cycle is ideal for them. If your enclosure is not getting natural light, you may need to provide artificial lighting, but unless they are shut in a dark room you should have natural light available.
Vivarium – Easy to add artificial lighting as well as get natural light through the front.
Plastic Cage – Can be a little tricky to add artificial lighting at a safe distance, but still possible. Lots of natural light.
Glass Tank – Since the top will need to be modified to mesh, adding artificial lighting can be challenging, but possible. Lots of natural light.
The ideal temperature is between 65 and 80F.
Most houses may never drop below the minimum amount; but if yours does, you will need to consider heating the enclosure. If your heating element is outside the enclosure then you can use a heat mat on a thermostat, but due to the risk of being urinated on or chewed, we recommend a ceramic bulb if the hedgehog could reach the heat mat itself or the wires, again, on a thermostat. With a thermostat attached, you may find that this only switches on during very cold periods. It is vitally important that you never let the temperature go below 50F as this will cause hibernation – very dangerous in this species which does not naturally hibernate.
Vivarium – Very easy to add heating too, with ventilation having space for cables. Holds heat well in the winter. Heat mat would have to go inside the enclosure so would recommend a ceramic heat bulb.
Plastic Cage – Can be modified for heating, but doesn’t hold heat as well as a vivarium and an open top lets a lot of heat escape. Heat mat can go outside enclosure making it safer to use, but may struggle with a heat mat to get the temperatures you want, requiring a ceramic bulb for higher wattages.
Glass Tank – Harder to modify for heating.
You want to provide something that is dust free and not made of cedar (which can be toxic). We personally use wood based cat litter as a substrate as it is absorbent, clean, dust-free and easy to clean out. Hedgehogs can also be litter trained! If you want to litter train them you need to provide a section of the enclosure which contains the litter, but naturally a hedgehog tends to poop whilst they run, so you may still find the majority of their toileting is done on the wheel or whilst exercising.
They need a secure enclosed area in which to sleep and some bedding inside it. Most indoor rabbit cages come with an underneath section for sleeping. I use old towels as bedding, as they can be washed easily but you can use any small fleece or fabric bed. Hedgehogs don’t shred their bedding the way many rodents do, they just curl up underneath it.
All three options between vivariums, plastic cages and glass tanks are good for bedding as long as you clean them out regularly and ensure water is cleaned as soon as it spills. Plastic cages can be especially good as they are lightweight and can be easily lifted to be washed or cleaned deeply.
Exercise & Decor
Hedgehogs are very active and energetic. A wheel is a must for any hedgehog, you will find that they run on it every night! We favour the flat wheels to the upright, as upright wheels often do not have enough space for an adult hedgehog to run on. You must make sure the wheel is full plastic, and not wire, as wired wheels can cause feet and leg problems.
The only downside to a wheel is that they may use it as their bathroom also, so frequent washing will be necessary. They will play with toys, especially tubes and containers (but be careful they don’t get stuck! They seem to have little sense as to what sort of size they can fit into!), and most will enjoy cat toys such as balls with bells on, or even bird toys. They are quite easily entertained but it is important that you provide them with a variety of things to keep them stimulated.
It’s very important to keep one African Pygmy Hedgehog per enclosure unless you are specifically looking to breed them. African Pygmy Hedgehogs are solitary and territorial. Keeping them in with other hedgehogs can be stressful and result in fighting and injury. They will not be lonely if they do not encounter another hedgehog and will happily live alone their entire lives, as long as you provide ample opportunity for exercise and entertainment through toys and enrichment.
African Pygmy Hedgehog Diet
Fresh water is needed at all times and can be provided with a standard drinking bottle or through a bowl.
In the wild hedgehogs are insectivorous, but in captivity we feed them a diet that is primarily dry cat food. It is important you choose a good quality brand that is high in protein and low in fat, usually chicken based. Do not feed fish based products! Our hedgehogs are raised on go-cat chicken complete.
In addition to their dry base, you can supplement the diet with a wide range of food including cooked chicken, chicken based baby food, fruits and vegetables, low fat yoghurt, scrambled egg and insects (live or dried). Don’t take the insects from your garden though, as these may contain pesticides which are very harmful. You can buy dried or live mealworms, crickets, or locusts from us.
It’s important not to overfeed your hedgehog, although they often get a lot of exercise, they are greedy and can become obese – even to the point of no longer being able to ball up correctly. An adult hedgehog should weigh between 12 and 18 ounces (350 – 500g). Any more than that, and you may want to consider a diet!
A hedgehog should always be able to fully ball up tight without being restricted by their weight.
Handing your African Pygmy Hedgehog
Hedgehogs, like any young animal can be scared of people. You are much bigger than them and look and smell very different to their mum and siblings. When a hedgehog is scared they will curl into a ball. If threatened they may “huff” up, sticking their spikes up and may even jump up slightly as a threat and make hissing noises!
You will need to spend time teaching your hedgehog that you are not a threat and in fact – you are a good thing – the bringer of food! Regular daily handling as a youngster will ensure you have a tame hedgehog that rarely huffs up and offering them treats after a handling session will make them quickly associate you with a reward.
If you are having trouble handling your hedgehog, wear gloves or pick them up using a towel. Don’t let them huff and put them back – this teaches them that huffing up returns them to their safety zone. You need to teach them that you are a safety zone, so even if they are refusing to unball, just have them sitting on your lap for 15 minutes before returning them.
Hedgehogs do have teeth which they use for crunching up their food but it is quite rare for them to bite unless they can smell something tasty. Wash your hands before handling because they have a very keen sense of smell!
Sexing African Pygmy Hedgehogs
Sexing African Pygmy Hedgehogs is fairly easy and should be obvious by the time the hedgehog is a few weeks old. By the time you purchase a pet hedgehog at 8 weeks or older, the breeder should have absolutely no problem guaranteeing the correct sex.
Male – Has a penis sheath that is set apart from the anus, further up the belly. It looks a bit like a belly button! See the little bump up his belly? That’s the sheath, with about an inch gap between the anus and sheath?
Here it is in a different position on a 6 week old baby.
Female – Has a vulva and anus set very close together with no gap in between. As you can see below, there is a little bump (vulva) directly above the anus, with nothing further up the belly.
Both sexes have nipples so do not rely on nipples as a method of sexing.
If you are having trouble getting your hedgehog to uncurl, try placing them on a clear surface and allowing them to walk and having a look from underneath.
We are not veterinarians and cannot give health assessments, but here are some frequently asked questions.
A healthy hedgehog will be themselves when it comes to eating, drinking, pooping and exercising. If you find that your hedgehog is displaying any concerning symptoms, including going off their food or weight loss, injury or marks, damaged eyes, problems walking, lethargy etc. then you contact a professional for an assessment. Hedgehogs are generally fit and well with few ailments, but there are a few serious conditions that hedgehogs can suffer from, as well as minor conditions and accidental problems like injuries.
Finding a veterinarian
As with any pet we recommend that you are prepared to contact a veterinarian. In any animals lifespan it’s likely at some point, they may need to see one. There are no routine tests, vaccinations or treatments that an African Pygmy Hedgehog needs, but you never know when an accident or problem might occur. It’s best to have contacted veterinarians that deal with exotics in advance, as you need to find a veterinarian who is experienced with African Pygmy Hedgehogs specifically.
Hedgehogs in the wild only live 2-3 years, but often die due to predation or inadequate diet. In captivity the average African Pygmy Hedeghog can live up to five or six years old, but finding them older than that is quite rare, but some do live up to eight years.
My hedgehog is licking himself or frothing at the mouth?
When hedgehogs taste something new they will build up a froth in their mouth and then spread this on their backs. It looks very weird and may suprise you at first! No one really knows exactly why they do this – but it does not mean that they are scared or angry, it just means they have tasted or smelt something new or strange to them.
My hedgehog’s spines have fallen out!
A hedgehogs spines are also called quills, and the process of them being shed is called quilling. This can be very uncomfortable for a hedgehog, and sometimes can result in their skin being itchy or even inflamed. Sometimes small scabs can form where the spines have fallen out. This is a normal process that happens over the course of their lifetime. It is more frequent in juveniles and usually happens at 6-8 weeks and then again at 4 months old, but even adults will slowly lose their spines and new ones will grow.
Sometimes a spine will refuse to come out even though it has been shed and become embedded in the skin. It will have a scab at the base, or be raised red around it. This can sometimes be gently removed, or will remove themselves in a lukewarm bath. An oatmeal bath can be very soothing to their skin.
Hedgehogs that are quilling can also be grumpier and not like being handled, but this should pass within a few days.
If you find your hedgehog is losing significant amount of quills or they are not growing back, being left with bald patches, it can be a sign of mites or other skin problems, and you should consult a professional.
Do hedgehogs have fleas? My hedgehog is scratching!
Generally African Pygmy Hedgehogs should not have fleas, but they can be a host for fleas if they have spent any time outside, or if you have a cat or dog with fleas that has brought them inside. They can also suffer from mites, which can cause skin irritation.
Don’t treat a hedgehog with a flea treatment designed for cats or dogs. You need to verify the treatment is correct with a veterinarian who will supply you with the correct medication and dosage.
Hedgehogs can also scratch themselves just because they are itchy, because they need a bath or because something else is irritating their skin. They also scratch when they’re quilling.
Different colour “morphs”
The last thing I want to briefly touch on is different colours. At Reptile Cymru we breed and sell a variety of colours. Generally the care is very similar for all colours of African Pygmy Hedgehogs, but albino morphs in particular can have sensitive eyesight and can be slightly more prone to sensitive skin. You will see a lot of breeders with different colours of African Pygmy Hedgehog.
The colours we sell and most commonly see in the UK include:
Salt and Pepper – This is the standard dark grey and white African Pygmy Hedgehog colour. It gets it’s name from the white quills which are tipped with black. They usually have a brown or black nose and a dark face mask.
Chocolate – Chocolate hedgehogs have white spines with brown bands and a brown nose, with a very light face mask.
Pied (Pinto) – Pied hedgehogs have some quills that are coloured and some that are white. This can vary greatly in percentage and location so it’s a very variable colour. Some can have pied face masks too!
Albino – True albino hedgehogs have no colouration on them at all, not their nose, mask, ears or spine – it is all pink and white. Their spines are all white, and they have red eyes. Not all red eyed hedgehogs are albino, for example the Apricot is not albino, despite having ruby eyes.
Cinnicot – Cinnicot have white spines with light beige and cinnamon banded, making them lighter than chocolate hedgehogs. They have a light face and mask.
Apricot – Apricot are lighter than cinnicot again, with a pink nose and unmasked face. They have red eyes.
We don’t specifically breed for colour here at Reptile Cymru. We select the parents based on good health, strong genes and ensuring they are unrelated rather than aiming for specific colour outcomes. The gene pool in the UK is quite small, and one thing I worry about when using a small genetic pool to create specific colours is that there will not be enough genetic diversity to ensure good health over many generations.
When buying any hedgehog it’s always good to feel confident that the breeder has the best health not just of the parents and these offspring, but the future of hedgehog keeping in the UK in mind as well.
Conclusion, do African Pygmy Hedgehog Make Good Pets?
African Pygmy Hedgehogs are easy to care for and make an excellent exotic pet. They’re an alternative to a rabbit or guinea pig, but really no extra work when you’ve ensured you have the correct setup. Like any animal they do require time and will be best suited to someone who can spend at least thirty minutes a day on handling and care, but I think they make an absolutely fantastic pet for those who decide to keep them.
If you have any African Pygmy Hedgehog questions that haven’t been answered here, feel free to leave a comment.