Interpreting Body Language
Hedgies often express themselves differently than other pets, and it can be hard to know what they are trying to get across. They are naturally prey animals, and their first instincts are to be defensive, not to attack or fight back when something frightens them. It’s important to keep in mind that the most frequent reactions a hedgehog will make are out of fear.
Remember that sudden changes in attitude should be taken seriously. If it isn’t something obvious like quilling or a strong smell irritating them, get to your vet. Hedgies hide illness very well and odd behavior can be one of the first signs something is wrong.
Also, don’t be too concerned if your hedgie makes odd noises when he is sleeping. Some will snore and twitch as if they are imagining chasing mealworms in their sleep. You might still want to check each time your hedgie makes unusual sounds to be sure nothing is wrong.
- Rolling into a ball: Fear, mistrust, discomfort from being on their back.
- Quills up: Uncertainty, fear, irritation.
- Vibrating or shaking: Usually accompanies lots of hissing and popping, when a hedgie is extremely upset.
- Biting: Afraid, angry, attracted to the smell of the object, some bite for seemingly no reason at all.
- Self-anointing: No known reason why. Usually done on things that have a strong scent.
- Flailing legs when on back: restlessness, frantic, discomfort, needs to relieve himself.
- Splatting: Extremely relaxed or comfortable, but mostly done when they are overheated. They will stretch their legs out in front and behind them and “splat out” on their belly.
- Huffing and hissing: Fear, mistrust, anger, usually accompanied by erect quills. Some will huff with only their visor quills up, which indicates a more half-hearted irritation.
- Clicking and popping: Extremely afraid or angry.
- Purring: Contentment, trust.
- Snuffling: Happily exploring, curious, also called “wheefling”. They will often wiggle their noses in the air and follow scents that interest them.
- Chirping: Hunger (mainly in unweaned hoglets), wanting attention, sexual interest in another hedgie.
- Squealing: Pain or frustration. Some will squeal when vomiting from an upset stomach or choking, or if they are unable to relieve themselves due to pain from constipation or urinary infections.
- The Hedgie Scream of Death: A high pitched squealing shriek. Extreme pain, anger – the cause should be investigated immediately.
You may notice your hedgie frothing at the mouth from time to time, and spreading this foam on his quills. This is a completely normal behavior most frequently known as anointing, also called self-anointing or “anting”. Your hedgie doesn’t have rabies and is not having a seizure. Relax, sit back, and watch. The positions they can get themselves into can be quite entertaining. Some hedgies anoint over nearly anything, while others never do.
What exactly is going on?
Hedgies will anoint when they encounter certain scents they like. This could be new hand soap, different food or treats, cleaner on the carpet, anything. Some like to anoint on their owner’s hair or clothes. It starts as a licking/nipping, and then you will see your hedgie twist and contort to spread the saliva on himself, especially on the visor, shoulder and back quills. Sometimes it’s only a few licks, sometimes they go all out and cover themselves with spit for minutes at a time. The anointing behavior is triggered from extreme olfactory (sense of smell) stimulation, and sometimes they’ll anoint over a scent in the air alone, without having an actual object to anoint from. Anointing hedgies are usually very absorbed in the act and unaware of their surroundings, which makes it a convenient time to try trimming nails! If they anoint with something colored, like a strawberry, they might end up stained pink for a while.
Why do they do this?
No one really knows why hedgehogs like to anoint. Some believe that in the wild, they would try to cover up their scent with something else, like an animal carcass. Others think they would anoint with poisons that they are immune to, in an attempt to scare off predators. The behavior has been compared to birds “anting”, in which a similar activity occurs. Birds will sometimes pick up insects (usually ants, hence the name) and put them in their feathers. There isn’t any definite answer for this either, though the guesses are similar to the reasons hedgies anoint, along with it possibly helping remove parasites. Research has shown that few of these solutions would make sense from a natural standpoint, however. A more highly accepted perspective is that it might used to increase their personal odor in order to help hedgehogs detect (and then avoid) other hedgehogs. Baby hedgies also anoint frequently, and an explanation might be that it helps mothers retrieve their young if they toddle off. Otherwise, it might simply be a nonfunctional response, like how cats just happen to love catnip.
“Quilling” is the hedgehogified term for molting or shedding. Quilling is a natural process where a hedgie loses its old quills and grows in new ones. It usually starts with a few quills falling out, and gradually more are lost as new quills grow in. Some hedgies are done in a week or so, some can take several months. A few hedgehogs lose so few quills that it’s barely noticeable. While a hedgie might lose a lot of quills, the coat shouldn’t look too sparse or have bald patches. Some babies have thinner coats than others. Keep in mind that as long as you can see new quills growing in, seeing skin between quills is nothing to worry about.
Hedgehogs quill repeatedly throughout their lifetime. They quill a couple times as babies before they are weaned, and some will have a small quilling at one year. The most significant quilling (and the one baby owners get to experience) is the 9 week quilling, which starts at about 7-12 weeks old. This is the most difficult quilling a hedgie will go through. It’s like a child teething; the new quills growing in are painful as they pierce through the skin. Your hedgie will likely get grumpy and less social during this time. Be patient and very gentle – it’s best to avoid touching his back or holding him on his back in a ball whenever possible. This puts pressure on his sore and tender skin, and you don’t want him to associate handling with discomfort. With consistent, gentle handling most get over their attitude as they finish quilling. Occasionally there is a hedgehog that after quilling will not revert back to a social personality.
To help soothe the skin, you can give your hedgie a warm oatmeal bath. This can help soften the skin and allow the quills to come in easier. Owners often use Aveeno products, but you can just put a handful of dry oats in some pantyhose and swish it around in the water. You can also apply a small amount of flax, olive, jojoba, or vitamin E oil directly to the skin if you notice particularly uncomfortable spots. Be sure not to use more than a few drops topically. Because baths can be extremely drying to a hedgie’s skin, avoid giving them too often. Two baths a week should be plenty during the worst times of quilling. More specifics on bathing can be found in the Hygiene chapter. You can also put a few drops of the oil onto your hedgie’s food to improve skin health.
Sometimes hair will fall out, but mainly they shed quills and not their fur. If you see a lot of fur loss, make a trip to the vet to rule out the possibility of parasites (mites are common) or a skin infection.
Outside of quilling, some hedgies have light seasonal shedding, though it should never be as extensive as a full quilling. Hedgies can also lose quills due to stress, malnutrition, hormone imbalances, or when recovering from parasites or illness. Abnormal quill loss should always be evaluated by your veterinarian.
Biting is a habit that no hedgie owner wants to deal with. The first thing to do when trying to stop the behavior is to find out why your hedgehog is biting. Is there a good smell on your hands, is he afraid, or has it just become a habit to chomp on any exposed skin? Once you know the reason behind the bite you can get to work on preventing it. Remember that any animal with teeth can bite, and while most hedgies will not they still always have that capability.
A “taste testing” bite or an anointing bite usually comes after some sniffing and licking. Something that smells good to them often results in anointing or nibbling on the object (in this case, you). The best way to discourage this is to not allow him to lick or nip you, and wash your skin with unscented soap to remove the attractant. Remember that these are “friendly” bites and your hedgie doesn’t mean any harm.
When hedgies smell things they don’t like or are stressed or uncomfortable they may bite. Some will bite if they smell other hedgehogs on your hands, if they’ve been forced to socialize too long, or if there is some other scent they don’t like (such as the smell of smoke, nail polish, or even flowers). Remove the offending odor or give your hedgie a bit of a break, but just be sure not to respond immediately to the biting, which can teach them that biting gets them what they want.
Hedgies will sometimes bite when they are afraid or angry. The hedgehog would most likely be rolled into a tight ball and hissing. If you go poking your fingers around in the poor guy’s face, expect to get bitten. If your hedgie is like this, don’t put your skin where he can get to it. Let him calm down in a fleece blanket or something similar, and you can get back to handling him when he is not so upset.
Some hedgies like biting just for the heck of it. This can be especially difficult when it’s unexpected and you don’t know why he’s doing it.
Biting other things is usually caused by two reasons. Firstly, the object smells/tastes good, or two, the object is intimidating/irritating. They will also bite things if they like the texture (leather is a good example). Some hedgies will bite their quills when rolled into a ball if they are upset.
- When your hedgehog bites, don’t put him immediately back into his cage. If you do, it will teach him that biting gets you to leave him alone.
- Some hedgies will bite when they are hungry. Try offering a bit of food when you take him out.
- Make sure you’ve washed your hands with the same soap before each handling. Unscented soap is the least bite-provoking.
- If your hedgie bites any skin they can reach, simply don’t give him that opportunity. You can hold him in a blanket to keep your hands away from him.
- If your hedgehog bites and holds on, try not to flinch or yank your hand away; you don’t want to injure his mouth or tear your skin. Usually if you wait quietly they’ll eventually let go. Pulling your hedgie away can cause him to grind into your skin harder. Some people have had success blowing gently in their hedgie’s face to get them to release their bite. You can also gently push whatever is being bitten towards the hedgie’s mouth, which is uncomfortable but not painful and can convince them to loosen their grip.
Hedgehogs and Other Pets
Lots of people join online forums and ask questions like “will my dog eat my hedgehog when he comes home?”, or “can hedgies and ferrets get along?”, or even “can I house a hedgehog and a guinea pig together?”
The first thing that anyone wondering these things should do, is sit back and think why would you want to have your hedgehog and other pets socialize? Hedgehogs, first and foremost, are solitary by nature. They don’t need or crave interaction from humans or other animals. They are defensive prey animals, and can be very easily stressed from exposure to other pets, even if they appear harmless. The fact of the matter is, there isn’t any considerable benefit to the hedgehog for putting him through the potential danger of interacting with other animals – and it’s your hedgie’s welfare you should be concerned about, not your own amusement.
One excuse that is often used in support of allowing other pets to socialize with hedgehogs is that “hedgehogs have a great defense system!” However, they fail to mention that we have bred hedgehogs to be calmer, sweeter, and less reactive pets. A pet hedgehog is not going to have the same fast, extreme reflexes as a wild hedgehog. Even through the quills, a quick snap from a dog or cat could very seriously injure or kill your hedgie. Cats are more likely to tolerate and respect hedgehogs after getting a noseful of quills, but you shouldn’t have to rely on your hedgehog to defend himself, in order for him to be safe. If your pets don’t seem to be genuinely happy and enjoying their time together should you have them socialize, don’t push it, just let them both play individually.
Animals such as prey-driven cats or dogs (such as terriers, sight hounds, etc.) and ferrets are especially likely to intimidate your hedgie, and less likely to “play nice”. Even if you think you know your cat, dog, or other pet, never take an eye off them with your hedgie around. It would only take a moment for something to go wrong.
Hedgehogs should never be housed with any other species. Not only do hedgehogs have completely unique care requirements, but if one should turn on the other, there is no escape from the cage and it would end badly, to say the least. Overall, it’s better to be safe than sorry, but if you decide to allow your pets to mingle, take every precaution for both pet’s safety and never, ever leave them unattended.
Dealing with “Boy Time”
More often than not, male hedgehog owners will witness, or find evidence of, their little boy not being so “little” anymore. Yep, as uncomfortable as it tends to make people, male hedgies frequently masturbate.
Some boys are politely discreet and won’t display their manly bits for you. Others, though, could care less about the audience and will go at it with no sense of decency at all. Tucking his head under himself accompanied with smacking sounds, or walking around with his back arched or twitching his back end are all signs to either cover any children’s eyes or awkwardly explain what is going on! Try not to be alarmed if you see his penis – when it is fully out of its sheath, it can be nearly the size of one of his legs.
Boys are fairly spontaneous about when they decide to masturbate. Day or night, in their cage or not, audience or not. These acts of self-enjoyment are nothing to worry about; they are totally normal. It doesn’t mean your hedgehog needs to be bred, or that he has hormone problems. It just means he might want some privacy! There’s not really any way to prevent it.
The main annoyance that comes along with “boy time” is when there is semen left over either on your hedgehog’s belly or on his blankets. Unfortunately once it has dried, it can be extremely difficult to wash out. If you see white or yellowish substances dried on your male hedgehog’s belly or jaw, your best bet is to soak him in warm water for a while, and hope you can gently scrub it out.
For blankets, if a washing or scrubbing by hand won’t get it out, you can try using a bit of nail polish remover (diluted acetone), soak some into the fabric, and work it out with a toothbrush or your fingernails. Keep in mind the solution might discolor the fabric. Once you’ve removed the mess, wash the blanket again to be sure there isn’t any residue left from the nail polish remover. The strong scent could bother your hedgie.
Tips on Bonding
Things to do:
- Put a t-shirt that you have worn for a day or so in the hedgie’s cage, so they can sleep in it. This will associate your scent with safety and security. Make sure it does not have any loose threads that limbs could get caught in.
- Keep a schedule. The times you turn lights on and off, feed, clean, and handle your hedgie should be consistent each day. This will help your hedgie know what to expect and not take them by surprise each time you take them out.
- Wash your hands before handling with the same soap each time. Your hedgehog will associate this smell with you, which will make them more comfortable. Hedgies like routines.
- Be patient and gentle. If your hedgehog is timid and takes a long time to unroll, just let them relax under a blanket or in a sleeping sack. If you let them sleep on your lap while you watch TV or use the computer, this will help them realize that you don’t mean harm, and that you can be comfortable to snooze on too. Never handle your hedgehog roughly; you could lose all the progress you’ve made bonding up to that point.
- Let them potty a few minutes after you wake them up. Some hedgies will be extremely wiggly or grumpy if they need to ‘go’ and don’t want to do it on you. You might want to have an out-of-cage litter box and leave him or her alone for a few minutes to do their business. Not letting them get it all out will eventually result in them pooping and peeing all over you or themselves, neither of which is particularly enjoyable on your part.
Things not to do:
- Handle your hedgehog with gloves. Doing so will mask your scent so that your hedgie will never become accustomed to you. The smell of gloves, especially leather ones, can be frightening and cause an already afraid hedgehog to bite and make things worse. Using a blanket is much better.
- Talk loudly or play loud music near you hedgie. Hedgehogs are sensitive to noise. Chances are that if something is loud for you, there are nerve-grating higher pitched ultrasonic sounds along with it that your hedgie will pick up.
- Handle your hedgehog right after eating, handling another animal, or touching anything strong smelling. If you smell like food, you may get bitten. If you smell hostile, you may get bitten. More likely, though, your hedgie will just huff and ball up more than normal. If you don’t smell like yourself, your hedgie won’t know that it’s you, and not a dog, or a cheeseburger, or a car you’ve been working on. Wash your hands well to make sure the smell is gone to avoid any identity mix-ups.