Choosing a Staple Diet
A hedgie’s diet has a huge effect on their overall health. It’s important to feed high quality foods and try to offer a variety of both staple foods and treats such as insects, fruits, veggies, meats, and eggs to make sure your hedgehog is getting all the nutrition he needs. Currently we don’t know a great deal about hedgehog nutrition like we do for dogs or cats. Certain foods are recommended because they have had the best effect on hedgehogs’ health and overall longevity. For this reason, it is important to remember that our pet hedgehogs are a hybrid of multiple wild African species. This hybrid does not exist in the wild, and our pets would unlikely survive, and certainly not thrive in the wild. The hedgehogs our pets descended from only lived two or three years maximum in the wild. Captive bred hedgies are now living much longer, on average 3-5 years. If given proper veterinary care they can live even longer. This is one reason why we do not try to closely mimic wild hedgehog’s diet – they seem to thrive on the foods we’re feeding now, so why change a good thing?
The main choices owners have to choose from for a staple diet are cat food, or “hedgehog food”. You can find more information about the unsuitability of these “hedgehog foods” later in this chapter. Remember, it doesn’t matter what animal the food was marketed for, as long as the ingredients and guaranteed analysis are good. Along with the nutritional content, you should consider the size, shape, and hardness of the individual kibbles. It can be hard for a hedgie to eat, or even be a choking hazard if the pieces are too big. Some owners have found that hedgies have an easier time eating “X” or “Y” shaped kibble over circular pieces. Crushing the food, while inconvenient and facing the worry that your hedgie might not like crushed food, will make munching much easier.
Unfortunately, because different foods have different moisture contents, it can be hard to compare the guaranteed analysis between two foods without having to crunch some numbers. The protein, fat, fiber, etc. percentages are all based on the moisture content of the food. In order to accurately compare different foods, you need to figure out what the percentages would be at 0% moisture (also known as Dry Matter Basis, or DMB), not say, 3% for a dry food, or 82% for a wet food.
So how do you calculate for the dry matter basis? It’s not too hard! Start by subtracting the moisture content of the food from 100. Then all you have to do is take the protein, fat, fiber, or whatever content and divide it by that number.
There have been concerns about diets that are very high in protein causing kidney problems. However, research has shown that healthy animals do not struggle with high protein diets. Animals that already have renal problems, however, should not be fed a high protein diet to avoid accelerating their disease. If this is a concern to you, feel free to discuss options with your vet. The thing to remember is that hedgehogs don’t need high protein diets.
As for fat, 15% is considered the maximum for hedgehogs overall, though individual hedgehogs have different needs. Some put on weight easily and should be fed a diet of even lower fat, such as 10%. Then there are some that run constantly and need a higher fat diet to keep weight on. These hedgies may need a diet of up to 20% fat. It just depends on individual circumstances.
As for fiber, you only really need to worry if your hedgie isn’t “regular” in his bowel movements. Most hedgehogs don’t have a problem digesting quality cat food diets. Adding insects to your hedgie’s diet can help if you think he needs more fiber. The exoskeletons of crickets and mealworms are an excellent source of fiber. Some people in the past have recommended adding bran flakes or Grape Nuts cereal as an additional source of fiber, which is fine, but most hedgies will just eat around them and leave them in the bottom of the bowl, so they aren’t very effective.
Ingredient wise, high quality cat food is likely to be the most suitable for hedgies. It’s important to realize that cats are obligate carnivores, which means they eat strictly meat, no fruits or veggies or grains. In comparison, dogs are omnivorous, and will eat all of these things. These fundamental differences aside, many pet food companies usually aim to appeal to pet owners and not the pets themselves, and put ingredients in cat foods that cat’s shouldn’t actually have. For example, putting fruits and veggies in a cat food: most cat owners think that fruits and veggies sound great and healthy, without realizing that their cat shouldn’t actually have them. You will find that in the very highest quality cat foods, they are almost entirely meat and have very high protein percentages.
So why not just use a wet food? Well, it’s definitely possible, but it’s recommended to use dry food for the convenience. One bag of dry food will last a long time, and you don’t have to worry about it going bad before your hedgie can eat it all. When feeding a wet food, you have to worry about bacterial growth on the food. Always dispose of leftover wet food immediately in the morning and wash the dish before feeding the next night. Dry food is beneficial in that the crunchy nature can help keep teeth clean and stimulate the gums (sort of like us humans flossing). The one downside to dry food is that the large, hard pieces can wear your hedgie’s teeth down prematurely and are not very easy to eat. Imagine having to eat whole ice cubes for all your meals: they’re hard, and it would tire out your jaw! It’s recommended for your hedgie’s sake to crush (not to a powder, just into smaller pieces) or cut (with a pair of sharp scissors) your hedgie’s dry food.
Here’s a recap:
- Small pieces no larger than pea sized, smaller is preferred. You can crush or cut up larger pieces if necessary.
- Guaranteed analysis of less than 35% protein, less than 15% fat, and at least 2% fiber.
- High quality ingredients, with meat as the first ingredient. Avoid corn, vague descriptions (such as “animal by-products”), any by-products, as well as BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin, which are all linked to cancer. You can read more about identifying good, wholesome ingredients later in this chapter.
- Read on to learn about treats and supplements to give in addition to your hedgehog’s staple diet.
If you can find a food that meets all of the above, that’s perfect! Usually the best foods all around are medium to high quality cat foods, because they combine good ingredients and guaranteed analysis with small, easier-to-eat kibbles.
Reading the Label
While trying to decipher what a food label means can be pretty daunting, it’s important to be able to understand what exactly is in the food so you can choose the best for your pet. Fortunately once you understand how each part of the label works, it’s easy to glance through and decide whether different brands are worth using or not. This section of the book is mainly directed towards cat and dog food, though it applies to other pet foods as well.
The first rule of thumb before we actually get to labels: Never judge a food based on the pictures on the bag! That happy cat running through what appears to be wholesome ingredients falling from the sky has nothing to do with how good the food is. Don’t fall for the marketing ploys!
As for the actual label, you have two parts to worry about. First off you have the ingredient list. This is the list of everything the manufacturers put in the food, in order by weight. Please note that this is the mass of different ingredients before processing. In order to make their food appear better than it is, companies can use healthy ingredients that retain a lot of water (and therefore weigh more) and then use dehydrated versions of less desirable ingredients. Another sneaky trick they use is “ingredient splitting”. This just means if they have “corn”, they can list it as “corn meal” and “corn gluten” (etc) separately so other better ingredients might be listed ahead of them. For example, you could put 10lbs of corn in a batch of food with 8lbs of chicken, but then split the corn into “5lbs corn meal” and “5lbs corn gluten” so instead of listing corn first, you’d list the chicken. Not all pet food companies are so manipulative, but many are, so it’s good to be aware and keep a look out.
When you are looking at the ingredient list, it’s most important to look at the main ingredients. Everything else is important too (especially if it’s an unhealthy preservative or dye), but when you’re looking for quality, your best bet is to just identify and consider the main ingredients. To do this, all you need to do is look for the first source of fat listed in the ingredients. This could be an actual fat (chicken fat, poultry fat, animal fat, beef tallow, etc) or an oil (corn oil, cod liver oil, soy oil, etc). The main ingredients will include this source of fat and all the ingredients listed before it. Usually there are less than ten main ingredients in a food. All the other ingredients are just traces of vitamins and minerals, flavoring, preservatives, etc. So if you see carrots, peas, apples, and bananas listed, make sure they are actually main ingredients before you get excited about it. There’s a good chance it’s just a teeny tiny amount in the food.
The second part of the food label is the guaranteed analysis, which we’ve already discussed! Remember to always convert to dry matter basis or check that the foods have the same moisture content before comparing values. Careful for the “minimums” and “maximums”; for example, if you have a food that’s “13% fat min”, the fat percentage could be higher.
Don’t forget to check the expiration date when buying a bag of food! Manufacturers put deadlines on there for a reason!
Here’s what to avoid:
- Any corn, whether ground corn, corn gluten meal, just straight corn, any of it. Corn isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it’s so common that it can be hard to find foods without corn, but it’s not a quality source of nutrition. As a protein source, it is very indigestible, and the harder it is to get nutrients out of the food, the more your hedgie has to eat, the more he’ll poop, and the more food you’ll have to buy.
- By-products. If you had the choice to offer your pet legitimate meat or the skin, feathers, feet, beaks, tongues, etc, which would you prefer? By-products are the nasty stuff that no one else wants to eat, so they put it in pet food.
- Generically named ingredients. If you have an ingredient called “animal fat”, you have no idea what source of fat that is. Even “poultry fat” is still too generic. Look for specifically named ingredients, like “chicken fat”. Vague names like “animal blood meal” are just sketchy.
- Sweeteners. A food ought to have good enough ingredients that we don’t need to coat it in sugar to persuade an animal to eat it. Avoid cane molasses, corn syrup, sugar, etc.
- Artificial preservatives, flavors, and colors. There are certain dyes put in foods that have been linked to health problems, so avoid dyed food. Usually if the food is dyed it’s a lower quality brand anyhow. Avoid BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, and propylene glycol. These preservatives have been linked to many, many health problems, including cancer. Also, avoid foods that include fish meal as a main ingredient. It won’t be listed individually in the ingredients, but by law in the USA all non-human grade fish meal must be preserved with ethoxyquin.
Here’s what to look for:
- Specifically named ingredients when it comes to meat. Chicken fat, lamb meal, deboned chicken, duck, beef meal, etc. are all far better than “poultry fat” or “animal digest”.
- Quality meat sources as main ingredients. A good food will have a quality meat as the main ingredient. Some may have multiple meat sources.
- Safe preservatives. Mixed tocopherols, ascorbyl palmitate, ascorbic or citric acid, rosemary, sage, or clove extract are all safe. Just make sure to avoid the bad ones listed above.
Commercial Hedgie Food
Some people feed commercial hedgehog food because a vet or pet store recommended it to them, or simply because it is marketed for hedgehogs, so it must be good for them, right? Unfortunately these foods are usually extremely low quality, made with fillers, by-products and unhealthy preservatives. If you compare the ingredients, some are similar to an extremely low quality cat food. Some brands have seeds or dried fruit which can be difficult to chew, can be choked on, or get stuck in the roof of a hedgie’s mouth. They can also be toxic (such as raisins). Vitakraft hedgehog food has puffed wheat, raisins, and peanuts in the first ingredients! There are a few okay hedgehog foods out there, but in general they should be avoided. It is healthier and probably more convenient to choose a mix of cat foods over any hedgehog food.
Some hedgehog foods are fine to feed in a mix, but you should not feed only hedgehog food. None of them are as good as even a medium quality cat food. The following brands are okay to feed, but preferably in a mix of other high quality cat foods:
- Spike’s Delite (any formula)
- Sunseed Sunscription Vita Hedgehog Adult Food
- Brisky Diets Hedgehog Feed
- 8 in 1 Pet Ultra-Blend Select Hedgehog Food
- L’Avian Hedgehog Food
The following should be avoided at all costs. There have been cases of hedgehogs dying of malnutrition from some of these foods, and overall they have very poor quality ingredients:
- Brown’s Zoo Vital Hedgehog Food Premium Diet
- Vitakraft Hedgehog Food
- Pretty Pets Premium Hedgehog Food
- Mazuri Insectivore Diet or Insectivore Gel
- Insectivore-Fare made by Reliable Protein Products
- Exotic Nutrition Hedgehog Complete
How Much to Feed
Unless your hedgehog has health restrictions, you should have a full bowl of food available to your hedgie 24/7. If your hedgehog is overweight and needs to lose a few grams, the best way to do that is to increase exercise and not to limit food. Most hedgehogs that become overweight are the result of insufficient exercise or a diet too high in fat, not overeating. As long as the food you are feeding is low fat (below 15%) and your hedgie has a suitable wheel, you should have nothing to be concerned about.
Usually a hedgie will eat around 1-4 tablespoons of kibble a night. This varies with what size the kibble is (you can fit more small pieces in a tablespoon than large pieces) as well as the nutritional content of the food. The more fillers there is in a food, the more the hedgehog will eat and defecate. Growing babies will sometimes eat more than adults.
Many hedgehog owners will count how many pieces of food their pet eats each night, to make sure they are eating enough and to be able to quickly notice changes in food intake. This is a good way to catch health problems before they get worse – hedgies are good at hiding illness, but changes in appetite or activity will often give them away. If you notice any abnormal changes in your hedgie’s behavior or eating habits, check in with your vet. Taking action on changes like this could save your pet’s life.
If you decide you would like to keep track of how much your hedgie eats each night, you can either count food pieces, or weigh the food. If you’re weighing (on a kitchen or postal scale), all you need to do is weigh the bowl of food when you fill it up at night, and then subtract the weight of the bowl of food in the morning after your hedgie eats. That way you can just keep track of how many grams he eats. This works best with dry food; wet food will dry out overnight as well and the water that evaporates will give an inaccurate idea of how much your hedgie is eating.
If you decide to count kibble, start by counting out a full bowl of food, and the next day count how many he ate that night. The next night, you can try offering the number he ate plus 20 or so pieces, and gradually decrease the number until you reach a good amount where he leaves just a few pieces each night. That way he doesn’t eat it all and go hungry, but you also don’t waste too much food when you replace it each night. Plus it’s easier to count how many he ate when there are only a few pieces left!
Switching / Adding Foods
It is important to switch foods or add foods slowly. Hedgehogs can easily get an upset stomach and green stool from any sudden diet changes. If you are switching to several new foods or are adding more than one, make sure you do each one separately and monitor how your hedgie does with each one. Wait at least one week between each food to see if there are any problems with a certain one. Your hedgehog may be allergic to something you didn’t know about, and being able to determine which food caused it is important.
Completely switching foods should be a gradual transition over several weeks. Here is an idea of how those weeks should go:
- Week 1: offer regular food, with new food as a treat only (just around 5-10 kibble a night)
- Week 2: 3⁄4 old food, 1⁄4 new food
- Week 3: 1⁄2 old food, 1⁄2 new food
- Week 4: 1⁄4 old food, 3⁄4 new food
- Week 5: should be eating all new food
Some hedgies don’t like the idea of a gradual transition. If the old food is absolute junk compared to the new food, he may just leave the old food for the new stuff. Others might want nothing to do with the new food. You can try putting both foods in a plastic bag together, so they smell the same, or crushing the new food at first and dusting it on the old food. If your hedgehog just doesn’t want to change at all, you can try offering the amount of new food by itself until around midnight, then add the old food. If he thinks that he won’t be getting anything else, he may decide eating the new food is better than nothing.
Vitamins and Supplements
If you are feeding a good, high quality diet, your hedgie shouldn’t need any additional vitamins or supplements. However, some things can still be very beneficial. Most supplements you would give are marketed for humans and bought in your local pharmacy. Avoid any “supplements” marketed for rodents or other small animals, such as salt licks or yogurt drops. These are sugary, high in sodium, and are pretty much as healthy as you eating a box full of Peeps marshmallows. Vitamin powders made for reptiles, depending on what they contain, may or may not be bad for your hedgie (by overdosing on vitamins they already get elsewhere). It’d be best to not use them unless you know exactly what you’re doing and have consulted your vet.
So what are recommended vitamins and supplements? The three listed on the opposite page have been used with good results. Read carefully, and do additional research if you can. If you are unsure about the dosage or what results to expect for any supplement, it’d be best to discuss it with your vet. Remember hedgehogs are tiny, and look at how small an amount humans take as a supplement. They don’t need much.
Is it Necessary to Feed Bugs?
Insects are the main staple in a wild hedgie’s diet. While it is great to offer them as a bit of variety in their diet, however, hedgehogs do not need insects in their diet to survive. Hedgies in the wild also eat bits off of carcasses, eggs, small animals they can catch, and a small amount of vegetation. Pet hedgies fed a diet of high quality cat foods can thrive without any insects as a supplement.
Insects are nutritious and provide additional fiber to a hedgie’s diet, as well as being mentally stimulating by allowing them to “hunt” for prey.
Safe Insects to Feed
Pretty much any insect that is quarter-sized or smaller and bred for reptile or other pet food is fine to offer. Bugs raised for bait are not a good idea because they likely aren’t kept in sanitary conditions and could make your hedgie very sick. The insects listed below, if raised for pet food, are safe to feed hedgies. All values are on dry matter basis.
Insect / Protein / Fat
- Mealworm larvae / 52.7% / 32.8%
- Mealworm pupae / 54.6% / 30.8%
- Mealworm beetle / 63.7% / 18.4%
- Crickets / 64.9% / 13.8%
- Earthworms / 62.2% / 17.7%
- Wax worms / 42.4% / 46.4%
- Silk worms / 64.0% / 10.0%
- Phoenix worms / 48.4% / 26.8%
- Horn worms / 61.0% / 21.7%
- Hissing roaches / 74.4% / 14.1%
- Dubia roaches / 91.7% / 17.4%
Vitamins and Supplements
Flax or Fish Oil
Flax and fish oil are both great, widely accepted supplements. There are dozens of internal health benefits, but the main noticeable effect is healthier skin and fur. It can especially help hedgehogs with dry, flaky skin to improve their condition. Fish oil is a great source of the Omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, and flax oil contains ALA (which is converted by the body into DHA and EPA). So both are beneficial, but fish oil is less work for the body to process. Some owners prefer not to feed fish oil because of the potential fishy smell. If you can, try to find cold pressed or unrefined oil, which will have been extracted mechanically and not with potentially harmful chemicals that also reduce the quality of the oil. You can find fish or flax oil right in your local pharmacy. Look for “soft gel” type capsules, which will last longer than an opened bottle. Hedgehogs don’t need much, just a few drops on their food each night.
Acidophilus (Lactobacillus acidophilus)
This supplement is a beneficial bacteria that can help restore a hedgehog’s gut flora to normal. Animals that are or have recently been on antibiotics will not have a good balance of bacteria in their digestive tract, and supplementing with acidophilus can help build those bacteria back up. Because hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, it can also help reduce the effects of lactose foods (which is why yogurt is better tolerated by hedgies than other dairy, it has this bacteria in it). Most hedgehogs will not need this on a regular basis, and just on an as-needed basis to help regulate the gut flora. This supplement (for humans) comes as a powder in plastic capsules. You’d break open the capsules and dust a small amount on your hedgie’s food. Once a container has been opened, it needs to be refrigerated.
This supplement is usually given to active people/animals or ones with joint problems, as it contains two molecules that make up and keep strong the cartilage found in the joints. The theory behind it is to provide these molecules so they are available when the body needs to repair the cartilage, such as after strenuous exercise or from arthritis or obesity (which puts extra stress on the joints). They don’t cause cartilage formation, just help repair. If your hedgie already has joint issues, talk to your vet about using a specific medication, as this will only help maintain healthy joints. This comes as a tablet that can be ground up into a powder. A pinch on your hedgie’s food each night is good, though it doesn’t need to be given every night. It can’t be overdosed either, so don’t worry about measuring out too much or too little, the excess will just leave the body as waste.
The Superworm / Giant Mealworm Debate
Whether giant mealworms (hormonally enhanced mealworms) are safe to feed hedgehogs is an ongoing debate. The main concern is that these worms have powerful jaws and can bite a hedgie, even after swallowed. If a hedgie doesn’t properly chew the worm, they can bite the stomach wall, or even continue biting for short periods of time after dying. There have been confirmed necropsies of animals that have died from giant mealworm bites to the esophagus and stomach. The other concern is that we’re not sure what kind of effect these hormones can have on our pets. Really, feeding anything on growth hormones isn’t a great idea. There are Zophobas morio worms (also known as superworms) that are the larvae of a species of darkling beetle, like mealworms, but they are naturally large and not fed growth hormones. These can also bite. Cutting the heads off the worms prior to feeding will prevent this from happening. The hormone issue is not something you can avoid, you would just have to feed superworms and not giant mealworms if you decided to use these larger worms.
The amount of insects you feed your hedgie is up to his health and your preferences. Some hedgies have a fast metabolism and can eat many high-fat worms without becoming overweight, others quickly become “fluffy” if fed them often. For a hedgie that is on the smaller side or can stand to gain some weight, feeding worms nightly is fine. 3-5 mealies a night is on average acceptable. It really just depends on your individual circumstances. Feed fatty insects sparingly if you’re worried, and if your hedgie puts on excess weight, just decrease the amount in his diet. Crickets and roaches are great if you want to feed insects to a larger hedgie, since they are lower in fat than most worms.
If you are squeamish or aren’t able to keep live bugs, you can also try canned or freeze dried crickets/ mealworms/grasshoppers/etc. Remember that lots of hedgehogs will refuse to eat insects; some are even afraid of them. You can try cutting open a mealworm and rubbing the juices on your hedgie’s mouth to entice him to eat. Many people have tried this with success.
Here is a list of some acceptable treats to offer:
- Unseasoned meats: (baked, boiled, browned or roasted) beef, chicken, duck, lamb, turkey, fish, etc.
- Fruits: apple, banana, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherry, cranberries, honeydew, kiwi, papaya, peach, pear, plum, pumpkin, raspberries, squash, strawberry, watermelon
- Veggies: asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, carrot, celery, cilantro, corn, cucumber, green beans, green pepper, peas, spinach, sprouts, sweet potato, turnip, zucchini, leafy greens
- Unseasoned eggs: scrambled, hard boiled, etc. (it’s recommended they be cooked)
- Baby food: all flavors should be fine, Gerber Baby meat sticks and sweet potatoes are popular
- Wet cat food: choose one without by-products or unhealthy preservatives and feed in moderation, they are usually very high in protein and fat
- Cottage cheese and non-sugary yogurt: hedgies are lactose intolerant, but some like this in very small amounts.
- Insects: as covered above
Some treats that are unacceptable to offer are:
- Anything citrus: oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pineapple, etc.
- Most dried fruits: these can be choked on, and can get caught in the roof of the mouth or stuck in the teeth
- Raisins: besides the fact that they are dried fruit, grapes and raisins are toxic even in very small amounts.
- Avocados: toxicity unknown
- Onions, garlic, chives: these contain poisonous sulfur compounds that are dangerous in large amounts – it’s safest to avoid them
- Rhubarb leaves: they’re not good for dogs, so it’s safe to guess they aren’t good for hedgies either
- Human junk food: these are high in fat, salt, preservatives, and many other things bad for hedgies.
- Chocolate: same as for human junk food.
- Peanuts and other legumes: these can get caught in the roof of the mouth and are easily choked on.
- Pits and seeds: these can be toxic (depending on the fruit) and are a choking hazard. Hedgies are not rodents, they aren’t made to gnaw open seeds.
Make sure every treat is unsalted and unseasoned. Veggies are fine fresh or steamed. Make sure whatever you offer is cut into pea-sized pieces, too large can be a choking hazard or get stuck in the roof of your hedgie’s mouth. Lunch meat is not a good idea because of how processed it is. They are often smoked, salted, or preserved, and are high in fat. Don’t overfeed fruits or vegetables, they are very watery and can cause stomach upsets and loose poop.
It’s best to try only one new treat at a time. This is important to avoid stomach upsets (which are common with new foods) and to narrow down what it was if your hedgie had any problems with something offered. If you offer too many things at once, you won’t be able to tell which it is that is causing the problem.
A lot of hedgies are not very open to trying new foods. Keep offering the treat for several nights, or wait a while and try again. Sometimes what they refused one night they will devour the next. Try putting the treat in his food dish with his normal kibble. Warming up the treat a bit can also make it smell more appetizing. Remember that some hedgies will just refuse to try new things. As long as he is getting a good mix of high quality foods you shouldn’t need to worry.
If you open up a jar of baby food or wet cat food, you can freeze the remaining into ice cubes that way it stays fresh longer. This is especially helpful if your hedgie only eats a tiny bit and you don’t want to waste half the jar/can. If you have fruits or veggies you want to save, this works well for them as well.