Hedgehog Behavior

The mystery isn't as mysterious as it once was

 If there's one good thing that comes from us keeping pet hedgehogs it's that it gives us the opportunity to observe their behaviors and possibly understand them better.  Science isn't paying much attention to wild African Pygmy Hedgehog behavior, partially due to the fact that they are nor endangered nor threatened in their natural habitat.  As owners we find our pet hogs fascinating, even if the scientific community doesn't consider them a species of interest. 

     As owners we have a front row seat to hedgehog behavior. WE may not exactly understand every behavior we see displayed, but we sure have come a long way in comparison to where we used to be!


Hedgehogs, Working with prey animals

    The Hedgehogs that we love so much are what are referred to as prey animals. 

           " The term prey refers to an animal that is sought, captured, and eaten by a predator. A predator is an animal that hunts and kills other animals for food in an act called predation. Smaller predators, such as mice and lizards can be, and often are, prey for larger predators."-

   As prey animals, hedgehogs have a biological hard wiring to be cautious. It's actually quite against the African Pygmy hedgehog's instincts to be open and outgoing with us. In the natural world hedgehogs would view us as predators and either try to flee from us , huff to intimidate and scare us away or stay balled up as protection from us. This behavior will prove a lifesaver to a wild hedgehog probably dozens of times within it's life. In captivity we find this behavior undesirable. 

    Through selective breeding within captivity we are essentially diluting their instincts to be fearful of us, but we do have a great  ways to go before hedgehogs are fully domesticated like cats,dogs, or even some livestock.

    Hedgehogs are stuck in the middle right now. They're no longer quite wild, but their not quite domesticated either.Our pet hedgehogs are "a watered down version of their wild counterpart", they display many of their naturally occurring behaviors yet exhibit some domesticated behavioral traits. . 

     As owners and hedgehog lovers it's very important to understand this and not set our expectations too high when becoming a hedgehog owner. It is important to know how to work with a hedgehog to acclimate it into being as close to the pet we desire as possible. 

    Social media portrays hedgehogs to be spiky little puppies who want nothing more than to snuggle and watch net flicks with us. Yes, there are many  hedgehogs who seemingly enjoy the company of their owners, but there are also hedgehogs that react to our presence more like their prey animal ancestors would. Those reactive animals are the ones I'm mostly referring to here.

    Having a tame hedgehog takes work on the owner's part. Frequent handling And socialization is key.Exposing a young hedgehog to various sights, sounds, and smells will help it develop tolerance. 

   Every handling session will help override your hedgehog's natural instincts and help your hedgehog develop into tolerating and even seeking your presence. 

   Sometimes, even with the best methods, a hedgehog will still be shy. 

  We see this in the "more domesticated" species as well;

 Some cats are shyer than others, some dogs are fearful, some goats are aggressive. The domestication process doesn't guarantee that every animal will be friendly and outgoing.

     Initially very friendly animals experience "personality changes" as well. This can happen around the time of sexual maturity. These hedgehogs are usually extremely outgoing until the point of sexual maturity. At that time they begin exhibiting prey animal behavior. Some hedgehogs mellow out at about 8 months old, after the point of sexual maturity. Even after the peak of sexual maturity ends, the hedgehog may still retain some of it's hormone induced behaviors. 

 Many  hedgehogs live their entire lives as outgoing curious little creatures with a touch of occasional caution (especially during sudden noises and movements). 

    As owners it's  important for us to acknowledge that hedgehogs are prey animals who are in the process of domestication. They are fascinating pets that we can observe and interact with in ways that are comfortable for our animals.   

    With reserved hedgehogs  try to look at their husbandry and care differently. They could be  considered  "teaching animals". They're the animals that teach us the most about hedgehog behavior and  are the ones who act most similarly to their wild cousins. They can be  provided with more natural Enrichment as opposed to  more sociable hedgehogs that  can be  interacted with more and provide more .


      Key points to remember:


* There are all types of hedgehogs with all types of personalities.

*Handling your hedgehog often is important. Some hedgehogs still retain a higher level of  prey animal behavior despite frequent handling. 

*Some hedgehogs, particularly females, may experience behavioral changes upon full sexual maturity.

*Some hedgehogs are Curious and outgoing their entire lives 

* When working with hedgehogs we are working with prey animals.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals


 Sometimes as hedgehog owners we forget that just because we're diurnal (active during the  day) doesn't mean our pet hedgehogs are. We want to socialize and spend time with our hedgehogs during the day when all they want to do is rest. 

   Hedgehogs are nocturnal by design, meaning their peak activity if going to occur when the sun isn't shining. Most hedgehogs become active shortly after sundown. This means that a few moments after you shut off the lights in your hedgehog's room, their brain activity will increase and they'll start to move about in search of food, a water source and items of interest.

    The hedgehog's night time behavior can sometimes pose as a challenge to owners.  Understanding the difference between a nocturnal and diurnal animal can help us better understand hedgehogs while practicing biology based care.

     In the wild nocturnal animals have the survival advantage of less large predators being active at night. Most hedgehog prey items are also nocturnal or less active at night, making the chances of a hedgehog finding sufficient food items more likely. 

    Nocturnal animals typically have less developed daylight dependent senses while their night time senses are more evolved. 

   When handling a hedgehog during its hardwired sleeping hours it is important to understand that  they'll be a little defensive upon sudden awakening. This is why when you disrupt a hedgehog's rest it's first reaction may be to ball up of huff in defense or pop up  in a clicking noise. 

  It's a good idea for owners to take waking their hedgehogs slow. Gently make your presence known using a soft voice and slow movements. Give time for the hog to wake up and realize exactly what is taking place, and that what is taking place is not a threat. This will help reduce your hedgehogs initial startle and acclimate him/her to being handled at this time. 

   The Hedgehog's nocturnal nature if often why hedgehogs do not thrive in a very day-time- busy house hold. Imagine being awoken by unexpected loud noises, vibrations ( from household movement) or scents constantly why you're trying to rest. It wouldn't be far fetched to say you'd experience major behavior changes.

   Hedgehogs, being prey animals, are very cautious of sudden disruptions to begin with. Their survival depends on it. They will often jump into flight or fight mode before comprehending what is happening around them. By giving your  hedgehog time to rest along with an acclimation period before handling will increase your chances of success while working with your animal. 

    This is not to say a hedgehog cannot get used to the  typical noise of a home. They should however be housed in more quiet and less disrupted areas for their well-being. It really all depends on the traffic within your  home and is a case in which you'll have to use your judgement to determine where to keep your hedgehog's enclosure.

  If you are newly acquiring a hedgehog, seek a breeder who exposes their young to the typical noises of a household. Several breeders keep a television within their hedgehog rooms that expose the animals to the random noises ( at different pitch and volume) and different grades of lighting that emit from a television set. Breeders may also utilize a radio in their breeding rooms. This exposes the young to various noises and vibrations, increasing their chances of success once adopted. 

Learn More

This section contains links that  may be helpful in increasing your understanding of nocturnal and prey animals

Understanding nocturnal animals 

Nocturnal animal research

Predator Prey relationships

What is a Prey animal?

Prey animal behavior 


Hedgehogs display a behavior we call anointing. This is also considered self scent marking. 

  A hedgehog will lick and nibble on items in it's environment ( and their owners) then mix the scent with a foamed saliva in the mouth. The hedgehog then applies this foam onto it's shoulder, hind, and other areas it can reach. 

   It is theorized that hedgehogs anoint with new or pleasant odors and to blend into their environment. 

   Anointing is a very normal behavior. 

Quilling May effect behavior/ Quill health

 Quilling is the process in which old quills fall out and new quills break through the skin.  Quilling usually starts around 6 weeks of age and continues periodically throughout the first year of life. Initial (young) quillings are usually the heaviest and most difficult or painful for the animal. Hedgehogs typically become more illusive and defensive while quilling, it is important to participate in routine handling despite the hedgehog's protests. If a quilling hedgehog is not held regularly, the animal's behavior may forever be altered.

   In lighter colored animals quilling seems to be more difficult and painful.This may also be effected by quill shape and structure. Lighter colored hedgehogs tend to have sharper thinner quills that cause more damage as they tear through the skin. 

   There are some things owners can do to help soothe a hedgehog's sensitive and pain during the quilling process. 

  Omega 3's can be offered in food to better skin structure and keep skin hydrated from the inside out. Collagen may be offered via food to improve or preserve skin structure. Feeding some whole prey or ground joint is an appealing way to offer collagen. 

  It is important to not apply oils to a hedgehog's skin during quilling or any other time. Oils applied topically seal in moisture,Bacteria, & fungus and create the perfect environment for disease outbreak. 

   For general quill maintenance, ground joint and whole prey can be added to a hedgehog's diet.

   Adult hedgehogs will loose quills. Adult animals do not tend to experience painful quilling sessions as young animals do. Darker animals tend to shed a few quills at a time with relatively high frequency.  Lighter colored animals tend to experience a much more intense quilling, just less often. 

    It is important to remember that quilling is a natural process and every animal will experience quilling differently. 

Self Mutilation

Self mutilation is a serious behavioral condition in which an animal will purposely  harm it's self by biting it's flesh.

  Signs of self mutilation include; bite marks and/or open sores near the genitals, legs, armpits and other areas the animal can reach with it's mouth. 

  Self mutilation may be induced by stress or be a symptom of another disease such as neurological conditions, brain injury, stroke, or even topical yeast infections. Sometimes there appears to be no primary medical issue that would cause the self mutilation. In such cases, self mutilation may be a basic function and behavioral issue due to poor genetics or high content inbreeding within the animal. 

   Self mutilation may also be brought on by mineral deficiencies. A few hedgehogs who have chronically self mutilated, eventually ceased this behavior after trace mineral and magnesium supplementation was added to their diets by a veterinarian. 

  Stress may also cause a hedgehog to self mutilate, In these cases it is important to provide the stressed animal with a little more peace, quiet, and points of interest in it's cage. A sheet can be placed over a particularly stressed out animal's cage to create a safer feeling environment. Be sure the sheet still allows light in the prevent hibernation attempts or disrupt  the nocturnal activity cycle.