I wanted to find out how long hedgehogs live for as pets on average. As well as whether I could influence the lifespan by adopting strategies to prolong their life.
How long do hedgehogs live for? A hedgehogs lifespan is between 3-5 years on average when kept as pets. Some hedgehogs do live longer but generally at around the age of 3, diseases like cancers are common, affecting the mouth, digestive tract including the stomach. Other diseases like Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS) can also limit their lifespan, as this is a degenerative neurological condition with no cure. In the wild, hedgehogs live for 1-3 years as they are at risk from predators.
Some hedgehogs have lived longer than 5 years as they have remained disease free but these hedgehogs are the exception and not the rule.
Hedgehogs are prone to cancer, where sarcoma type tumors, normally appear around the mouth and face, quickly spreading around the body and causing extensive damage to their organs. Once the tumor starts spreading, the prognosis for the hedgehog is grave and within 2-3 months they struggle to feed themselves, stand, curl up and even keep their spines erect.
Hedgehog illnesses and symptoms
A hedgehog’s lifespan can be limited to illnesses and symptoms can include weight loss to them eating less, changes in their stools to swelling around their body especially in their face and mouth. Tumors and cancers are common around 3 years of age and are generally incurable. No one knows why these sarcoma type tumors are so common in hedgehogs. It could be down to genetics but further study is needed. Some hedgehogs have lived longer than 5 years as they have remained disease free but these hedgehogs are the exception and not the rule.
We noticed a swelling on the right side of our hedgehog’s face and a reddening near the bottom of his mouth. When we took him to our veterinarian, he was diagnosed with teeth problems and we were told hedgehogs do tend to have problems with their teeth rotting.
Some of his teeth had become rotten in his lower jaw and had caused an abscess in his gums, so we had to have these removed, on the advice of the veterinarian. He had to have a course of antibiotics and painkillers to reduce the swelling and the pain.
During the operation, the veterinarian found a mass of cells around the same area as the abscess and asked us whether we wanted to have a biopsy of a small sample of these cells to make sure there wasn’t anything more serious. These sample cells were sent away to a specialized laboratory for analysis.
The veterinarian also removed as much of the mass of cells as possible and when we picked our hedgehog up, his swelling had come down but there was still some slight swelling there. We assumed, this was down to the operation and after a course of antibiotics the swelling would recede.
A week later we had a call to confirm our deepest suspicions that it was indeed a tumor, a sarcoma to be exact and it was incurable. This was a body blow, knowing our hedgehog might not survive the following few weeks to get to his fourth birthday.
The prognosis was to carry on feeding him and giving him painkillers twice daily, until he eventually stops eating. We will then need to take him to the veterinarian, where he will be sedated and put to sleep.
It took us a few days to come to terms with this terrible news but we were happy to have had him in our lives and will make sure his last few weeks, he can live with minimal pain and enjoy the foods he loves most.
We’re giving him Metacam, a painkiller to keep his pain at bay and at first found it difficult to give him this along with the antibiotic Baytril, as he would shuffle around so much, making it difficult to put any of these medicines into his mouth. We tried putting some on his dry cat biscuits but he wouldn’t have it, even when we had crunched the biscuits down for him to eat, especially in light of his missing teeth.
In the end, we found small pieces of cooked chicken, which he adores, allows us to squeeze the medicine on the pieces, taking care none of the medicine ends up on the fabric below and is totally absorbed by the chicken. You can see him eating chicken in the video at the bottom of this page.
Hedgehogs live longer as pets than in the wild, where natural predators are the biggest cause of premature death. Many websites are more liberal than the 3-5 years I mentioned earlier, citing hedgehogs living longer.
Hedgehogs may live longer as pets but it’s down to them avoiding the diseases which can make their lives shorter. Unfortunately there’s not much that can be done with diseases like cancers and tumours.
1. Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome
The Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome or WHS as it is aptly referred to, is a progressive degenerative neurological disease that mainly affects the European and African hedgehogs. Experts also refer to the disease as progressive paralysis or paresis. The disease, which took a toll on pet hedgehogs from the mid-1990s, gradually degrades animal muscles the same way Multiple Sclerosis affects muscles in humans.
Despite numerous studies on the disease, it main cause remains unknown to this day. It however believed that it could genetic. A possibly dietary role also remains a suspected cause.
Symptoms and signs
WHS mostly manifests between the ages of 2 and 3. Younger and older hedgehogs can also be affected. Notably, WHS affects male and female hedgehogs in equal measures. Ataxia, which refers to loss of full control and balance or paresis, which refers to muscular weakness as a result of nerve damage usually signal the offset of a WHS. It is also important to note that both paresis and ataxia affect hind legs.
Observe your hedgehog as it stands to be certain it is suffering from WHS. Wobbling as it tries to get some balance is not a good sign. Left untreated, ataxia and paresis often progress from the hind legs to the front part of the body.
This then leads to quadriplegia or tetraplegia where the hedgehog suffers total or partial loss of use of the torso and limbs. Its muscles will then loss mass and strength causing severe weakness. You may also notice significant weight loss. This can easily happen within days.
First ensure that you only go to veterinarian familiar with different WHS species. Blood tests and X-Rays may be required to rule out other conditions. This is important because clinical signs and symptoms lead to tentative diagnosis.
The only definitive and conclusive diagnosis is after the examination of brain tissues and the spinal cord. Unfortunately, such conclusive diagnosis reports mostly come in after death.
There’s no known cure or treatment for WHS in hedgehogs. In many cases, death occurs within 18 and 24 months after the onset of the above explained clinical symptoms. With supportive care though, a hedgehog can live much longer while battling WHS. Such supportive care must include helping the ailing hedgehog with mobility issues.
Using towels to keep the ailing hedgehog upright, cleaning the animal and increasing its accessibility to food and dish can also go a long way to help the affected hedgehog combat WHS. Euthanasia may come in handy as the last option if a hedgehog is chronically and terminally affected.
2. Cancers And Tumors
Cancer is extremely prevalent in hedgehogs over 3 years. Just as it is the case in humans, early detection and intervention can save a hedgehogs life. That explains why it is important to have a vet examine your hedgehog at least once a year or after every six months.
Cancerous tumors have been reported in nearly all the body organs in hedgehogs. They are however, especially common in the gastrointestinal and moth tracts. Symptoms are often vague and non-specific. That fact notwithstanding, be keen once you notice sudden weight loss, lethargy and loss of appetite.
Treatment includes surgical procedures where a tumor has been detected early enough before it worsens. Note that oral tumors are extremely common in hedgehogs. Such tumors may be locally invasive and lethal enough to impede eating, cause considerable discomfort or even death. Uterine and mammary gland cancer are also common in female hedgehogs.
3. Gastro-Intestinal Diseases
The primary gastro intestinal disease of concern in hedgehogs and nearly all other hedgehog species is Salmonellosis. Notably, experts categorize the disease as a zoonotic disease that is both hard to treat and life-threatening if not treated early. Contaminated food stands out as the main cause of Salmonellosis and other gastro-intestinal diseases.
It is easy to understand how and why gastro-intestinal diseases affect hedgehogs. The large intestine maintains electrolytes and fluid balance. It also absorbs nutrients and temporarily store fecal waste which once excreted, provides the environment with healthy bacteria. Once the large intestine gets infected, its primary functions become compromised. Parasites then abound within and around it, causing diarrhea.
Colon inflammation, also referred to as colitis is yet another common gastro-intestinal disease that commonly affects hedgehogs. The disease is particularly common in middle-aged, purebred hedgehogs. The cause is still unknown though bacterial, traumatic, parasitic, allergic and kidney-related causes are all suspected causes.
For colitis, inflammation may be a result of a serious defect in the function of the immune system in the colon. Other possible causes include exaggerated reaction to dietary changes, genetic predisposition or previous parasitic and infectious diseases.
Taking specific preventive measures can go a long way to keep gastro-intestinal diseases affecting hedgehogs at bay. Such preventive measures include routine vet check-ups and only handling your hedgehog with clean hands. It is also important to ensure that you don’t handle or keep your hedgehog where food is eaten or handled.
4. Dental Diseases
An adult hedgehog can have up to 44 tiny teeth. Like other rodents, they have incisors, premolars and canine teeth. Interestingly, hedgehogs get their teeth when they are just three weeks old. This means they have teeth almost their entire lives. They can in fact, chew and grab food shortly after they are born.
While the thought of brushing your hedgehog’s teeth may sound somewhat weird, it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it. They need dental care pretty much the same way humans do. The only exception is that you’ll need a pet veterinarian to get the job done.
Cleaning hedgehog teeth isn’t easy. The hedgehog must first be put under anesthesia. Only then will it be possible for a vet to clean, polish and x-ray hedgehog teeth.
Note that brushing hedgehog’s teeth at home on your own isn’t entirely impossible. There are however, precautionary you must take. For instance, you can’t use toothpaste to clean your hedgehog’s teeth. Use a Q-Tip instead to gently rub all teeth. You may also have to pay extra attention to the back molars.
Be gentle as you brush. Then by all means, don’t panic if you notice the gums bleeding. This only means the hedgehog isn’t used to brushing and that the teeth may not be strong and healthy. With time, you’ll notice some change. Be sure to contact a vet if you notice too much tartar, halitosis and excessive bleeding.
Note that calculus, tartar and plaque refer to the brown or black stuff stuck on your hedgehog’s teeth. It is mostly made up of food particles, bacteria and saliva. It is a huge problem mainly because it makes teeth unhealthy as it sits on the gum line. Remember that the gum-line, just like it is the case in humans, is a direct pathway to your hedgehog’s blood supply.
Leaving any dental condition affecting the gum-line untreated opens an easy path for infection to all major organs in the hedgehog’s body. You can easily brush off softer plaque, but calculus and tartar may prove a challenge as they are hard to completely brush off without professional cleaning.
Hedgehogs also occasionally experience dental abscesses and tooth fractures. A tooth root abscess is when the root of the tooth, has a pocket of pus and blood traces surrounding it. You cannot see the root without x-rays on a healthy tooth.
An abscess can occur mostly due to infection. It can cause a bump under the eye on the side of the face where the affected tooth is. The bump may look like a zit and may pop up on its own within days. Early intervention can by way of extracting the bad tooth is usually the only way out for the hedgehog.
5. Urinary Tract Infections
The urinary tract of a hedgehog is a muscular, hollow digestible organ. It serves a reservoir for urine storage and periodic release. Urine coming off the tract must be clear or yellow in color. Sometimes though, hedgehogs develop urinary tract infections or cystitis. These two conditions are life threatening if left untreated. Their symptoms manifest in change of urine color from clear or yellow to bloody or brown.
Uriothiasis (bladder stones) is also known to cause hematuria (bloody urine). The condition makes it hard for a hedgehog to urinate. In severe cases, it causes death. Radiographs, urinalysis, bladder ultrasound and radiographs can all aid in diagnosing urinary tract diseases that affect hedgehogs. Bladder tumors and kidney infections are other examples of disease that can affect a hedgehog’s urinary tract.
6. Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic Bone Disease or MDB in short, is a crippling and agonizing condition that mainly affects European and African Pygmy hedgehogs. The disease is caused by eating foods that are too low in calcium and too high in phosphorous. It may not look like a serious disease at first, but it eventually kills. To prevent it, avoid feeding your hedgehog with sunflower hearts, oats, peanuts and mealworms.
Eating the above mentioned foods will force your hedgehog to make up for lack of calcium by simply taking it directly from its bones. The bones will then become weak with time as the hedgehog grows thin. Note that the disease comes along with extreme pain and discomfort.
Despite the agony and pain though, the hedgehog’s survival instincts will kick in and force it to keep on moving in a bid to find water and food. Soft tissues will eventually swell as the pain becomes unbearable. At this point, it may be too late to treat the hedgehog.
7. Blood Infections
Hedgehogs can also get blood infections caused by a myriad of unsolved infections inside their bodies. It is important to note that blood infections in hedgehogs come quickly and can be fatal. Vital organs could be affected depending on the type of infection a hedgie has. Infections like pneumonia for instance, have been known to cause other serious blood infections in hedgehogs.
There are several signs you may need to be on the lookout for anytime you suspect your hedgehog is suffering from a blood infection. Immobility, high breathing rate, lethargy and odd behavior all stand out as symptoms of a blood infection in hedgehogs.
Early intervention with prescribed antibiotics is recommended when it comes to treating blood infections in hedgehogs. Note that blood infections in hedgehogs are often fatal if left untreated.
Hedgehogs are known to carry many different parasites including fleas, mites and ticks. They can also carry myasis which are parasites that brought about by flies laying eggs around open wounds. Parasites that feed off hedgehogs can be either internal or external.
Hedgehogs have an uncanny reputation for carrying fleas and passing them on to dogs. Interestingly, hedgehog fleas (Archaeopsylla erinacei, Xenopsylla, Nosopsyllus, Ctenocephalides and Hystrichopsylla talpae) are host-specific. In simple words, they can only breed and complete their life cycles on hedgehogs. Even where a few manage to jump on to dogs or cats, they wouldn’t survive for long.
It is also interesting to note that for a long time, hedgehogs have been thought to be flea prone. Such misconceptions stem from the fact that hedgehogs cannot groom their spines. There is also no truth whatsoever from the common misconception that removing fleas from a hedgehog can kill it. A hedgehog can actually contort its body to groom its spine.
Ticks (Ixodes hexagonus) and mites are also common external hedgehog parasites. Generally, hedgehogs carry on them a few ticks. It is, however, not unusual for a hedgehog to have 20 or more ticks on them. Such cases, though extremely rare, often mean that the affected hedgehog is either anemic or on the verge of becoming anemic.
Note that removing ticks from a hedgehog by simply plucking them off their skin can easily cause the ticks to regurgitate blood. This can then lead blood poisoning which is usually fatal. To safely remove ticks from a hedgehog, twist each tick separately using a lasso or a commercial tick-twister.
The use of pliers or tweezers can apply pressure on a tick’s abdomen and force infected blood back into the host hedgehog. You may also end up only breaking the body but leaving the tick’s head embedded into the hedgehog’s skin. Smothering the tic with oil or Vaseline or even burning it can also cause regurgitation.
Mites, just like ticks can also take a toll on your hedgehog. Many severe infestation cases have been proven to cause mange, especially in New Zealand and Europe. The result is loss of spine, hair and eventually death. Notoedres and Sarcoptes mites also infest hedgehogs but are not as common as other mites. Demodex erinacei mite infect hair follicles of both African Pygmy and European hedgehogs, but generally do not cause serious harm. They are also less common than Sarcoptes.
Fungal infections also fall under the external parasites category. They are fairly common in African Pygmy and European Hedgehogs. Keep in mind though that while many different forms of fungal infections like Histoplasma, Candida albicans, Torulopsis, Emmonsia and Rhodotorula affect hedgehogs, ringworms stand out as the most prevalent .
It poses great danger to hedgehogs because it is a complex disease. Complex in this case doesn’t mean identifying what causes it because all experts agree that Trichophyton erinacei is the main fungal species causing ringworm.
Complexity boils down to the fact that hedgehogs carrying ringworms often behave and feed normally, sometimes with little to no symptoms. Either way, symptoms of ringworm infestation in hedgehogs include spine loss, clumps on the skin and extremely dry and swollen ears.
Hedgehogs can be hosts to many different parasitic worm species including cestodes, nematodes, acanthocephaids and trematodes. Of all parasitic worms that infest hedgehogs though, lungworms stand out as the most common one.
They manifest mostly in form of dry, ratting cough. This happens as newly hatched larvae get coughed out of the lungs before they are almost immediately swallowed before being expelled into droppings. Lungworm infestation can be fatal if left untreated.
Intestinal flukes like Brachylaemus erinacei and Agamodistomum pusillum are also common in hedgehogs. A wide range of other nematodes like Physaloptera, Trichinella are also found in hedgehogs, though with varying prevalence.
There are also suggestions that parasitic challenges are more prevalent in urban areas compared to rural areas. This has quite a lot to do with the fact that hedgehogs in urban areas grapple with higher densities as well as increased contact with other parasite carrying species.
Hedgehogs are pretty much like other pets only that they call for extra attention. Feed them well and you’ll most likely have it in perfect health for many months. Over and beyond feeding it well though, lies yet another fact – that vet care and attention is a necessity for any hedgehog to enjoy optimum health.
Then always keep in mind that not all vet doctors may be familiar with hedgehog needs. Go for one who understand what it takes to treat and inspect hedgehogs. This is important because different hedgehog species call for different treatment and care. The pet hedgehog for instance, calls for extra care and attention.