How My Hedgehog Reacted to Our Tiny Human

During our little summer break, we welcomed a new addition to our household! And with a new addition, there was a little bit of a transition period for all members of our family. Including for our little fur-baby, Nestor.

Before our little one came, we had Nestor’s cage in our second bedroom turned office. He was in a nice and quiet place, away from the hustle and bustle of the household as he slept the day away.

We decided that the best place for Nestor would be the living area. It wouldn’t be as quiet for him, but he would get the privacy he was used to during his most active hours from 1am to 6am.

We knew the transition from essentially his own little hedgehog room to the living room was going to be a little stressful for him, so we made sure to do it months before the baby came. And to our surprise, it didn’s stress him out one bit.

He continued to sleep through the day and he wasn’t any more grumpy and hissy than his normal hedgehog self. Yay, we did it! We thought for sure we were in the clear!

You probably know where I’m going with this. We were definitely not in the clear! There was one thing my husband and I overlooked; baby smells.

All stress and adverse reactions came when the baby was brought back home. Of course it would, why didn’t we think of this before it happened?! A hedgehog’s primary sense is its smell, so of course he would notice a household full of different odours.

I felt so bad for not realizing this was going to happen. Actual crying may have been involved (hormones be crazy!).

Not only was Nestor reacting to the new household smells, but he also no longer recognized me! He was as hissy and poppy as when we first got him, and twice as bitey. If I attempted to get him out of his hide, he would actively try to poke me with his spines and nip at me until my hand was away.

Major “my hedgehog just broke up with me” crying may have been involved after this as well (did I mention hormones?).

As it turns out, I learned from talking with a friend from grad school that some anesthesia can actually temporarily change your body’s biochemistry. It seems like this is something that can be sensed by animals. She had noticed that when one of her dogs has surgery, the other doesn’t seem to recognize them for a few days after. So to Nestor, I was literally a whole different (and unknown) person!

In the coming weeks, it felt like Nestor was never going to get used to our new household. But we held on and did all we could to mitigate Nestor’s stress, and within 6 weeks Nestor was back to his normal grumpy hedgehog self (phew!).

Here are the steps we took to ease Nestor’s transition:

 

1. Layed off social media

We decided to give Nestor a little social media break during his adjustment period. Across all of our social media accounts, there was a fair amount of picture taking for Nestor. Although under normal circumstances photos during playtime or a short photo session never stressed him out, we thought taking something off his plate might help with dealing with all the new stimuli.

2. Employed bonding techniques

Even though they would never be in direct contact, the baby was still a new human Nestor had to get used to. So I employed the bonding techniques I used when he was just a small adolescent hog. Since baby scent would most likely be mixed with my own from time to time, I put the shirt I was wearing for the day in his cage each evening so that he would associate the new baby scent with comfort. This way Nestor could get used to the new baby scent, as he got used to the scents of my husband and me.

3. Gave Nestor his privacy

Now more than ever, it was vital that we take Nestor out every evening for cuddle time so that he continued to feel loved. Because it’s just his little hedgehog personality, sometimes he didn’t feel like socializing for a full hour (or even 5 minutes at times!). When this happened and he really just felt like chilling out in his hide, we respected his privacy and let him. This goes against the 1-hour of bonding time per day recommendation. But if you have longer bonding sessions most days, giving your hedgie a rest when he or she doesn’t feel like socializing won’t hurt your relationship. Animals have their different moods as well, after all!

4. Let caregiver #2 take the reins

This is where it really helps to have a friend or a second member of the family familiar with caring for your hedgehog! As mentioned before, I smelled a lot different to Nestor the first week or two I was back home. During this time I let my husband take over hedgehog care, including bonding time. This way we could let Nestor ease into the new smells, instead of bombarding him with new scents. After a couple of weeks, I was able to start handling him again without so much hissing.

 

In the end, I think that giving him his own space while still maintaining adequate bonding time was the right thing to do. 6 weeks later, Nestor is 100% back to his old (somewhat) grumpy self. He is still our happy, healthy little hog!

Having a hedgehog in a home with small children is usually discouraged due to the noise, so I was pretty worried about how Nestor would handle it. I now know that as long as extra steps are taken to ensure the animal is safe and comfortable, it can be done.

These little guys are a lot better at adapting to different surroundings than some people give them credit for!

However, it is a good idea to always strive to have your hedgehog’s home in a space with low foot traffic if space permits.

If you ever find yourself in a position where you need to change your hedgehog’s environment, remember to do it as slow as you can and ease them into it gently. Give them some extra checks to ensure that they aren’t exhibiting harmful behaviour such as self-mutilation, and ensure that their eating and drinking habits have not changed by very much. They should warm up to their new surroundings fairly quickly.

 

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Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome

Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS) is a major cause of death in pet hedgehogs and is therefore very widely discussed amongst owners. Like many hedgehog owners, I first heard about WHS in forum discussions while researching hedgehogs before buying my first one.

While reviewing peer-reviewed papers one day, I wondered what the scientific community had to say about WHS. So one evening I searched for all the papers I could find on the subject.

As it turns out, there are very few papers on the subject! The different types of cancers that pet hedgehogs can develop are more widely researched than WHS. But the information that was available paints a near complete picture of the disease.

Here is everything you need to know, straight from the horse’s mouth:

What is Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome?

Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome is a neurodegenerative disease that causes partial paralysis and slowly progresses to complete paralysis. About 70% of all cases start in the hind quarters and slowly moves up the body.

It is usually described as being similar to Parkinson’s disease in humans because that is a widely known disorder, but it actually more closely resembles Canavan disease in humans (yea, I haven’t heard of it before now either).

WHS affects 10% of pet African pygmy hedgehogs. Although the cause of the disease is unknown, it is widely believed to be genetic.

A reputable hedgehog breeder takes steps to ensure there is no WHS in their breeding lines, including only breeding hedgehogs with a documented breeding line and removing individuals from their breeding program whose offspring have developed WHS. For this reason, many breeders offer a lifetime WHS guarantee: if your hedgehog develops WHS (diagnosed by a vet) at any point in their lives, the breeder will replace your hedgehog for free.

 

Diagnosis

Since WHS shares common symptoms with other diseases, a necropsy after death is required for a definitive diagnosis.

To do this, the brain and/or spinal cord must be dissected from the animal, thinly sliced (sectioned) onto a glass slide, stained and observed under a microscope. The appearance of vacuoles (small sac-like organelles) in the white matter of the brain to give it a spongy appearance is a clear indication that the hedgehog had WHS.

A 2014 study reported WHS-like symptoms and vacuolization of the white matter to be caused by an infection of a mouse pneumonia virus. Cancerous tumors have also been shown to be the cause of WHS-like symptoms. The white matter of the brain should also be free of immune cells or large legions and tumors as well as be spongy in appearance to be classified as WHS.

 

Symptoms and Prognosis

The first onset of symptoms usually appears within the first 3 years of life. Some sources quote the first 2 years of life, but there have been some cases of WHS that have been diagnosed at a little over 2 years of age.

Common symptoms (from mild to severe) include:

  • Tremors
  • Tilting of the head
  • Inability to coordinate voluntary muscle movements
  • Unsteady or “wobbly” walking (gait)
  • Partial paralysis
    • hindquarters only or all four limbs
  • Wasting away of muscle (muscle atrophy)
  • Falling to one side
  • Difficulty swallowing

Uncommon symptoms include:

  • Bulging of the eye
  • A sideways curvature of the spine
  • Self-mutilation
  • Seizures

There is no cure for WHS; aside from attempting to treat the symptoms and making sure the animal is comfortable there isn’t very much a vet can do, unfortunately.

The survival period after the onset of symptoms is 15 to 25 months. If your hedgie is tentatively diagnosed with WHS and crosses the rainbow bridge within a few weeks, that could be an indication that the symptoms were caused by another illness.

 

What Can I Do For My Hedgie?

Unfortunately, like the vet, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do for your hedgie besides loving them and making sure he or she is comfortable.

Boxer Wheelchair-min
A wheelchair-like assist device for a diplegic dog. Photo by Handicapped Pets.

Some owners fashion a little “wheel-chair” device similar to a wheel-chair for dogs. This can greatly extend the quality of life during the first few months when only the hindquarters are paralyzed!

More than likely, their quality of life will diminish to the point of having to help them over the rainbow bridge before they pass from the disease itself. As difficult as it may be, it is important to recognize when they are no longer enjoying their days so that they don’t suffer for too long.

Just know that your love and care enriched their lives and made the time that they did have that much more enjoyable.

 

Do you have first-hand experience with WHS? Let us know in the comments section!