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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.