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!

Veterinary Care Your Hedgehog Needs

Hedgehogs are exotic animals that haven’t been domesticated for very long time relative to other popular pets. As much as we know about them, there is a lot we don’t know. This, coupled with the fact that hedgehogs do have more special needs than other small standard small animal pets, leaves a lot of room for our friends to become unhealthy without us even realizing it.

For this reason, veterinary care is very important in maintaining the health of our hedgies.

 

Regular Health Checks

Not every veterinarian cares for exotic pets, so it will take a little research on your part to find a suitable vet in your area. I recommend that while doing your research, you also take note of any 24-hour animal hospitals as well; just in case there is an emergency outside of office hours.

It is recommended that an introductory appointment be set up within the first 4 to 8 weeks of owning your hedgehog. After that, an annual check-up appointment is required.

This is so that the doctor can get to know the animal, what is normal and also so they can keep a baseline record in regards to health. If you just bring your hedgehog in to the vet’s office when something is wrong, it will take more time to diagnose an illness because there is no medical history.

During your general health checks, you will be asked to give information about:

  • Age (first appointment)
  • Habitat (first appointment)
  • Food Type
  • How much food is given
  • Activity Level

Since hedgehogs can be very defensive around people they don’t know very well, your vet may have to sedate them for a short time to perform a full physical examination.

 

Keeping Track of Health at Home

When I take Nestor to the vet when something is wrong, I am always asked if there is:

  • A decrease in food or water intake
  • A decrease in activity level
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Whether or not he could have gotten into anything

Animals will naturally hide symptoms of illness so that they don’t appear weak to predators. Weight loss and low food and water intake are often the first signs that something could be wrong.

It is a good idea to keep track of these values over your hedgehog’s life so you know what is normal and what is abnormal. Even if you don’t have an exact number for them, like if you just fill the water bowl every night without measurement for example. You can still check to see how much the levels have gone down by in the morning.

Over time, it is very noticeable if your hedgehog hasn’t drunk anything or ran on the wheel throughout the night.

I clean Nestor’s wheel every night, so if it’s in the same condition the following morning I know he didn’t run on his wheel.

I also use a small scale to measure out the amount of food Nestor gets during his nightly cage cleaning, and how much food is left in the morning. Again, over time you will come to know what is normal for your hedgehog and what is abnormally low.

 

Veterinary Costs

The cost to see an exotic vet is usually a little more per visit than a vet for standard pets such as a cat or dog.

On average, the base cost to even see a vet is usually around $60-70. Any treatments, including the anesthesia if your hedgie needs to be sedated for the examination, are added on top of that base cost.

I’ve found that generally the cost of treatments and medications are pretty reasonable, averaging about $30 per treatment. It can add up, but the real cost comes from any imaging services needed.

It is recommended that you slowly start saving an emergency fund for surprise vet visits. That way you have peace of mind that you will be able to provide the care your hedgie needs when they really need it.

Veterinary costs can vary depending on region, and may also vary from practice to practice. Remember to ask about the base costs for that practice when shopping for an exotic vet.

 

How did you decide which vet to take your hedgehog to? What was your experience dealing with exotic vets? Let us know in the comments section!