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Who doesn’t know the cute ball of spikes that goes out for a walk at night? It is one of the first animals we come in contact with since childhood, being an omnipresent figure in fairy tales, stories, and, more recently, cartoons. Beyond the first impression, the hedgehog is a fascinating animal with an interesting way of life and a role of great importance in the ecosystems to which it belongs. But beyond its absolutely surprising mythology and strictly zoological information, it is an animal increasingly cornered and endangered by the reckless actions of man. The hedgehogs must survive! Without them, the world would become poorer, and autumn would lose its charm.
Hedgehogs and humans suffer from many common diseases and medical problems. Poor hedgehogs also suffer from cancer, liver disease, or cardiovascular disease.
Fatty liver is a common condition because it prefers to feed on foods high in fats and sugars.
Hedgehogs also transmit a skin infection to the human with a fungus. This type of dermatophytosis is caused by the parasite Trichophyton erinacei.
Hedgehogs that eat insects previously contaminated with pesticides by humans end up having digestive problems and often die.
Characteristics of a healthy hedgehog
A healthy hedgehog should always be bright, alert, and responsive, says Stacey Leonatti Wilkinson, DVM, at the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in Georgia.
These energetic mammals sleep during the day and are active at night, often sniffing when walking and exploring. When your hedgehog is awake, its eyes should be bright and open, and its belly should be lifted off the ground when it walks.
Apart from a good appetite, your healthy hedgehog should be able to walk completely. Its skin should not be flushed, crusty, red, or itchy, and when touched, even healthy and well-socialized hedgehogs will hiss or stiffen in response.
How can I tell if my hedgehog is sick?
In some cases, the signs of disease in hedgehogs may be specific to a particular disease. However, more often, the signs are vague and nonspecific, such as a hedgehog with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be caused by many diseases, including pneumonia, cancer, and even kidney or liver failure. For this reason, any deviation from normal should be a cause for concern, and your hedgehog will require immediate evaluation by a veterinarian.
There are several causes of diarrhea in hedgehogs, ranging from food indigestion to bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections. Dehydration associated with diarrhea is an important problem for these small patients. Soft stools that persist for more than a day or diarrhea associated with other symptoms like lack of appetite, inactivity, or other changes in behavior, should be brought to the attention of the veterinarian immediately.
Health issues in hedgehogs
Common conditions of hedgehogs include external and internal parasites, ringworm, cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, and pneumonia.
What are the signs of these diseases?
Both internal and external parasites are found to infest hedgehogs. Intestinal parasites (“worms” and protozoa) can cause diarrhea and can be diagnosed based on a fecal examination in animals that show no symptoms.
External parasites include fleas, ticks, and mites and cause various types of dermatitis. Caparinia tripilis is the most common mite found in hedgehogs. It is often discovered during the examination of the face, as they run around the face, forehead, and ears. These mites come from direct contact with other infected hedgehogs or from contaminated litter or cages in which infected animals have lived.
Although many animals do not show clinical signs, signs may include loss of the spines, peeling skin, crusts at the base of the spines, and scratching or rubbing on stationary objects. Ear mites can also infect your hedgehog. Fleas like to sit on many warm-blooded mammals and hedgehogs are no exception. Ticks are uncommon, especially if the hedgehog is kept indoors.
The worm is not really a worm, but rather a fungus. Clinical signs may include missing spines, hair loss, peeling, and skin crusts. It can be passed on to other pets and people.
Cancer often occurs in hedgehogs aged 3 years and older. Most commonly, cancer involves the mouth, stomach, or intestinal tract, but all parts of the body are sensitive. As is true for many hedgehog diseases, clinical signs may not be cancer-specific and would simply include weight loss, lack of appetite, and lethargy.
Respiratory diseases, especially pneumonia, are often seen in hedgehogs. Symptoms may include nasal leakage, sneezing, and shortness of breath. Severely affected animals can no longer eat. One of the most common causes of pneumonia in hedgehogs is the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough in dogs. It may be wise to limit contact between dogs and hedgehogs. All dogs in the house should be vaccinated against kennel cough.
Gastrointestinal problems can occur for several different reasons. Salmonella infections may not be clinically evident or manifest as diarrhea in a hedgehog that appears ill; it can lead to dehydration and death if not managed properly. Other causes of diarrhea include dietary factors, such as milk consumption or changing food brands. Fatty liver disease or liver lipidosis is caused by malnutrition, hunger, obesity, toxins, or certain infections.
How are hedgehog diseases diagnosed?
As with other animals, such as dogs and cats, it is often necessary to perform certain clinical procedures or diagnostic tests to arrive at an appropriate diagnosis. These procedures may include a thorough physical examination, fecal analysis, X-rays, blood tests, urine tests, fungal or bacterial cultures, ultrasound examinations, and exploratory surgery.
Unlike dogs and cats, most hedgehogs need to be anesthetized to perform a thorough examination or other procedures. The use of gas anesthesia, such as isoflurane gas, is safe, fast, and allows the procedures to be performed correctly without harming the pet, owner, or veterinarian.
It is necessary to perform certain clinical procedures or diagnostic tests to arrive at an appropriate diagnosis.
How are hedgehog diseases treated?
Internal parasites are treated with the appropriate medications for deworming. External parasites are treated with a safe spray for fleas, injectable medication, or a medical bath.
Pneumonia and other respiratory problems are treated with antibiotics. Hedgehogs that are lethargic and have stopped eating require aggressive therapy in the hospital. Fluid therapy and forced feeding may be required. Diarrhea is managed by determining the cause, correcting the diet, and providing appropriate medications.
It may be possible to surgically remove some cancerous tumors. However, those affected internal organs are often too damaged at the time of diagnosis for successful removal.
Feeding it antibiotics or other oral medications can be very challenging in a reluctant hedgehog especially if the medication tastes bad. Antibiotics or injectable medications may be needed. Hospitalization may be recommended to treat a hedgehog properly.
Home care for a sick hedgehog
You can provide supportive general care at home, but the primary problem might not improve without proper veterinary treatment.
If a hedgehog is weak or lethargic, extra heat should be provided. Hedgehogs will enter a state of torpor (such as hibernation) if the temperature of the environment drops below 65-70oF, so keeping them warm is very important.
To make your hedgehog warm, place it in a blanket on a human heating pad, and put it down. You can also place the heating pad under one side of your pet’s cage or put a heat lamp over one end so that it can move away from it, when in need.
While waiting to take your hedgehog to the vet, reduce its stress by leaving it alone as much as you can. If your little pet lives with another hedgehog, immediately remove its mate from the cage. Give the hedgehog a dark and quiet environment.
If the animal doesn’t eat, you can offer it some canned cat food, chicken or turkey food, or its normal diet soaked in water or chicken broth. A syringe could help feed or provide water, but do it carefully, as it can aspirate or suffocate if taken too quickly.
If the hedgehog is sick, do not bathe it unless your veterinarian instructs you to do so. Do not expose your hedgehog to drafts or loud noises. Avoid manipulation if possible.
Every time you notice something out of the ordinary with a hedgehog call your veterinarian, because he can advise you on what might happen and whether it is good to monitor it or whether your hedgehog should be brought in and how soon.
In general, every time the hedgehog is less active, doesn’t eat well, or you notice more specific signs such as coughing, sneezing, breathing problems, abnormal urine or feces, etc., a visit to the vet is required. Most exotic pets, including hedgehogs, are very good at hiding their clinical signs of disease, as in the wild they would be a target for a predator if they showed any weakness. Because of this, it is very common that a hedgehog will show you that something is wrong, and sometimes may be seriously ill.