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Hedgehog FAQ [4/7] - Hedgehogs as pets
Section - <6.2> What should I feed my hedgehog?

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Top Document: Hedgehog FAQ [4/7] - Hedgehogs as pets
Previous Document: <6.1> How can I best hedgehogproof my home?
Next Document: <6.3> Commercial hedgehog foods and nutrition
See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
   Anything he wants, preferably MEALWORMS!!!  
    -- Velcro

Sigh, that's what happens when I ask for advice from a hedgehog.

There are finally a number of good quality, properly developed ``hedgehog
foods'' starting to appear on the market.  While I have outlined these in the
following section [6.3], I can see things soon reaching the point where using
one of these foods will no longer be the `best' thing to do, but the `only'
appropriate course of action.  Unfortunately, they are not yet well
established or widely available, enough, for me to take that position.

Without the benefit of a properly formulated hedgehog food, the next best
option is probably ``insectivore food.''  Unless you can get some direct from
a local zoo, this is largely a do it yourself job.  One caveat I would place
on this is to either cook it, or use cooked meat -- never never NEVER use raw
meat or egg for hedgehogs.  One commercial source of this `type' of food is
PawPrint [6.3].

Unfortunately, true hedgehog food is not available everywhere, and some of
the `hedgehog' foods available appear to not always be the best option.  So
the next best widely available thing, is to feed your hedgehogs high quality
cat, dog, or ferret food, such as Hill's Science Diet, or Pro Plan (don't use
IAMS with hedgehogs that don't have and use wheels -- see below, though even
then it can possibly be associated with problems).  Both dry and canned food
should be provided, as this most closely matches what their natural diet
would be like, and wherever possible, it is best to use diet or light types
of food -- hedgehogs do not need the concentrated protein of
regular/maintenance type foods.

Many breeders I have talked to use cat food with very good results, although
most have now changed (or are changing) to hedgehog foods, so while it may
not be the most optimal diet for hedgehogs, now that other options are coming
available, many happy, healthy, long-lived hedgehogs have thrived on cat and
dog food since the dawn of pet hedgehogs.  That said, there are some problems
associated with it (see section [9.5] on wobbly hedgehogs).  It seems likely
that some sort of vitamin supplement is needed, though exactly what vitamins
or trace elements are lacking is not really known, at this time.

Up to this point, it has generally been felt that using a diet composed
mainly of dry foods is best to help avoid tooth problems such as tartar
buildup, and even abscesses.  Research into other animals has recently begun
to point out that problems such as tartar appear to be more related to the pH
(acidity) of the food being used, rather than how hard and crunchy it is.  My
thanks to Leslie H. for reminding me that this almost certainly applies to
hedgehogs as well as other animals.  As she also pointed out, the ``issue of
hedgie teeth wearing down'' (which can happen in some cases), is likely as
much or more of a concern as tartar, and is much harder to deal with, when it

Dietary needs for hedgehogs are finally starting to be addressed.  One such
recent study demonstrated that hedgehogs need more fibre in their diet than
we have been tending to give them.  Unfortunately, while the study pointed
out that more is needed, the question of how much and how best to provide the
extra fibre is still up in the air.

In general, it is likely wise to offer your hedgehogs some fruit and/or
veggies which are high in fibre, as a supplement to the basic diet you are
currently using.  I can only suggest that you try a variety and see what, if
any, your little friends will decide qualifies as a food item.  As with any
such experimentation, moderation is a good idea -- at least until more is
known.  The good news is that we are learning, and hopefully hedgehog
nutrition will start to move out of the dark ages.

Over the past several years, information has come to light about possible
problems with feeding IAMS brand cat and kitten food to hedgehogs.
Apparently, long term feeding of IAMS cat or kitten food can result in
severe, and often terminal liver problems in hedgehogs.  The exception to
this rule appears to be hedgehogs that have and use wheels -- almost no
reports of problems have appeared in hedgehogs like this that are getting
plenty of exercise (just a nightly run on a bed is not enough).  I have had
two reports where the autopsies showed fatty liver disease, where the
hedgehogs ate IAMS and also ran on wheels regularly, but so far, only two
such case have come to my attention.  I do want to stress that this is still
largely speculative, and reflects my own observations of the cases I am aware
of.  I will keep watching this issue, and keep things updated here.

The problem appears to be limited to IAMS brand as far as research has been
able to tell, at this point, and I want to STRONGLY stress that IAMS is just
GREAT for cats (as all 5 of mine will attest to), but was never intended for
hedgehogs.  If I learn more, I will pass along any additional information.

My source for this information is somewhat nervous about potential legal
repercussions if they came out and officially stated the problem, due to the
position that they hold.  This tenuous position will likely remain, at least
until having done much more extensive research (actual, direct research into
the problem would require the cost of numerous hedgehog lives, I might add,
which is one reason why none has been done).  As a result of all of this, I
have agreed not to list their name(s).  That said, I will acknowledge that my
source(s) for this information is/are (a) well respected hedgehog
expert(s). I leave it to you to decide based on some of the comments that
were passed to me.

    The first sign of trouble in hedgehogs that have been fed this
    food for extended periods of time is yellowish looking fat deposits 
    under the front ``arm-pits''.  Virtually every one of the animals that 
    has been necropsied after death has died of impacted fatty liver 
    disease. If taken off of IAMS and given a [different] quality cat or 
    kitten food, they will recover.  Both the fat and the protein should be 
    derived mostly from poultry.

    [I] have heard of this serious problem from more than 100 owners and 
    it has been documented by vets.

If you have been using IAMS, don't panic -- as was pointed out, changing the
food will apparently lead to any of the effects clearing up.  Also if a wheel
is offered and used, the problem is likely to dissipate quickly.

From what I've heard, the problem is due to the types of fat, and possibly in
conjunction with certain additives, rather than just the absolute level of
fat in the food.  My thanks to Christine Porter for pointing out this
confusion.  As noted, the problem generally only occurs with hedgehogs that
don't get enough exercise.  Increasing the exercise seems to allow hedgehogs
to burn this fat that would otherwise build up in their bodies, culminating
in Fatty Liver Disease.  While all hedgehogs should probably have a proper
wheel [5.6] [5.7], a wheel is likely critical to those that are eating IAMS,
and can't be switched to a different food.

I should also point out that if, indeed, the problem is due in any part to
the additives, or the type of fats, rather than just the quantity of fat,
then use of lite, or canned food would have no effect on avoiding problems.

The following information, from Elizabeth Galante, is somewhat speculative
with respect to hedgehogs, but may have some bearing on the fatty liver
problems.  She described a problem that resulted in the death of one of her
cats a few years ago from fatty liver disease:

   The fat in his body started to accumulate in the liver and the liver could
   not function normally, because it was overloaded with fat deposits.

   I guess for a hedgehog if it gets too much fat too quickly then it gets 
   deposited under the arms.  If the owner decides to put the hog on a 
   diet then the fat gets processed through the liver.  If it gets 
   overloaded it shuts down and eventually the kidneys will also causing 
   the animal to die.

It is not unreasonable to consider that a slight diet, or drop in food intake
at the wrong moment could trigger the problem.  It might be wise to ensure
that you don't put your hedgies on a diet at the same time as switching them
off of IAMS, or at least to phase it out, rather than going cold turkey.
Again, this is speculative, but with so little information to go on in this
area, anything can be useful to consider at this point.

Hedgehogs not fed a good, balanced, commercial hedgehog food may require
vitamin suppliments.  These can be very important for hedgehogs to avoid ear,
skin, and other problems.  The vitamins included in commercial cat and dog
food, while good, are not adequate for what hedgehogs really require.  It can
take some imagination to find a suitable supplement in some places (remember,
those intended for rodents are probably not adequate) but the results of a
happy, healthy hedgehog are well worth it.

I would suggest that for people seeking a vitamin supplement to use, look to
those formulated for animals which live on a primarily insect diet, such as
some birds.  Also, beware not to overdo the vitamins, which can be even more
dangerous, than too little.

Another diet that has been suggested is to use high quality dog food
(especially frozen varieties), with cottage cheese as a supplement.  Cottage
cheese also makes for a good treat on occasion, even if you don't use it as
part of the standard diet.

However, do be a bit wary of the Cottage Cheese Zack Lessley reminded me that
that hedgehogs ARE loctose intolerant, as are many animals.  So use cottage 
cheese (or any milk based product) with care and sparingly.  Zack also notes 
that you might also want to be wary of Kitten food for the same reason.  While
many are not going to contain cows milk products directly (cats and kittens 
are also lactose intolerant with respect to cows milk), kitten food is just 
not an ideal diet for hedgehogs.

Here are a couple of comments on diet from Cathy A. Johnson-Delaney, DVM:

    I was very glad to see you mention ferret food, as commercial ferret 
    food is far closer to an insectivore/carnivore diet than feline 
    science diet - either growth or maintenance. I like a modification of 
    the diet used by the San Jose Zoo (published in the Journal of Small 
    Exotic Animal Med) - I substitute Bird of Prey diet with the ferret 
    chow (three different brands).

Since this time I have learned that some brands of ferret food `can' cause
allergic reactions in hedgehogs.

    The reactions to ferret food are the same as they are with any food that
    a hedgehog may be allergic to. They break out in a rash. It sometimes 
    appears over the back and can be mistaken for mites or ringworm, but it 
    usually shows up on the underbelly. Nice big, sore red spots all over.
    -- Bryan Smith

Obviously, if any sign of these symptoms does appear, discontinue feeding the
ferret food you are using immediately.  It would also be prudent for your
hedgehog to visit a vet at this point as allergic reactions can be quite

Continuing on with the topic of Ferrit food, now that there are actually a
number of decent hedgehog foods available, Zack Lessley pointed out that many
Ferret foods are often too high in fats, etc. to be good for hedgies: 

    Ferret food- one of the most common problems with hedgehogs is obesity 
    and fatty liver disease. I have ferrets, and have given my hedgie the 
    food but honestly it's WAY too rich and fatty for them in my humble 
    opinion. Ferrets are very oily little critters that love oily food and 
    oil (see Feretone.. they go crazy for that stuff)
    -- Zack Lessley

This does not imply that all ferret food should be avoided -- far from it --
but that you should be watchful when you start using a particular brand.

Here are some more thoughts and suggestions from Nathan Tenny on food and

    They should eat fruit, but many don't want to; various fruit-based 
    baby foods seem a little more palatable.  Cottage cheese is a good 
    semi-regular source of calcium, but seems to cause diarrhea if they 
    eat too much too often.  We haven't yet gotten ours to eat crickets, 
    but we're assured that they will if we keep offering them, and they're 
    supposed to be very good for them.  They'll also eat earthworms and 
    pinky mice, and possibly mealworms (though the last are reputed to 
    cause intestinal blockages).

Other sources and hedgehog owners I've heard from frequently offer mealworms
as treats with no apparent ill effects, but I suspect they might not be a
good recommendation as the sole source of food for a hedgehog.

    Mealworms are used as a treat.  So far she won't eat crickets and 
    earthworms cause anointing.  She will eat the occasional flake of 
    oatmeal which is substrate for the mealworms and will chew and then 
    spit out Kale.  
    -- Katherine Long

One caution that has come up is that you should remove and discard any dead
mealworms from the container you keep them in.  It is possible for the other
mealworms to develop and pass along dangerous bacteria as recounted here:

    [I] Observed [my] hedgehog ``Bandi'' had not consumed either food or 
    drink from overnight Monday into Tuesday morning.  Peeked under her 
    blanket to see a very lethargic and distressed animal.  She remained in 
    a ball and hissed, refused to uncurl, and observed her ``smacking'' her 
    lips and kind of allowing her tongue to just loll out weakly.

    [I] Got her into the vet within a couple of hours and it was determined 
    that she had very high levels of bacteria in her intestine (found after 
    putting her out and doing a rectal swab.)  Cause appears to be a common 
    bacteria associated with decaying insects (mealworms in this case) and it 
    overtaxed her system.  Antibiotics [were] prescribed and am pleased to 
    report she was her normal self by Wednesday afternoon!

    It was the vet who noted all insects carry the bacteria, and all hedgehogs
    also have a quantity of the bacteria, but our vet said the decay process 
    makes it a little harder on the hedgehog gut to handle.
    -- H. Swaggert

All in all a very wise precaution, and an example of someone who was observant
enough to know when their hedgie needed help.  The result was a happy ending 
and good information for all of us.

While we are discussing mealworms, a number of people have expressed worry
that it might be necessary to cut the heads off or otherwise kill mealworms
before feeding them to hedgehogs.  This is due to the fact that feeding them
to various herps who swallow their food whole, can result in the still live
mealworms causing injury or death by biting into or through the stomach
lining.  This doesn't apply to hedgehogs as hedgies will chew up mealworms
quite thoroughly -- the chances of a hedgehog swallowing a still live
mealworm are nil, as anyone who has watched an apparently ravenous hedgehog
tear into a mealworm treat.  Did I remember to say watch out for your

The following thoughts on proper diet for hedgehogs were sent along to me by
Willard B. ``Skip'' Nelson, DVM.  While I agree with his suggestions,
including limiting cat food, I would also like to point out that all of the
breeders I've talked with, and heard about have had their herds thrive on a
diet of cat and dog food, though more and more are now using proper hedgehog
food, as it becomes more widely available.  I think the answer is to aim as
close to the ideal as you can, but know that your hedgehog can do quite well
on the basic cat/dog food diet, just watch out that your hedgehog doesn't
become a hedgeball.  That said, let's take a look at what Dr. Nelson has to

    Zoos have worked for years on insectivore diets and have yet to agree 
    on the best mix, but they do not bother trying to raise, breed or
    maintain hedgehogs on cat food, as is being touted around currently.  
    Indeed, they rarely use more than 20 or 30% cat food, even in small cat 
    diets, but that hasn't stopped the ferret and hedgehog people from 
    trying.  I see obesity as the main problem in cat food diets, but one 
    day we will have more data.  Dr. Anthony Smith recommends a mix of bird 
    of prey diet, diced fruit, vegetables, some dog or cat food, crickets 
    and mealworms.  He notes diets including mice and other exotic 
    ingredients, and cautions feeding proper Calcium Phosphorous ratio of 

    Pet trade magazines attempt to promote cat food, claiming that ``although
    insectivorous, the hedgehog could be considered as a carnivore under 
    captive conditions.''  What does it do, change its dietary needs when 
    brought into a domestic setting? I doubt it!

    Drs. Wallach & Boever describe their diet including a variety of insects,
    worms, small vertebrates, carrion and small roots and plant material. 
    They recommend zoo diets with a maximum of 30% commercial cat or dog 
    foods.  The rest is meats, insects and mice.

    I recommend an insectivore diet from Reliable Protein, 70-105 Frank 
    Sinatra Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270-2202.  But I don't recommend that 
    clients write for information and then try to decide whether or not to 
    feed it.  The public is being hoodwinked into believing that they are 
    Ph.D.'s in nutrition and can read a label list of ingredients or a crude 
    analysis and make meaningful decisions, it's much more involved than 
    that, and I don't know who has written any good material on the ``pop 
    nutrition'' craze to put it into proper perspective.

Dr. Nelson's final comment is even easier to apply to other pets, and even
ourselves.  It's probably best to look for recommendation by a veterinarian
association, when trying to determine quality, rather than trying to second
guess what is good based on what ``someone who wants to sell you something''
says.  Also, remember, what's healthy for you, might be really bad for your
pets (and, um, er, vice versa -- just in case it isn't obvious).

Melissa Kallick managed to track down the contents and analsys of Reliable
Protein Insectivore Diet:

    Porcine By-Products, Fish Meal, Poultry By-Product Meal, Shrimp Meal, 
    Wheat Flour, Dried Bakery Products, Crushed Roasted Peanuts, Dried 
    Kelp, Fructose Sugar, Corn Syrup Solids, Water, Spirulina, Lactic 
    Acid, Phosphoric Acid, Calcium Propionate (Preservative), Iodized 
    Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Concentrated Carotene, Calcium Chloride, 
    Propylene Glycol, Vitamin E Supplement, Taurine, Vitamin A Acetate 
    with D-Activated Animal Sterol (source of vitamin D-3), Vitamin B-12 
    Supplement, Riboflavin, Niacin, Calcium Pantothenate, Choline 
    Chloride, Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex (source of Vitamin K 
    activity), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamin Mononitrate, Ascorbic 
    Acid, Sodium Selenite, Manganous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Copper 
    Sulfate, Ethylene Diamine Dihydriodide., Magnesium Sulfate, P-Amino 
    benzoic Acid, Folic Acid, Sulfur, Biotin, Natural and Artificial Flavors.

    Now with taurine  added

       	Crude Protein  Min...20.00%     
       	Calcium (CA)  Min.....2.00%
       	Crude Fat  Min........7.00%     
       	Phosphorous (P) Min...1.00%
       	Crude Fiber Max.......6.00%     
       	Iron  Min.............0.005%
       	Moisture  Max........36.00%     
       	Taurine  Min..........0.003%
       	Ash Max...............9.00%  

Melissa noted there are definitely some iffy items on the ingredients list,
at least by human standards, but more importantly, she noted that hedgehogs
apparently don't find the taste terriby appealing.  However, hedgies can be
amazingly fickle and will suddenly decide to devour a food they used to 
despise (and yes, turn their noses up at food they used to love).

She also noted that the Reliable Protein have another interesting item:

    Finally, there is one interesting product on  their web site: Freeze 
    dried Asian tree ants and eggs.  Here is the info:
    Ants available - Freeze Dried or Frozen   

       	Guaranteed Analysis
       	Crude Protein.....55.5 %
       	Crude Fat.........20.5 %
       	Crude Fiber.......12.0 %
       	Ash................4.0 %
       	Moisture...........8.0 %

       	Asian Tree Ants and eggs...100 % 

    That might make a good treat for hedgies, and there is some more fiber...
    -- Melissa Kallick

One thing you should never feed hedgehogs is raw meat.  Hedgehogs have an
amazing tolerance for naturally occurring toxins, such as those produced by
salmonella.  This means that if you feed your hedgehog food that is or
becomes tainted by salmonella by accident, it probably won't bother your
prickly little friend any.  However, the chance then exists, that your
hedgehog might self-anoint and you then hold him, or he might lick your
hands, the result being that you come down with it.  If you do, this is NOT
the hedgehog's fault, it's yours for not taking proper care.  Sorry for being
a bit testy about this, but if anyone remembers the outcry over salmonella
carrying turtles in the early 70's when turtles were banned everywhere, and
many died for their dangers.  Hedgehogs, unlike these turtles, are not
inherent carriers of salmonella.  While there has been a strain traced to
hedgehogs, unlike the turtle situation in the 70's most hedgehogs that have
been tested have proven to be free of salmonella.  The cases which did occur,
were very isolated, limited to specific groups, and happened some years ago.
It is very important to avoid the same thing that happened with turtles from
being applied to hedgehogs, where the situation is very very different.

Hedgehogs are insectivores, and as a result are essentially carnivorous, as
opposed to Guinea pigs, rabbits, and most small rodents, which are generally
much more vegetarian in nature (although many are somewhat carnivorous, often
in the form of insects or scavenging to some degree).

The quantity they eat will vary depending on their age, sex, amount of
exercise, etc., and, of course, on the type of food you are feeding them.  A
rough rule of thumb is somewhere around 2 tablespoons worth per hedgehog per
day.  More if they are young, pregnant, or nursing.  Less if they are tending
towards becoming a hedgeball.

Hedgehogs do tend to eat at least twice per day.  In effect, their stomachs
don't hold all that they need in one go, so after their dinner, they tend to
rest for some time while they digest what they've eaten, then it's back to
the dinner bowl for another helping, usually later in the night, or early
morning.  This is what leads to the two main ``active'' periods of late
evening and early morning.

One last point, feeding a hedgehog a purely vegetarian diet is nothing short
of deliberate cruelty.  The proteins and nutrients necessary to keep your
hedgehog healthy cannot be gotten from a purely vegetarian diet, so please
don't try it.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Apr 26, 2012 @ 10:22 pm
Hi, my hedgehog started running around her cage squealing so I took her out to see what was wrong. Her genital area was inflamed and she had open sores all around that area. I gave her a bath, but I'm really worried about her. Do you have any idea what this could be?
Thank you!

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Top Document: Hedgehog FAQ [4/7] - Hedgehogs as pets
Previous Document: <6.1> How can I best hedgehogproof my home?
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