Hedgehogs are fantastic pets! It is magical when they bond with you -not many small animals have this tendency! However, it is really important to know the bonding process doesn't happen overnight. Hedgehogs are not a domesticated animal. Hedgehogs were brought into the pet trade in the 1980s and are still a wild animal. A wild animal is a species that evolved in the wild. It has the physiology, mental capacity, and instincts best suited to the environment it evolved in. An individual wild animal can become tamed (conditioned to be more docile and submissive to humans), but domestication occurs not on one animal, but on a population of a species. Domestication of a species takes thousands of years.
Hedgehogs require a lot of patience while you tame and bond with your baby. Hedgies are shy and reluctant to interact with humans without effort on your part. This does not mean that you can’t bond with a hedgehog… you definitely can! It just takes a little bit of effort in the early stages to win your hedgehog's trust.
Since Hedgehogs in the wild are ground dwelling animals and are often preyed upon, they have strong instincts for protection. While taming and bonding with your hedgehog it is important to realize that instincts will often override any learned behavior. The less you set off their instinctual triggers the quicker your hedgehog will tame and bond with you. Understanding what your hedgehog is trying to tell you will help you teach your hedgehog that you are not going to eat him!
Picking up and Holding your Hedgehog
Most hedgehogs don’t like you reaching into their cage. When you remove the igloo or hiding spot from your hedgehog, you trigger its defensive instincts. Hedgehogs only have rods on their retinas for seeing light or dark. Over stimulation of these neurons by the light blinds and frightens your hedgehog. It’s kind of like when you are asleep and someone flips on the light in the middle of the night. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust. Now imagine a sleeping hedgehog being exposed when the hiding space is lifted and can’t see what is coming! It is only natural for your hedgehog to roll right up in a ball, give a huff and try to poke you with its quills. No matter how social your hedgehog is, sometimes this instinctual behavior never goes way. To pick up your hedgehog gently scoop him up by tucking your hands underneath and from the sides. Next, you will want to keep your hands flat (or flat-ish) and away from your body. Remember, we don’t want to trigger the hedgehog’s instincts by looking like a predator. Gripping your hedgehog with closed hands or keeping it close to your body mimics being captured by a predator. If handled carefully your hedgehog will learn you are safe and let you hold it close to your body.
Bonding bags can also be very useful and less stressful for your hedgehog. The bonding bag shades the light from your hedgehog’s sensitive eyes and makes your hedgie feel secure because you are not directly holding him.
NOTE: While holding your hedgehog with flat-ish hands, be careful not to allow your hedgehog to walk off your hands.
Tasting vs. Biting
Hedgehogs, especially babies explore their world with their sense of smell and taste. Some hedgehogs can be “tasters.” When a hedgehog nibbles you, we like to call this tasting rather than biting because they aren’t biting out of fear or aggression, but rather out of curiosity. If your hedgehog starts to lick you beware, it may taste you if you smell good! Just move your hands around so it doesn’t zero in on a target and taste you!
Sniffing the Air
Hedgehogs have a papilla located behind the incisors and ducts which connect the oral cavity to the vomeronasal organ, a chemosensory organ located between the roof of the mouth and the palate. So, to get a better whiff of something you will see hedgehog sniffing and displaying their two front teeth. This behavior is called the flehmen response.
Hedgehogs really get to know their world by their sense of taste and smell! Keep this in mind when you bring your hedgehog home. A new home can be a time of sensory overload for a hedgehog. Be patient with your new hedgehog and let it explore. The more your hedgehog has been exposed to the scents and tastes, the quicker it will settle in and start to trust you.
Rolling into a Ball
When your hedgehog rolls into a ball he is displaying a defensive position. Many things can make your hedgehog roll up. Loud noises, unfamiliar smells, overhead motion, or sudden movement can trigger your hedgehog’s instincts to protect itself and roll up. Tickling or petting your hedgehog quills can also trigger instinct to roll into a defensive position. The light touching of the quills can mimic a predator sniffing or checking out the hedgehog. Until your hedgehog trusts you, avoid these triggers and try not to lightly touch the quills on the back. If your hedgehog rolls up, continue to hold your hedgehog in a bonding bag or confidently with flat palms and away from your body.
Lowering the Visor Quills over the face
Many things will trigger your hedgehog’s instincts to take cover and pull their visor quills (the quills located on the forehead between their ears) over their face. Shadows overhead can look like a predator. Noises can startle a hedgehog. Sometimes just being uncertain of a new person can make a hedgehog start a game of peek-a- boo! Be patient, quiet and move slowly until your hedgehog becomes comfortable with you.
Quills Down Flat
When your hedgehog’s quills are lying flat and freely move with your hand (it feels like petting a broom rather than a pin cushion), your hedgehog is in a relaxed state. Positive reinforcement like offering a treat during this time can influence the bond between you and your hedgehog. You should note that some babies won’t have completely flat quills until their adult quills come in.
Self-anointing is when a hedgehog starts frothing at the mouth and uses its tongue to put large wads of saliva onto their quills. Sometimes they practically bend in half, flatten their visor quills, and close their eyes which make this behavior almost look involuntary! Have no worries, this is a completely normal behavior among many species.
The purpose of self-anointing isn’t understood, but for the hedgehog it seems to occur when the hedgehog smells something new. The hedgehog might even chew on the new substance and smear this on their quills too.
The most noticeable and frequent sound your hedgehog will make is the huffing or hissy noise. Hedgehogs often make this noise when they are annoyed. Usually when an animal hisses we expect the animal to strike, scratch or bite. Don’t be alarmed when you hear a hedgehog hiss because he is just trying to tell you he is annoyed. A hedgehog’s first line of defense is their quills so huffing or hissing is usually accompanied with just rolling into a ball.
Text credited to: Nicolette Sprauer