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What is a Hedgehog?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The hedgehog family, Erinaceidae, includes 19 individual species of small insectivorous mammals. The animal most people think of when they hear this name is actually Erinaceus europaeus, the European hedgehog, which is readily identifiable by the distinctive spines along its back. Spined hedgehogs can be found in Europe, Africa, and Western Asia. Nonspined relatives, known as gymnuras, can be found in Eastern Asia.

The classic European species has a series of stiff spines mixed in with the coarse hair on its body. The spines can be found along the back and sides, and they are not barbed like those of the porcupine. The underside of the animal is soft and tender, and when threatened, it will form a protective ball with its spines facing out. Hedgehogs have short tails and expressive faces, which have made them popular characters in children's fiction.

When mature, spined species can range in length from 4 to 17 inches (10 to 44 centimeters) long. Smaller species, such as the African Pygmy, are sometimes kept as pets in places such as Europe and North America. The gentle yet expressive animals are popular pets because they are relatively clean, sweet smelling, and easy to train. Pets tend to be playful and loving, assuming that they were born in captivity, and many hobby associations around the world promote their ownership and offer education as well.

The gymnuras resemble large rats, with long tails and stiff body hair, but no spines. They tend to be much larger at maturity, with the largest specimen being the Moon Rat, which can grow up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) long. Gymnuras do not make good pets, largely because they have a rather offensive odor.

Hedgehogs eat a diet composed mainly of insects and small reptiles, although they will also eat plant material to balance their nutrition. In captivity, they can be fed specially formulated food, while some pets are maintained for pest control purposes in the garden. Because these animals are not destructive to gardens, they are an excellent natural pest control option.

The hedgehog is sometimes confused with the porcupine, a new world rodent that is actually in an entirely different family. Porcupines tend to be much larger, and they are also equipped with painful barbed quills. Because of this, porcupines are usually not kept as pets, although some zoological parks have families on exhibit.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a hedgehog?

A hedgehog is a small, nocturnal mammal known for its distinctive spiny coat. These creatures belong to the family Erinaceidae, which comprises 17 species spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Hedgehogs have a rounded body, short legs, and a snout that's useful for foraging insects, their primary diet.

How do hedgehogs protect themselves from predators?

Hedgehogs have a unique defense mechanism: when threatened, they roll into a tight ball, causing their spines to protrude in all directions. This spiny armor deters many predators. According to research, the effectiveness of this defense is due to the strength and sharpness of the spines, which can be quite painful to potential attackers.

What do hedgehogs eat?

Hedgehogs are primarily insectivores, feasting on a diet rich in insects such as beetles, caterpillars, and earthworms. However, they are opportunistic feeders and can also consume a variety of other foods, including small mammals, bird eggs, fruits, and fungi, depending on their habitat and food availability.

Are hedgehogs good pets?

Hedgehogs can be kept as pets, but they require specific care to thrive. They need a warm environment, a diet rich in protein, and space to exercise. Prospective owners should research and understand their needs, as hedgehogs are nocturnal and can be shy or defensive if not handled properly from a young age.

How long do hedgehogs live?

In the wild, hedgehogs have a lifespan of 2 to 5 years, but in captivity, they can live longer, often up to 7 years. Their longevity is influenced by factors such as predation, habitat conditions, and diseases. With proper care, pet hedgehogs can enjoy a full and healthy life.

Are hedgehogs endangered?

Some hedgehog species are facing threats and are considered vulnerable or endangered. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and road accidents contribute to their decline. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these species. For instance, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the long-eared hedgehog as near threatened, highlighting the need for habitat protection.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jcraig — On Sep 02, 2012
@stl156 - I have actually owned a couple of hedgehogs, and they are great. I have never known anyone who had one and didn't love it. Just like all pets, hedgies all have their own personalities.

The first one I had was the typical dark-colored kind. She was very playful and would eat anything I gave her. Hedgehogs have a tendency to get overweight, though, and it happened to her. I eventually had to put her on a diet.

My second one was an albino hedgehog, which is pretty common. She was a little more shy and would eat fewer things. I was more careful with her and made sure she didn't get fat.

If you do get a hedgehog, I would recommend going to a certified hedgehog breeder. Pet stores are notorious for having bad animals. A breeder has gone though the trouble of selecting healthy parents to create healthy babies. Plus I think it's good to keep people like that in business.

By stl156 — On Sep 01, 2012
I absolutely love hedgehogs. I really want one, but my apartment doesn't allow pets for the time being. I can't wait until I get a chance to own my own place or find an apartment that would allow a small pet like that. Until then, I can just dream about them.
By titans62 — On Sep 01, 2012

@JimmyT - That seems to be the way with a lot of exotic pets. I live in the south, and we can't have piranhas. Not that I would really want to have a piranha, but I know some people like them. I could definitely see how those could cause havoc with the ecosystem, though.

It's too bad that you can't have a hedgehog for sale in some of those places. They are really cool animals. I used to have one as a pet several years ago. I saw them at a pet store one time and fell in love. The best part is that they are relatively easy to keep. They don't cause a lot of messes, and they are able to eat a wide range of foods.

By JimmyT — On Aug 31, 2012

As far as I know, owning hedgehogs is legal in most places. I know for a fact that hedgehogs are illegal in California, because I have always wanted one, but can't. I am pretty sure you can't have them in Hawaii, either. There are a couple more states, but the vast majority allow them. The places that don't let you have them usually have the law in place, because the hedgehogs could survive in the wild if they were released.

Even if they were released, I don't know that a hedgehog would pose much of an issue. They aren't like rabbits that would multiply uncontrollably, and they don't particularly eat a lot. I guess some states feel differently, though.

By anon271310 — On May 25, 2012

Porcupines are also much larger than hedgehogs.

By anon180929 — On May 27, 2011

It is legal in most places to own hedgehogs.

By anon40230 — On Aug 06, 2009

it is legal to own african pygmy hedgehogs. just a few places it's illegal.

By anon33808 — On Jun 12, 2009

It is not legal to own African Pygmy Hedgehogs. I'm 99% sure there aren't even any in the country. We do have the European Hedgehog but again, not as pets.

By anon4634 — On Oct 26, 2007

I have a pet european hedgehog. I got home tonight to find out he hadn`t been out all day. I got him up but when he tried to walk he wobbled and was shaky, didn`t go far. It seemed like he could not lift his body up to move well; no trauma noted. I need help please,ray

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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