In this article, we will look at why treats are important for your hedgehog (and you!), which treats to choose and which to leave out. People often wonder how many treats to give and how often, so we will finish with answers to these common questions.
Why Feed Treats at All – Isn’t Their Dry Food Enough?
A good dry mix of a few types of well-chosen cat kibble (and possibly a hedgehog feed in amongst them if you can source a good one), is certainly the bulk of the nutrition that a hedgehog needs. Add in a few insects and some fruit and you’ve covered all nutritional bases.
However, there are several very good reasons why treats are beneficial to your hedgehog and your mutual relationship too. Treats offer:
- Enrichment – treats offer sensory enrichment in terms of smell, taste, and texture.
- Foraging opportunities – treats offer the opportunity to provide foraging for your hog, whether hunting a live insect or seeking out a smelly treat hidden in the environment.
- Bonding opportunities – treats can create a positive association between you and the hedgehog, especially when they are hand-fed.
- Pleasure – tasty treats stimulate the pleasure centers in your hedgehog’s brain, increasing their sense of well-being.
- Nutrient top-ups – treats are an opportunity to supplement the main diet with extra nutrients.
Keep these benefits in mind when you are choosing treats for your hedgehog, as certain treats will be better or worse depending on which benefit you are trying to achieve.
You wouldn’t feed a live grasshopper to increase your bond as the hog is unlikely to associate the insect with you at all, but it’s great for foraging and enrichment. Equally, leaving Nutri-cal paste around the cage would be very messy, but you can place it into a bowl in front of your hedgehog, or hand-feed on a piece of fruit to cement your bond.
So, What Are Good Treats for Hedgehogs?
When feeding treats, it is always best to feed fresh food, rather than pellets sold as hedgehogs treats that are often mainly fillers. Fresh food can add health-boosting micronutrients and phytochemicals to your hog’s diet. Most treats can be divided into the following six categories:
- Meat and fish
- Eggs, dairy, and tofu
- Shelled large seeds
1. Meat and Fish
Small amounts of meat are often well-received, with the best choices for digestibility and health being chicken or turkey. Many owners prefer to cook the meat, but it can also be fed raw. Objections to raw feeding are usually the risk of salmonella and parasites.
Hedgehogs are carrion eaters in the wild and are well adapted to deal with bacteria in their food, so salmonella is only a risk to you in preparing the meat. Just use human-grade meat and handle it as you would when preparing it for yourself.
Parasites are sometimes present in raw meat (and fish) but are killed by freezing it. So, if you choose to feed raw, simply use frozen boneless chicken or turkey and defrost before feeding.
Fish is often rejected (by humans) as a food source for hedgehogs, most often because it tends to make their feces rather smelly. If you are giving your hog a fishy treat, fresh oily fish will give the greatest health benefits (omega 3 and vitamin D amongst other nutrients).
Another presentation of meat that can be useful is high-quality wet cat food. When feeding meat (or fish), you may want to give a bigger portion than the average treat, so it is important to feed less dry food to compensate. This will prevent overfeeding and keep protein intake within acceptable levels.
Pre-frozen mice pinkies are another option for a meat-based treat and have the benefit of extra calcium from the forming bones. They are generally well-received and certainly could make up part of a wild hedgehog’s diet, so are a natural food source.
Insects should make up part of the hedgehog’s daily diet, but – especially for fussy hogs – they can also be given as a treat. The chitin in the exoskeleton of the insects is the best kind of fiber to give hedgehogs, as they can process it more efficiently than plant fiber (cellulose).
If you normally give your hedgehog a few mealworms each day – then try feeding a waxworm, silkworm, cricket or grasshopper as a treat. Another way of making it ‘treat-like’ is to feed live insects occasionally.
Always feed (gut load) the insects before you give them to your hedgehogs as this increases their nutritional value significantly. Chunks of fruit and vegetables can be used for this. Never feed any insect that has died in the box as you don’t know why it has died or how decomposed it is.
Don’t feed insects from the garden, countryside or fishing (bait) shops as they often have parasites, pesticides or microorganisms that can affect your hedgehog.
3. Eggs, Dairy, and Tofu
Eggs are a natural part of a wild hedgehog’s diet and seem to be appreciated by many hogs. You can feed chopped boiled egg or scrambled egg (without milk and fat).
Hedgehogs are thought to be either lactose (milk sugar) or casein (milk protein) intolerant, but the evidence is unclear. If you want to give milk as an occasional treat, you’d be better giving a plant milk like oat or almond. Chose one that does not have added sugar.
Some people have had success feeding cottage cheese (naturally lactose-free) to their hedgehogs as a treat, and this seems another good alternative.
Tofu (soya bean curd) is fine for hedgehogs as a treat and gives a rich source of digestible plant protein and calcium.
Fallen fruit is often part of the natural diet of a wild hedgehog, and – as such – is often appreciated by pet hedgehogs. Fruit is packed with antioxidants and vitamins which help to support health and vitality and protect against disease.
If your hog is reluctant, try cutting the pieces up quite small and mixing them in with wet cat food or a meat meal. Sweeter fruits, like bananas and strawberries, may also help to entice a hesitant hog.
A variety of fruits are welcomed by some hedgehogs and we will list the most common of those below. However, this is not a comprehensive list of all the fruits you can try. Berries are particularly nutrient-rich.
- Cherry (stone removed),
- Apple (no pips),
- Pear (no pips),
- Kiwi (leave the skin on as it is highly nutritive),
- Nectarine or peach (stone removed).
There is some misconception around vegetables and hedgehogs with some sources stating that they shouldn’t be included in the diet as they can’t be digested. This is not supported by the available research which shows that hedgehogs do eat plant material in the wild and that they can digest cellulose at an average of 38%.
Hedgehogs need a high level of fiber in their diets (around 15%) and this is not provided by cat food. The addition of some insects helps to a degree, but additional fiber from fruits and vegetables is useful, not problematic. The nature of fiber is that it is difficult to digest, and that is why it’s useful for gut health – rather than a problem.
Green leafy vegetables offer excellent calcium to phosphorus ratios and many phytochemicals and minerals, all of which support health. If your hog is reluctant, try grating vegetables into their meat or mixing with dry food. This mimics how it is thought hedgehogs eat plants in the wild – as part of the process of finding their prey.
You can also try cooking the vegetables as this not only increases palatability but improves digestibility as well. Some of the vegetables that your hedgehog might enjoy are:
- Sweet potato,
- Bell peppers,
6. Large Seeds
Small seeds are difficult for a hedgehog to pick up, and they don’t have the dentition to shell them (so they are essentially indigestible), but some large flat seeds that can easily be shelled before feeding (such a pumpkin, melon and sunflower) are often appreciated by hedgehogs.
They are rich in healthy fats, protein, and minerals as well as providing antioxidants and some fiber to the diet.
A special mention should go to pastes like Vetoquinol Nutri-cal, GimCat multivitamin paste or Tomlyn Cat-Nutri paste, which are high-calorie vitamin and mineral pastes that also stimulate appetite. Often used in rescue centers, they are excellent for hedgehogs who are sick, underweight or off their food and can be spread onto any other food.
Hedgehog Treats to Avoid
Several treats are not suitable for hedgehogs. These include:
- Processed meat – added salt, sodium nitrate, and PAHs, which are all thought to negatively impact health.
- Nuts – thought to be a choking hazard.
- Raisins and other dried fruit – tend to stick to the hedgehog’s teeth and palate. May cause tooth decay. Raisins are also toxic to some animals.
- Peanut butter – tends to be sticky and difficult to swallow.
- Chocolate – toxic to some animals and this information isn’t yet known for hedgehogs.
- Fruit seeds and pits – contain a compound that converts to cyanide in the stomach and for a small animal, the amounts can be toxic.
- Processed grains, sugared breakfast cereals and baked goods – refined carbohydrates and sugar lead to obesity.
- Candy and other sugar sources – lead to tooth decay and obesity
- High-fat food (such as chips, fried food or sauces) – leads to obesity.
- Grapes, onions, and avocado – cause toxicity in some other species and this information isn’t yet clear for hedgehogs.
- Insects from the garden, countryside or fishing (bait) shop – carry parasites and pesticides.
How Many Treats Should I Feed My Hedgehog and How Often?
This depends on several factors:
- The size and weight of your hedgehog.
- Whether they are overweight.
- Whether they are underweight.
- Whether the treats are extras – or are a part of the main diet.
- How fatty the treats are (e.g. mealworms are high in fat).
Here are a few principles to guide you:
- If your hedgehog is overweight then only use fresh meat, wet cat food, and insects as part of the main diet (so if you feed fresh meat take away some cat kibble).
- Feed during the evening and only as much as your hedgehog will eat overnight. If your hedgehog is actively out foraging for food during the day, increase the amount you give slightly or add a treat in the morning to allow for daytime snacking.
- For many hedgehogs, adlib (free) feeding will lead to overeating and obesity.
- Insects would normally be fed at around 2-8 mealworms or 1-2 crickets, depending on whether your hog is growing, or maintaining adult weight – and, of course, how big they are.
- If your hedgehog tends to put on weight easily, try crickets, eggs, fruit and, vegetables as lower-calorie treats. Plant milk and cottage cheese are also good in this regard.
- Feed insects (which should form part of the main diet) plus one other treat a day, rather than giving lots of different treats at once.
- Think about treat portions in terms of a teaspoon and regular food in terms of tablespoons (1-2 is often quoted). However small and obese hedgehogs will need less.
Problems That Can Arise When Giving Treats
Some hedgehogs are picky eaters and very reluctant to try anything other than their dry food. Don’t give up on them. Try leaving treats in the habitat overnight when they will be at their most relaxed. It may also help to simply stick with one treat, offering it nightly for a couple of weeks to see if there is any interest.
Don’t overwhelm your hedgehog by feeding loads of new treats at a time. Just have patience and work with them slowly and you may see success. However, remember that a treat is not an essential part of the diet and it’s fine for hedgehog not to eat them.
At the opposite end of the hedgehog spectrum, are those hogs who will eat everything they are offered – and with gusto! These hedgehogs are often prone to weight gain, and it’s your job to work with them to make sure they don’t become obese.
This is the time to limit treats and feed only those that are lower in fat. Obesity carries many risks including fatty liver, cancer, and early death.
These are the hedgehogs who won’t eat in front of you, or perhaps even with the lights on. Usually more anxious by nature, these hogs need privacy to relax enough to feed. If you have a shy hedgehog then you will need to leave their treats in their habitat for them to find overnight.
Shy hedgehogs can also be greedy, or picky eaters so you may have other hurdles to overcome. If you feel you’d like to see your shy pet eating, then setting up a webcam of the habitat can help you to feel engaged.
Some hedgehogs are very lazy, which – regardless of what they eat can also mean that they are likely to become obese. If you have a lazy hog who likes treats, then it can help their activity levels to insist that they forage for them.
You can do this by hiding treats around the habitat or in their play area, which can encourage explorative behavior and increase activity.
Treating your hedgehog with a tasty morsel is rewarding for both of you. Now that you have the information you need to make good choices for your hogs, you can use treats to add nutrients and variety to your hedgehog’s diet and to increase your bond.