Hedgehogs

What Is Hibernation & Why Your Hedgehog Shouldn’t Do It!

hedgehog hibernation

The issue of hibernation for pet hedgehog owners can be a prickly one! In today’s article, we will look at what hedgehog hibernation is, why it’s a problem for African pygmy hedgehogs and the signs that warn us its about to happen.

Of course, you also need to know what to do to prevent hibernation and how to support your hedgehog through colder periods, so we’ll cover that information too. Finally, we’ll look at how to revive a hedgehog who is attempting to hibernate.

What Is Hibernation?

Like all animals who generate their own body heat, hedgehogs need a regular supply of food to maintain their metabolism. Hibernation is an adaptive measure that allows the hedgehog to survive the lean winter months in some (colder) climates.

Being primarily insectivores, hedgehogs in colder climates need to hibernate as many insects themselves hibernate (or migrate) and are often well hidden and hard to find.

Hibernation refers to a slowing down of the animal’s metabolism to about 5% of normal. Their heart rate and breathing also become very slow and their body temperature decreases dramatically.

An animal in this state is said to be in torpor – rather than asleep. Wild hedgehogs in colder climates often hibernate for around 6 months, though this is decreasing as the global climate warms.

Interestingly, hedgehogs do often wake up on warmer days during hibernation and usually remain in their nest but may search for food, or even build a new nest. They are more vulnerable to freezing conditions when hibernating and are more prone to infection.

Do African Pygmy Hedgehogs Hibernate In The Wild?

Because they originate from Central Africa, where the average annual temperature is around 79°F (26°C), wild African pygmy hedgehogs don’t generally hibernate. However, they can hibernate if the temperature drops and remains low.

The smaller body size of the pygmy hedgehog leaves them more vulnerable to starvation if they do hibernate, as they tend to have lower fat reserves.

Is It Dangerous For Pet Hedgehogs To Hibernate?

Since most pet hedgehogs are African pygmy hedgehogs, we are caring for a species that is not usually hibernating in the natural environment. There are two main reasons why it is important not to let them attempt hibernation:

  1. As well as their naturally smaller body size, most responsible owners of pygmy hedgehogs will try to prevent them from becoming overweight, because of the health issues that come with obesity. So, our pet hedgehogs do not have enough fat reserves to hibernate successfully.
  2. Pet hedgehogs are also prone to infection while hibernating. Wild hedgehogs develop stronger immune systems in their natural environment from constant contact with microbes, but hibernation is still a vulnerable time for them.

For these reasons it could be dangerous – even fatal – for your hedgehog to hibernate, so let’s look at what causes them to go into hibernation, which behaviors tell us they are trying to, and how we can prevent this.

What Triggers A Pet Hedgehog To Try To Hibernate?

Hedgehog hibernation seems to be mainly triggered by three factors:

  1. Environmental temperature.
  2. Availability of food.
  3. Hours of daylight.

The mechanism is not fully understood but it’s likely that a combination of factors are involved, including hormones and chemicals in the brain.

As noted, African pygmy hedgehogs tend not to hibernate in the wild. They originate from the savannah and steppe regions of Central Africa where the climate is tropical and there is no winter season.

They are poorly adapted to the fluctuating temperature and shortened daylight hours that occur in a typical home in Europe or the USA during the winter months.

Our pet hedgehogs have a regular and abundant supply of food and don’t have to exert much energy to find it. So, food shortage for pet hedgehogs is an unlikely trigger. Also, European hedgehogs do not always hibernate during a mild winter if they are being fed regularly by humans.

To try to understand the daylight hours effect, we need to realize that even though hibernating hedgehogs are not asleep as such, melatonin (the sleep hormone) increases during hibernation. Melatonin is reduced by exposure to light, which is why shorter daylight hours (not enough light) may be a trigger.

Therefore, we must assume that temperature and a short daylight period are the main triggers for hibernation attempts by pet hedgehogs.

What Are The Signs That Your Hedgehog Is Trying To Hibernate?

There are many key signs that your hedgehog is trying to hibernate, although you may not see all of them at one time. These are:

  • Slow and lethargic behavior.
  • Dramatically reduced activity levels.
  • Reduced co-ordination.
  • Reduced interest in food and water.
  • Cold to touch under the chin and belly.
  • Inability to move.
  • Reluctance to unball.

Many pet owners can get worried and confused about hibernation attempts which can in many ways look like the fatal disease, These two major health threats may show the same lack of coordination and difficulty moving but are actually very different in their progression.

Wobbly hedgehog syndrome is a slow, progressive disease, where symptoms can worsen over many months. Hibernation attempts progress quickly over hours, usually overnight when the hedgehog is out of the warm nest.

Symptoms like loss of appetite, shivering, balling and being cold to the touch are not signs of wobbly hedgehog syndrome. Also, if the weather (or your home) is chilly or your heating systems have failed, it’s much more likely that your hedgehog is attempting to hibernate.

What Are the Signs My Hedgehog Is Already Hibernating?

Most hibernation attempts occur overnight when your hedgehog is out of their warm nest, and the temperature in the home falls. If you only check on your hedgehog in the evening when they wake up, they may actually be hibernating before you find them.

Signs of this include:

  • Being in a tight ball.
  • Being unable to unball.
  • No response to handling.
  • Very slow breathing.
  • Heart rate less than 50 beats per minute (normal sleeping heart rate is approximately 145 beats per minute).

If your hedgehog is hibernating, you need to take them to a veterinarian as a matter of urgency.

How Long Does It Take for a Hedgehog to Go Into Hibernation?

The time it takes for a hedgehog to fully enter a hibernation state depends on a few different factors. These include:

  • Whether it is daytime or night-time. During the day a hedgehog is asleep in a warm nest so will be less affected by environmental temperature changes and a hibernation attempt will take longer.
  • Whether your home is well insulated or tends to lose heat quickly at night. Colder homes will speed up the process.
  • Whether your hedgehog tends to be sensitive to temperature changes from day-to-day. Sensitive hogs are usually quicker to hibernate.
  • Whether your warming equipment is appropriate and efficient. Inadequate heating may speed up the process.
  • How low the environmental temperature falls. The lower the temperature the faster the hedgehog cools.

It is certainly likely that a hedgehog will achieve hibernation over a period of hours rather than days.

How Can You Prevent Your Hedgehogs From Attempting Hibernation?

In Britain, hedgehog hibernation is usually triggered by temperatures below about 64.4°F (18°C) and in Finland (where the climate is much colder) they tolerate lower temperatures before hibernating. This is probably due to acclimatization to the average temperature differences between countries.

Therefore, it’s likely African pygmy hedgehogs will be triggered at slightly higher temperatures, given their natural climate. From several sources, it is generally agreed that they should be kept between 72 and 78°F (around 23 to 25°C).

Whether or not you need a specific hedgehog heating system will depend on factors such as where you live and how warm your house is naturally. Remember, it’s the night-time temperatures that are particularly important when your hedgehog is awake and out of the nest.

Hedgehog heating systems usually rely on a combination of central heating, space heaters, heat lamps, and/or microwavable heat source. There are other ways that you can help your hog to stay warm during daytime sleep such as nesting material, sleep sacks and such like.

Read: All About Heat Lamps & Heating Equipment For Hedgehogs

African pygmy hedgehogs are thought to need around 12 to 14 hours of daylight, which fits with the year-round Central African daylight hours. So many owners use a daylight bulb and lamp to extend the light period. This can be above (or attached to) the habitat or lighting the whole room.

Setting the lamp on an electronic timer will save you having to remember to switch it on and off. LED daylight lights are a cheaper alternative. They cost more to buy but much less to use.

Don’t forget that your hedgehog may not want to come out of the nest at all when the daylight bulb is on. Some hogs are light-sensitive and will be much more active and sociable in dim light conditions.

If yours is one of them, leave the period when you would normally interact them at comfortable low light levels, outside of your 12-14 hour period.

A Quick Check List For Preventing Hibernation Attempts

  • Keep the air temperature around your hedgehog between 72 and 78°F (23 and 25°C) as consistently as possible, especially overnight.
  • Exclude drafts around the habitat.
  • Use extra heating aids in the habitat itself if necessary.
  • Use a lamp with a daylight bulb to mimic extra hours of daylight in the winter.
  • Give your hedgehog nesting material and/or a sleep sack to maintain body temperature while asleep.
  • Ensure your hedgehog has a good supply of food during the colder months. You may need to increase the quantity slightly, as keeping warm takes extra energy.
  • Check your hedgehog every morning during colder spells, as hibernation attempts are likely to occur at night.
  • Have a backup plan in case of power failure – especially if your area experiences cold winter periods.

What To Do If Your Hedgehog Attempts To Hibernate

If your hedgehog is clearly hibernating, cold, balled and unresponsive to handling they need urgent veterinarian attention. However, if you have a sluggish, cold, shivering or semi-balled hedgie you may be able to stop the hibernation attempt yourself.

The only safe way to do this is gradual warming, which can be achieved by:

  • Increasing the environmental temperature up to 78°F/25°
  • Putting the hedgehog between your skin and clothes and resting with them in the warm environment.
  • Using a soft lightweight blanket over the top of you where the hog is lying.

If for whatever reason you can’t do skin to skin contact, try laying your hedgehog over your t-shirt and carrying out the other measures listed above. This may just take a little longer.

Alternatively, but less effectively, you can try:

  • Increasing the environmental temperature in or around the habitat up to 78°F/25°C.
  • Covering the hedgehog with bedding material within a sleep sack as a nest.
  • Covering the nest area with an insulating cardboard box with a viewing door cut into it.
  • Using a microwaveable heat source (like a Snugglesafe) at a warm (not hot) temperature under the hedgehog’s nest with blanket barriers to prevent overheating or burns as necessary.

The aim is to warm slowly. Rapid warming can cause thermal shock where all the blood flows away from the vital organs to the skin. Because of this, never put your hedgehog into warm water or next to a strong source of direct heat, like a hot heat pad, fire or fan heater.

You, yourself are the perfect temperature. Use your body heat and warm the environment for the best result. If nothing has happened with an hour, please take your hedgehog to a qualified vet.

If there is a little progress within the hour carry on doing what you are doing until your hedgehog is functioning normally.

Does A Hedgehog Require Any Extra Attention After A Stalled Hibernation Attempt?

Absolutely. In the immediate aftermath of a hibernation attempt, once you hedgehog has recovered, make sure they are hydrated and have access to food. Those that are sociable may appreciate your company throughout the recovery period.

One hibernation attempt is often followed by another, so you will need to observe your hedgehog regularly to ensure this doesn’t happen. But the number one response to your hedgehog’s attempt to hibernate should be to look at what triggered it.

  1. Is the environment surrounding your hedgehog getting too cold overnight? If you’ve been running the temperature at 73°F/22.7°C, try raising it a couple of degrees and see if that helps.
  2. Is your hedgehog experiencing 12-14 hours of daylight – even though they are asleep for some of it? If not, or if you have been giving 12 hours, try increasing it to 14 hours.

It may be that you have a great system with a fault, or there was a power cut while you slept, but very often there is something we can do to improve the set up. Take a good critical look at everything, including ways that the room is losing heat and make any adjustments that you feel are necessary.

You may also want to visit your vet to be sure that all is well once the drama is over.

And Finally

We all know that experiencing your hedgehogs attempt at hibernation can be a scary and traumatic event. Particularly because not all hedgehogs make it back to us. We hope that we have helped you to understand why these attempts occur and what you can do to try to prevent them – or reverse them when they happen.

Enjoy your warm hedgehog cuddles while you work on your back-up heating plan!

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