In this article, we will be giving you all the information you need to feed your hedgehog a great diet. We’ll look at what (and how) wild hedgehogs eat, and what is known about their nutrient requirements.
Then we will discuss the variety of foods that make up a healthy hedgehog diet, how much to feed, and – just as importantly – which foods to avoid.
Throughout this article when we refer to the hedgehog, we are talking about the African Pygmy Hedgehog (atelerix albiventris), though much of this will transfer to other species.
So, what do we know about the hedgehog?
Before we begin to look at hedgehog diet in captivity, it’s important to understand how wild hedgehogs are adapted to their diet. So, what do hedgehogs eat in the wild?
Undomesticated hedgehogs have a natural range of 200 to 300 meters from their nest. However, they are great runners and in their search for food (according to the African Pygmy Hedgehog Club UK) they can cover up to 12 miles a night.
As well adapted insectivorous omnivores, they have a set of 36 teeth, including 22 sharp, raspy molars and premolars for crushing and grinding prey.
Their natural diet includes:
- Invertebrates (termites, millipedes, grasshoppers, ants, worms, etc.)
- Vertebrates (small lizards, mice, snakes, frogs, etc.)
- Other (fruit, fungi, vegetation, eggs, roots, carrion, etc.
They use their senses (primarily smell, hearing and sight) to locate their prey and can even sense grubs in the soil to around 4cm depth.
Eating style and behavior
Hedgehogs have a short, simple gut that includes a stomach, and they do have the ability to vomit. Their high metabolic rate and high energy lifestyle (all that foraging!) make for a greedy eating style.
Additionally, wild hedgehogs will hibernate in cold seasons in colder climates (not in Africa) and rely on fat reserves in extremely hot seasons. This results in a species that is well adapted to gaining weight, which is a major consideration when feeding and caring for them in captivity.
Hedgehogs have been popular pets in homes since the 1980s. But, as yet, their specific nutritional requirements are unknown. Most of the information available leads back to work done in zoos by researchers such as Anthony J. Smith and Dr. Graffam-Carlsen.
There is some information available about their digestion of plant fiber (digested at a rate of 38%), compared to chitin – the fibrous exoskeleton of insects – (digested up 68%). The hedgehog’s gut and pancreas contain the enzyme chitinase which enables this process.
This simply means that hedgehogs are adapted more for digesting insects than plants. This can be useful when feeding overweight hogs, as some fibrous vegetables can be offered to increase the amount of food while having little impact on calories.
A flexible diet for an opportunistic forager
It is generally accepted that hedgehogs have a good level of dietary flexibility, having a wide range of foods that they can use depending on their habitat. This leads to a greater tolerance for macronutrients, such as protein and fat.
Looking at a wide spread of hedgehog articles and information, in the US and UK, sources state a range of 20 to 50% protein (dry food matter) and 5 to 20% fat. However, there is some agreement that for pet hedgehogs the ranges that produce the best results are around 28 to 35% protein (dry food matter) and 5 to 15% fat. Around 15% fiber is also thought to be desirable.
Variation across lifespan
Like other mammals, it’s important to remember that a hog’s nutritional needs will vary over its lifetime, so you will need to change your hedgehog’s feeding schedule as they age. Higher levels of nutrients are usually needed for:
- old age,
- periods of illness,
- high activity levels,
- colder periods.
Lower levels might be required for:
- weight management,
- very hot weather,
- less active animals.
So, what do pet hedgehogs eat?
Despite some of what you might read, there are a variety of healthy hedgehog diets, but they mostly follow the same basic pattern:
- A ‘base food’ cat kibble or premium hedgehog food.
- Some other animal protein foods (could be different types of cat kibble).
- Some vegetables and fruit.
- Some insects.
- Supplements (optional).
- Treats (optional).
Let’s consider each of these in more detail.
Protein base food
Most hedgehog enthusiasts have a preferred base product for their hedgehog’s dry food. This is often an excellent dry cat kibble, picked to be suitable for their pet’s life stage and weight.
Lower protein and fat levels are needed for fully grown adults and those who have a tendency towards putting on weight.
Many people choose a ‘lite’ option. The kibble size is important too. When pieces are too large, they can be hard to chew.
Some people choose to use a hedgehog chow as the base food instead, and while many of these products are inappropriate for hedgehogs, there are a few that are quality feeds with a good ratio of protein and fat.
It’s best to take advice from your hedgehog’s breeder on this as they will know which foods suit the hogs they breed.
Why not just feed the one food?
Other foods are added because variety is essential in a hedgehog’s diet. The natural diet is extremely variable, and the opportunistic tendencies of this little forager mean they would experience a widespread of textures, tastes and smells when eating.
Kibble itself is an unnatural way of presenting nutrition to an animal like a hedgehog because every bite is the same in terms of texture, smell, and taste. The nutritional benefits are also limited to what’s been added to the packet.
Mixing more than one cat kibble (or hedgehog food) together gives the main diet variety in terms of nutrients, taste, smell and the size of the biscuit pieces.
Other dry protein sources
These are usually different types of cat kibble but could also include good quality hedgehog feed. Each individual feed should be suitable for use as hedgehog food and will need:
- correct levels of fat and protein (see above);
- small bite-size;
- an easily digested meat (such as chicken or turkey) as the primary ingredient. Preferably not pork or beef as these are harder to digest;
- a named bird or animal (‘chicken’ rather than ‘poultry’), either as meat or meat-meal, rather than derivatives which have much less food value and less digestible protein;
- low levels of grain;
- no artificial preservatives (such as BHT or ethoxyquin) which are associated with potential tumor growth;
- if using a hedgehog food, it should still list meat as the first ingredient.
Vegetables and fruit
Many fruits and vegetables are enjoyed by hedgehogs and add interest, vitamins, antioxidants and healthful phytochemicals to the diet. This can help your hedgehogs to stay healthy and live a long life.
Berries – such as blueberries, strawberries and raspberries – and green leafy vegetables are a particularly helpful addition from a nutritional perspective. A little fruit and veg should be given on most days.
Insects would be a major part of a wild hedgehog’s diet and should always be included in the diet. However, because of the captive hedgehog’s much less active lifestyle, too many insects – which can be high in fat – can lead to obesity.
There are 4 ways of presenting insects:
- Canned (wet)
Feeding insects live is obviously most natural but doesn’t suit everyone. If you are feeding live insects, you need to feed them before you feed them to your hedgehog (called gut loading) to give the best possible nutritional value.
A few pieces of apple, carrot or greens are suitable for this purpose. Never feed a ‘live’ insect that has died in the box, as it may already be decomposing.
Freeze-dried make a great alternative, as this process maintains nutritional value very well. Freeze-dried insects can also be re-hydrated easily. However, they do crumble if handled heavily, so need to be treated gently and stored in a ridged container.
Heat dried insects have the advantage of being widely available, but they may have a lower nutritional quality.
Canned insects are usually devoured happily as they have a strong smell, but – for the same reason – might not be acceptable to some humans. They must be refrigerated after opening.
The main types of insects that are suitable for hedgehogs are mealworms, waxworms, silkworms, crickets, and grasshoppers. The worms are higher in fat, so don’t overdo it.
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.
The main supplements given to pet hedgehogs tend to be:
- omega 3 oil (to aid healthy skin);
- pumpkin (to help with constipation);
- fiber (sometimes given as extra insects or vegetables to prevent constipation in susceptible hedgehogs);
- joint supplements (to reduce arthritis as hedgehogs age);
- probiotics (useful for maintaining gut health during stressful periods).
General vitamin and calcium supplements are unnecessary for all hedgehog owners who feed a good quality cat food. They can be useful for those who make up their own mix or feed a cooked or raw fresh diet. All commercial kibble will already be supplemented.
Hedgehogs can enjoy a wide variety of treats from cooked meat to cottage cheese (which is naturally lactose-free) and eggs to baby food. The main purpose of treats is to add variety and extra nutrition to the main diet. Treats are enriching for your hog.
Treats should only ever be fed in small amounts because of the danger of obesity. It’s also worth noting that many captive hedgehogs will refuse new food, and others can get diarrhea with changes in the diet.
Offer each new treat on its own alongside the main food and wait to see how the hedgehog responds before feeding anything else. You may want to keep a written log of the different foods you try.
Another treat of a different kind is to feed a wet meal. This would also be based on good quality cat food, with chicken or turkey as its primary ingredient. Many owners stay away from fish as it can cause the hog’s feces to be very smelly.
Homemade mixes, fresh, raw and cooked diets
There are hedgehog enthusiasts who feed their own mixes and fresh diets with success. However, because of the tendency of the captive hedgehog to be picky, these diets should only ever be fed after proper research and advice from experienced people.
Lack of information and attention to detail when preparing these diets can sometimes lead to deficiencies and health issues. If this kind of diet interests you, please seek out someone who is well-established in feeding their hedgehogs with the kind of diet you intend to use and ask them to assist you.
The exception to this is a diet based on quality wet cat food, which is an appropriate diet for a hedgehog, at least nutritionally. The main issue with this method of feeding is that it’s often then difficult to get the hedgehog to convert to a kibble-based diet later if the need arises.
Wet diets also need to include crunchy insects and other ‘teeth cleaning’ elements.
How often and how much to feed a hedgehog?
Weight variation in adult hedgehogs is huge – with healthy adults, who are not obese, ranging from 200g to 1,000g. Obviously, a large hedgehog is likely to eat a great deal more than a very small one.
Activity levels also vary greatly between individuals, so this will affect how much food is needed. Therefore, it is difficult to be precise about how much to feed your hedgehog.
There are times when a hedgehog will naturally need to eat more. These include when they are pregnant, nursing, growing, recovering from illness, getting older, or when the weather is cold.
Many people suggest leaving out a bowl full of kibble all the time, which will work for many hogs. The problems arise with those who are rather greedy and those who are very lazy! In which case, you may want to take a more cautious approach.
Working out how much food your own hedgehog needs
Try starting with 2 teaspoons of kibble in the evening (along with the other elements of the diet), and then assessing what is left in the morning. If your hedgehog is likely to look for food during the day (some do), then leave a few pieces for them to find around the habitat but remove the dish until the evening.
Repeat this for a few days and if there is always food left then reduce the amount given. Most hedgehogs will need between 1 and 2 teaspoons of kibble if they are getting insects and fruit/veg as well.
Keeping weight records
It is helpful to keep a log of your hedgehog’s weight each week so that you can spot issues quickly. It’s much harder to get your hog to lose weight than it is to prevent weight gain in the first place.
Foraging opportunities can help to keep the hedgehog active and can easily be offered by putting the kibble in various places around the habitat. This will not only help with weight management but enriches life for your prickly friend.
Don’t forget to water your hedgehogs!
Fresh water should always also be available to your hedgehog. You will need to place this in a heavy ceramic bowl so that it doesn’t get spilled. Many hogs seem unwilling or unable to learn to use a water bottle, and it’s safer if these are never be used as the only water source.
What can hedgehogs NOT eat?
There are a few things to be sure you don’t feed your hedgehog. These include:
- Processed human food.
- Highly processed carbs (will increase weight gain).
- High-fat food including fried food.
- Sugary food (the exception is a little fruit).
- Salty foods (like processed meat).
- Dried fruit (high sugar, sticky foods can lead to tooth decay).
- Nuts (a choking hazard).
- Small seeds (hard to pick up and hedgehogs can’t remove the seed case, so the seed is essentially indigestible).
- Raw meats unless part of a properly sourced (pre-frozen) raw diet.
There are a few foods that are often mentioned as potentially toxic to hedgehogs because they are toxic to some other species, and toxicity is unclear. These are:
- Apple seeds (contain a compound that converts to cyanide in the stomach.
- Raw potatoes (best avoided as they may contain the toxin solanine).
Health problems related to the diet
Several conditions and illnesses can arise if hedgehogs aren’t fed correctly. As well as nutrient deficiencies (which can cause a whole host of problems) these include:
- Fatty liver disease, liver failure, and cancer
- Kidney disease
- Tooth decay
These can usually be prevented by managing your hedgehog’s weight well and sticking to the recommended dietary levels of protein and fat. If you are struggling, you can approach one of the hedgehog clubs or groups for experienced people to help you.
If you suspect that your hedgehog is obese or ill, it is important to take them to see an exotics vet as soon as possible for advice and treatment.
We hope that we have given you some food for thought! Hedgehogs are not difficult to feed and usually thrive on a fairly set dietary routine, so long as it includes the important elements of quality animal protein, insects, and some fruit and vegetables.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll soon be able to relax about your hedgehog’s food and concentrate on enjoying their quirky ways.