How to tame a Hedgehog
Spikeball to Belly Rubs: Here you'll learn how to tame your hedgehog.
You see them everywhere on social media platforms, whether YouTube, Facebook or Instagram: Pet hedgehogs enjoying belly rubs by their owners. This probably makes you wonder, how they get their hedgehogs to be this tame and relaxed. Here's how they do it.
When I picked Pokee up at the breeder in Germany, he was only eight weeks old and anything but tame. Whenever I dared to move my hand toward him he would wince and hiss at me. Every time I tried to take him out of his terrarium, he curled up into a ball and made it almost impossible for me to touch him.
Habituation & Quilling
Now, please don't get me wrong here. The process of taming an African Pygmy hedgehog is neither easily done nor in a very short period of time. Quite the reverse: It takes a lot of time and especially patience until they will get used to you. Within the first months there are some things that you should definitely know in order to gain a better understanding of your hedgehog. Here are the most important ones:
- HABITUATION: You need to remember that your hedgehog is torn away from its usual environment and must first find its way and settle into a new home. This may take several weeks.
- QUILLING: Your hedgehog passes the state of quilling within the first few months of its life (usually between 3rd and 6th month). During that period, it loses some of the small, sharp spines, which are replaced by stronger, firmer ones. This exchange causes a kind of itching on its sensitive skin. The result is an unfamiliar feeling, which the hedgehog is unable to allocate. Thereby it experiences human contact and affection as rather distracting and annoying.
When the state of quilling has been passed your hedgehog should have adapted to its new environment and home.
Now is the perfect time to make it familiar with yourself. Again, don't get me wrong, of course you can already start doing this in the first couple of months and during the quilling, you just simply need to be more cautious. I've compiled the best tips for you here based on my personal experience with Mr.Pokee. The adaptation process until your hedgehog will be tame consists of three main steps, that you simply need to follow:
Hedgehogs have very good noses and ears, however, very poor eyesight. Thus, in order to get your hedgehog accustomed to you, you should repeatedly confront it with your scent and your voice. Here are some examples:
- Take a worn T-shirt and put it in the terrarium.
- Talk to your hedgehog and call its name again and again.
- In case you can sing, sing a song - that seems to calm hedgehogs down. (And if you can't sing, just do it anyways, except when nobody is listening - from own experience I know this works.)
Thanks to Pavlov we are familiar with the principle of Classical Conditioning. Pavlov's dog is the best known example: A dog gets food in conjunction with the blade of a bell. After a few repetitions only the simple sound of the bell activates the dog’s salivation. This principle can also be projected onto the hedgehog:
- Shake the food box, when he's about to be fed.
- Call its name before he's being fed.
We can also spin the idea a little further: How can we unite this with our goal of getting a hedgehog used to us? This has worked with Mr.Pokee:
- Place your hand inside the terrarium and let it sniff it for a while. (He should already know your smell from the T-shirt.)
- Slide your hand slowly under its belly and lift it out.
- When the hedgehog is already outside of the terrarium sitting on your hands, you may feed it with a mealworm as a reward.
There’s nothing in the world that hedgehogs like better than mealworms. So, by linking the idea of reward with the classical conditioning, you're getting your hedgehog to unconsciously link the preservation of mealworms with your hand and your smell. You should repeat this several times to provoke positive associations.
Since your hedgehog has now accustomed to you and if you’re lucky even associates you with the reception of mealworms, you can now start to establish trust. Concerning this, I have two tips for you:
- I hope you all have a terrarium, that can be opened from the front instead of the top. Place your terrarium at eye level, because the enemy always comes from above (and you don’t want to be the enemy). Before you take out the hedgehog, lay your hand in front of its nose and let it sniff it until he is ready and no longer grumpy.
- Lie down on the bed, turn off the lights and busy yourself with something else (for example, with your smartphone, watch an episode on Netfix with your headphones, read a book, listen to soft music). It is important though, that it’s relatively quiet and as dark as possible. Let it run around on your bed for a couple minutes to hours. Your hedgehog will love this: It will come to you, seek your attention, climb on your phone, climb on you, scurry through your hair, hide under your arm and happily run around.
When you’re at that point and your hedgehog has become used to you and also trusts you, you can take the next step. You now slowly turn it upside down onto its back while it’s in your hand. Lay it down on something soft and slowly move your hand towards its belly. Let it sniff it, so it knows it is you and slowly start massaging its belly. Done! Your hedgehog is now tamed.