How to Care for a Hedgehog Named Sodium

I have a hedgehog.  I have had her for about 3 months. She is an albino.  This means that her body simply does not produce pigment, as opposed to leucism, which is like albinism, only it produces pigment, but lacks the receptors to retain it.  Sodium, much like the element, is very nearly white.

NOTE:  I am not an expert on hedgehogs. I just have one and it seems pretty healthy, so people sometimes ask me about her.   If you see something in here that is factually incorrect, please feel free to let me know.
Why did we get a hedgehog? I’ve always wanted one, and it was a happy compromise for my son and I. He wanted a tiger salamander. Yuck.
Hedgehogs are Mammals. They are members of the subfamily Erinaceomorpha. There are seventeen species of hedgehog in five genera, found through parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and New Zealand (by introduction).
You can find hedgehogs for sale at reptile expos and probably some pet stores too.  Reptile expos are held  all over the place, there are usually several a month in the Chicago area. You may also find them at bird expos.  If you google “bird expo” you will find it. Let me know if you don’t.
The expo  we attended took place in Wheaton, cost about $10 to get in, and was held at a county fair grounds I think. They  had several hedgehog dealers hawking their prickly pets for $100 – $150.
I seem to recall that the seller told us the female hedgehogs were nicer than the males, but you can just google that and find out if it’s true or not.  check with each vendor, and see who has the softest, nicest hedgehog.  The younger hedgehogs will have softer spines anyway, but my understanding is that, through selective breeding, some fancier ones have softer spines, even as adults.
So, you bought a hedgehog
In the beginning, owning a hedgehog was a challenge. it was difficult for a few reasons, both care and owner related. Our first hedgehog, named Yttrium, died very young, and we only had her for a week. It was very sad, because she was very nice and enjoyed being held and was very comfortable with people.
At any rate, what our experience with Yttrium taught us is that a personable, friendly hedgehog can be a very engaging pet. We aren’t certain we know why Yttrium died, we fed her and she ate and played in her cage, and drank from her bottle, but one day she just became listless and unresponsive and passed away shortly after that; we thought she had gone into hibernation because when we warmed her up and heated up the up the house, her condition improved.  The following day she became listless again and died within 2 hours.  The lesson we learned is that if your hedgie becomes listless and unresponsive, it might not be hibernation, and you should get hedgie to a vet immediately. I have another blog post about that experience.
After Yttrium died, I contacted the man who sold her to us. I just wanted him to know. I wasn’t looking for a refund but he seemed like a nice guy and I just thought he would want to know.  He insisted on providing a replacement. Nothing could (or as time would reveal, would) replace Yttrium. She was feisty, full of energy, curious, and just plain fun. Our working theory is that she burned out her entire life in one short burst of everything.
Ok, enough of my lamenting, but I wanted you to understand that perhaps part of our difficulties with Sodium may be related to our mindset.  We really, really missed Yttrium, and still do.
Sodium seemed to be perfectly friendly, very outgoing, and wonderful – at the show. But then I had to go pay, and they held onto her as I paid. She looked identical to three other hedgehogs they had, but we picked her because she was the friendliest. When. Got her home, it was like we had a different hedgehog. This one refused to uncurl.  Eventually, after much holding and coaxing
(Insert how to pet a hedgehog video here)
I got her to come out. This video shows how to do it. Once I got her to come out, it became easier to do it. So, maybe they pulled a bait and switch, it was a different guy at the counter, maybe he was attached to the one we wanted. Maybe we had a different hedgehog, maybe she just needed to get to know us.
Either way, the bond that we formed with Yttrium just didn’t magically appear with Sodium. Perhaps some things just aren’t meant to be, and we just have to accept that the pets we bring into our homes may not be what we expected.  We have to love and care for them anyway. It’s a commitment and a bond that, if you aren’t prepared to make it, then you shouldn’t buy a hedgehog. A) they are expensive and B) they require a lot of care.
What’s that, you ask? Why do they require more care than any other rodent?  Well, for starters, a hedgehog is NOT a rodent. If you look in a hedgehog’s mouth, you will notice immediately one huge difference is their teeth. A hedgie’s mouth is almost exclusively designed for eating bugs. They seem to have a mouthful of molars.  This means that they are not strictly vegetarians, they are bug eaters and have powerful jaws designed for crushing bugs (I’m spitballing here).  We feed Sodium the same food we feed our cats. Hedgies are, essentially, omnivorous.  This means they will eat just about anything. Mostly (in the wild) they like to eat bugs.
Feeding and Water
Meat eaters (omnivores in general) are considerably more difficult to care for than herbivores for pretty much only one reason: their poop is way, way smellier. You know how true this is if you have ever cared for a human toddler when he transitions from milk to meat.
 Some hedgehogs can be trained to use a litterbox, which you could then change nightly (believe me, you will feel deeply motivated to do this job).  Sodium likes to poop and pee in her wheel. Therefore, her wheel needs to be cleaned every morning, WITHOUT FAIL. Otherwise, the poop gets really hard and it is difficult to clean.  I use an old toilet brush and very hot water, with no of the wheel are held together with electrical tape to reinforce it.
[place picture of wheel with tape here.]
Yttrium had a lot of trouble with getting water out of her water bottle. We think this may have contributed to her demise, but since I was not the primary care giver, I wasn’t monitoring her water levels so I don’t know.  I am the primary caretaker for Sodium, and as such she lives in my bedroom, and I keep a close eye on her health.  I noticed then, fairly quickly, that her water levels in her bottle did not decrease as fast as it should, and she was going 10 rounds with the bottle every night.  I switched her immediately to a stone water bowl—something heavy enough that she wouldn’t be able to use it as a toy, and bang it around the cage all through the night.  At first she liked to poop in it, but she seems now to have settled for happily shoving litter into it every night.
Handling a hedgehog is fairly easy, once you get them to uncurl. They are fairly smart,  I think she recognizes different people by their scent, so be careful how much hand lotion and soap you use before you hold yours. They don’t like strange new smells and will react by curling up very tightly.
They are easy to redirect, they aren’t fast, and generally have a head for heights. They may nip, but their teeth aren’t sharp. If one bites you, your reaction will be to jerk away which could potentially hurt the hedgehog.  Make certain your hedgie isn’t a biter by asking the seller to hold his fingers up to her nose. Yttrium would bite fingers if encouraged, but not as a matter of general behavior, and she would let go after just a moment and it wouldn’t draw blood. The potential is there, I suppose, but having been bitten HARD I don’t think it is likely.  Children have thinner skin, though. Yttrium only bit me two or three times and Ethan says I probably deserved it. With Sodium, if I am laying down and holding her, she will eventually wander up toward my face, grab a hold of my beard with her teeth, and gently tug at it.  I think she might think my chin is another hedgehog, and she is trying to get it to show its face.  Or, this could be a prelude to a behavior called anointing.
I have never seen Sodium anoint, and I never saw Yttrium do it, either.  It is a very strange behavior, it would be interesting to see. Possibly a sodium would do it, if I let her have her y with my beard, but I usually only let her give it a couple of tugs.  I am of course worried about having the small pair of pliers that is her mouth get a hold of some skin.
A hedgehog will use an exercise wheel. I have been meaning to make a video about how to convert a “silent” running wheel into one that is actually silent, but the bottom line is that you need to construct your own wheel if the sound bothers you.  I built mine out of a large running wheel by drilling out the center axle and replacing it with one I made myself out of bearings and steel pipe. It weighs about a pound and it outlasted our Chilean mountain rat, Selenium, who used the heck out of it for almost 8 years. Sodium uses hers every night, and the only reason it ever makes any noise is if I forgot to clean the wheel and a piece of dried poop has dislodged and is rattling around the wheel. She isot a fast runner, and so the wheel doesn’t have the turbine sound we would hear when Selenium used it.
There are some videos and some instructions on line about how to bathe a hedgehog.  One of them says to use tearless shampoo.  Please don’t do that. Never use human shampoo on animals as their skin is far more sensitive and even baby shampoo will bother them.  Use a very mild cat shampoo, but don’t trust me – contact your veterinarian or ask the seller what he uses. Remember, however, that not all sellers will be certified in animal care and they may not know any better, either.
Night time
There is one more thing about hedgehogs: they are nocturnal.  Sodium actually waits until everyone in the house is in bed, then she gets up and starts to do her thing.  She usually respects others, and keeps to her wheel, but sometimes she figures out how to make some noise, or gets into a situation.  Generally speaking, Sodium likes the quiet, she enjoys midnight runs, and loves to nuzzle my beard. She is a fine little friend, though a little prickly, so be sure to keep a glove around for picking her up.  They are not necessarily difficult to care for, they are just higher maintenance, which is probably the lion’s share of “difficulty” whenever people refer to an animal as difficult. They are smelly, so you need to clean their cage frequently. We use the shredded, recycled paper bedding and she seems to like it just fine.
I hope this helps you in making your decision…frankly, I miss our first hedgehog still.  For a family experience, I think a Degu makes a superior, lower maintenance pet than a hedgehog, and it is about equally priced and lives about as long.  Degu’s are diurnal and herbivorous, and enjoy weeing people and being seen.  However, they require more handling to train and they can get away from you and chase your cats around.