Written by Laura Tong
One of the most common questions about hedgehog care is "What should I feed my hedgehog?". While there are many opinions on the matter, and we have heard of several plans and mixes that work wonderfully for people, in the twelve years we have owned hedgehogs we have developed some definite ideas on how to feed them "correctly". This has been done with the help of our vet, Dr. Kara James of Cimarron Animal Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, and her discussions with Dr. Carpenter, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. This information, leading to our current feeding plan, was hard won, and deserves to have its story told.
In late 2003, discussion on some of the internet lists talking about hedgehog ownership turned to "correct" feeding. Several long time owners and rescues stated that the current practice of most breeders, who were feeding a mixture of various qualities of cat or hedgehog foods, was simply because they were too cheap to feed their hedgehogs "correctly". Supposedly several veterinarians and knowledgeable researchers supported their belief that hedgehogs should only be fed top quality cat foods with treats of table foods. After reading some of their arguments, we talked at length and decided that if this was truly best for our animals, we were willing to change to a mix of premier foods, regardless of the cost, as we have never been concerned with making a profit from our animals. We had no idea what the cost would really be.
Sometime around four months after we changed our feeding program, we started having animals become seriously ill. Visits to the vet and subsequent testing showed severe liver and/or kidney failure, and most of the animals either died and had this diagnosed by necropsy or had to be subsequently euthanized because there was no available treatment to help them. After we lost our fourth or fifth animal, most of them either completely unrelated or only distantly related, our vet consulted with one of her colleagues, Dr. Carpenter at Kansas State University. One of the first questions they had for us was whether our food program had changed in the past six months. When we explained what we had changed, we were told to immediately change to a mix with lower protein and higher "good quality" fillers. The food mixture that had been suggested as the best way to feed our animals was instead far "too hot" (too rich) for their bodies to process, and was killing them.
In the wild, hedgehogs are insectivores, bordering on omnivores, and very much opportunistic feeders. They eat primarily insects, but will also eat other small creatures they stumble upon or even vegetation that appeals to them. This diet gives them a wide variety of roughage, from the gut load of the insects, to the chitin of their bodies, to the bones of small mammals, to bits of vegetable they may choose to eat. As pets, they require a moderate amount of fiber (in the form of fillers) to properly process their food and remain healthy.
Once we changed to a different food mix (closer to our original, but with some changes) the losses slowly stopped, with the last few losses being of young mothers who had been babies at the time of what we have come to call the "great food fiasco". While they had survived the original problem, the added stress of pregnancy or nursing was too much for their compromised organs. Our son was barely six when he found his favorite girl dead with her two week old babies. It was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through as a breeder. (We hand raised the babies and they all did well) Some of the animals we lost were everything I was breeding for, not to mention dear friends, and I almost quit breeding over it. Those losses have left us with an obsession with feeding what the hedgehogs need most, as we are best able to understand it, regardless of what others may think. All that matters is that we no longer lose young animals to liver or kidney failure, and have very few losses in even our very senior citizens.
At the PogStar our base mix is made up of one mid and one lower quality food that are easily accessible and which our herd has done well on. (Purina One Chicken & Rice and Purina Indoor Cat) We mix these foods 50/50, usually using 18 lb bags of each. Usually we also find another food of high quality (one that would most likely be too rich if fed on it's own) that we mix in. This food varies from mix to mix, which helps to not only round out our animals' diets, but also to give them variety. Natural Balance, Nutro, and Royal Canin are some of our favorite brands to use. Most often we toss in an 8lb bag of this, and we often add a little extra to the bin of food we keep in our nursery. We have had excellent results using this mix and feel comfortable suggesting it as a plan for other owners.
Below is an overview of the criteria we feel best explain what we looked for when making up our food mix. We know that some of it doesn't make sense in light of what is generally considered "good" feeding practices. It didn't make sense to us either, which is why we were willing to try a different diet for our animals. We learned the hard way that what "makes sense" doesn't always work, and isn't always what is actually best for the animal. We would like to help others avoid making any of our mistakes, and hope this article will help you to better understand what it is your pet needs, and to be comfortable in making decisions about its diet.
--Pellets need to be a small size that will be easy for your hedgehog to eat. Typical cat food size or smaller is fine. Some puppy foods also meet the needed standards.
--The amount of PROTEIN should be somewhere close to 30% and should be roughly TWICE the amount of FAT, which should stay very close to 15-16%. If these numbers aren't at least close, look elsewhere!! If the numbers are only a little off, you may be able to balance things out with the other food(s) you choose.
--One of your foods should have a real meat as one of its higher ingredients. Preferably not pork or beef, as these are thought to be hard for hedgehogs to digest.
--The meat name (Chicken) or a meal (Chicken Meal) are the clean flesh of the animal, or the dried and ground flesh of the animal, which are best. A meat listing of "Chicken" is much more specific than "Poultry".
--By Product is just what it sounds like. While in most foods it is made up of internal organs, meat, and bone, it can include blood, feet, hair, connective tissue, or ANY part of the animal. Digest is made when By-Products are treated to create a liquid mixture. Most foods contain at least one of these, but the farther down the list of ingredients it is, the better.
--Fillers are not only unavoidable, but also needed by hedgehogs to some degree. Fillers such as brewers rice, ground brown rice, ground wheat and ground barley, are some of the fillers that are a better quality and more digestible for hedgehogs. Ground corn, wheat middlings, soybean hulls, cellulose, and corn gluten are considered to be of questionable value due to their lack of digestibility or value to the food. However, in truth, this could also be said about chitin, so we believe it possible that some indigestible matter is needed by hedgehogs to process their food. Try to make sure that the foods you choose have a good complement of the good fillers, as well as a moderate amount of fillers that are of more questionable quality.
--Foods should be preserved with "mixed Tocopherols", which are a harmless natural preservative. BHA, BHT and Ethoxyquin are commonly used chemical preservatives of questionable safety, which are no longer allowed in human grade foods.
--It is also best to avoid artificial sweeteners such as corn syrup, sucrose, and glycerine, as well as artificial colors or flavors.
Dedicated to the memories of the wonderful animals we lost, and to Garfield and Glenda who helped make it all better for our little boy.