Hibernation is defined as to spend the winter in close quarters in a dormant condition. Many animals who live in areas of the world that have extremely cold winters, including some species of hedgehogs, do hibernate, to reduce the amount of energy that they use when food supplies are short. However, the hedgehogs that we have as pets are originally from Africa, usually in areas that do not experience cold winters, making them unprepared by nature for hibernation. They do not store the energy needed for hibernation, and their bodies do not naturally slow down to the extent that is needed to survive this state.
Sometimes, due to temperature conditions that hedgehogs are not prepared for, our pets do attempt to enter a hibernation state. This can be VERY dangerous for them, and if they are not warmed appropriately, hibernation can be fatal. Even if they are warmed before they die, hibernation attempts can be very hard on hedgehog's health. Respiratory infections, lowered immune system, dehydration, and organ failure can occur as a result.
Symptoms of hibernation attempts are lethargy, shaky gait, no food and water consumption, and difficulty in waking up. The abdomen of a hedgehog should feel warm to the touch, but may feel cool or even cold if the hedgehog is attempting to hibernate.
If you think your hedgehog is attempting to hibernate, you should take steps immediately to begin warming them back up. Do not warm them too rapidly though, because this can cause them to go into shock. The best way to warm them is to lay the hedgehog's belly against the skin of your abdomen, and cover them with a shirt or light blanket. You can also try placing them on a heating pad set on low temperature, or covering them with a towel that has been slightly warmed in the dryer. Do not place them in warm water, as being wet can actually cause heat to leave their skin faster. Do not put the hedgehog in the oven, or in an extremely warm location. Do not place them on an extremely warm surface, as they may not be able to move off of the surface before their skin burns.
As soon as your hedgehog starts waking up and moving around, offer lukewarm water and small amounts of soft foods. Continue your efforts to warm your hedgehog until the belly is warm and the hedgehog is fully alert and able to move around normally with no shakiness or unsteadiness of the gait.
Continue monitoring your hedgehog closely for several days after a hibernation attempt, as they may be prone to a repeated attempt. Also watch for signs of respiratory problems, such as loud breathing, nasal discharge, open mouth breathing, or exaggerated movement of the chest while breathing. Monitor food and water consumption, and encourage sluggish eaters by softening their dry food with a little warm water, and providing favorite treats.
The best way to deal with hibernation is to prevent it completely. Keep your hedgehog's environment at a comfortable temperature, for most hedgehogs this is between 72 and 75 degrees F. Make sure your hedgehog's cage receives appropriate lighting for at least 12 hours per day. This doesn't have to be extremely bright, and it is ok if the hedgehog is sleeping during the light times. If you live in an area where there is a chance that you will lose heat or electricity during the winter, prepare ahead of time by stocking up on air activated hand warmers that can be wrapped in a washcloth or small blanket to provide your hedgehog with a warm area.
Some hedgehogs, especially those that are older, very young, or have health issues, may be prone to hibernation even at 72 degrees. These hedgehogs may benefit from having a human heating pad set on low under one corner of their cage to provide them with a warmer zone to go to in case they get cool. Female hedgehogs who are approaching the end of their reproductive lifespan, around 2 1/2-3 years old, sometimes have increased difficulty with hibernation attempts. Many breeders house these "retiree" females in small groups of 2-4 with a heating pad under one end of the cage to help them stay warm.
Please remember- hibernation in our pet hedgehogs is NOT natural or normal. It can be fatal within a short period of time. Prevent hibernation with an appropriately heated and lit environment, and always be alert for signs of hibernation.