Hedgehog self-anointing is one of the most mysterious and poorly understood aspects of ownership. It’s not something anyone fully understands, and new owners are rarely educated on what it is.
Plus it looks really odd.
We’ve gotten so many emails over the years from owners panicking when their hedgehog begins to self-anoint. They think something is really wrong!
Because of this, we thought it would be a good idea to create a no-nonsense resource that clearly explains the process of hedgehog self-anointing. This guide will cover what it is, what we know about it, and what you should when you see it.
Table of Contents
What Is Self-Anointing?
When a hedgehog begins to self-anoint, it looks pretty weird. This is also exaggerated by the fact that there’s usually very little warning that it’s about to happen!
They’ll be moving around their cage just like normal, then decide to crank their neck and start licking their spines out of the blue. To make things even stranger, they’ll be foaming at the mouth when they do it!
This process can last for a bit and your hedgie will get really into it. They’ll put themselves into all kinds of weird positions just to get this foam on every inch of their spines.
When you’ve never seen this behavior before it can definitely be a little concerning. It looks like they’ve suddenly developed rabies and are having a mini-seizure at the same time!
Fortunately, this behavior is actually quite normal in hedgehogs. If you own one it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll witness this at some point (especially if you have a baby hedgehog).
Why Do Hedgehogs Do This?
Funny enough, we actually don’t know the exact reason why hedgehogs self-anoint. One of the main reasons for this is because the process is nothing to be concerned with, so there’s no incentive to invest time researching the cause.
We do know that this process usually gets triggered when there are significant changes in the kind of scents and odors in their environment. A common example of this is when you take a baby hedgehog home for the first time and introduce them to their new cage (this can happen with adults as well).
With that being said, a few theories exist as to why hedgehogs spit on themselves and exhibit this behavior. We’re only including two of the theories because the rest are quite flimsy.
While we don’t know for sure (and might not for quite a while), there’s a strong chance that hedgehogs go through the process of self-anointing for one of the following reasons:
1. Scent Masking & Camouflage
When a hedgehog is self-anointing, it’s possible that they’re trying to use their spit as a way to mask their scent. They are attempting to hide their natural scent beneath something that’s a closer match to their environment.
While the effectiveness of this tactic is definitely debatable, it wouldn’t be the first time an animal has unsuccessfully attempted natural behavior in a captive environment. Remember, pet hedgehogs haven’t been around for that long!
This would fit with the pattern of them self-anointing more regularly after a change in the smell of their environment. Again, we don’t know for sure, but it’s definitely possible.
2. They’re Trying To Create A Protective Coating
The other commonly accepted theory on the cause of hedgehog self-anointing is that they might be trying to coat their spines in a protective (and semi-toxic) coating.
Seems odd right? However, when you unpack that theory a bit it starts to make more sense.
You see, hedgehogs are actually very resistant to various toxins that are found in the wild. They can eat animals that would normally be inedible for others (giants toads are a common example of this).
The theory is that in the wild, hedgehogs are used to eating these toxic animals and have semi-toxic saliva as a result. By rubbing this foamy spit all over their spines they’re actually protecting themselves even further against various predators (as if being poked wasn’t enough).
Assuming this hunch is correct, hedgehogs in captivity continue to self-anoint because this is ingrained behavior that hasn’t worn off yet. It will be interesting to see if they do this less and less as they get used to captivity.
Is It Harmful?
In short, no.
As we’ve said before, part of the reason we haven’t figured out the exact cause of self-anointing in hedgehogs is that there’s simply no reason to. It’s just goofy-looking behavior that’s ultimately harmless.
In general, there’s nothing to worry about if you see your hedgie doing this. It’s just a natural part of their behavior!
It’s worth pointing out that if you make them stop, it can actually have negative effects. We say this because sometimes owners will prevent their hedgehog from self-anointing since it’s “gross” or because they don’t understand what’s going on.
And that’s a mistake.
Even though the process isn’t doing anything for a hedgehog in captivity, they don’t know that! As a result, they think that it’s an important step in order to stay safe and healthy.
By stopping them from going through this process there’s a good chance they’ll feel unsafe or anxious. This can have an impact on their health and lifespan over time.
Let’s say there was a mystical safety god that made sure there were no criminals near your home but didn’t tell you. Instead, all they did was stop by and prevent you from locking your doors every day.
You’re totally safe. In fact, you’re safer than you’ve ever been.
But all you know is that you’re not allowed to lock your doors. That’s going to keep you in a state of serious stress and anxiety, and will ultimately impact your health.
In summary, just let the critters lick spit onto their back.
Now that you have a better understanding of hedgehog self-anointing, it should be pretty clear that this behavior is nothing to worry about.
While it might look a little odd at first, you’ll get used to it over time. We think it’s actually kind of fun to watch!
All pets have their own little quirks that we as owners need to accept. With hedgehogs, that means licking their spines with a foamy mouth!