Always take any sick or injured hedgehog (or indeed any hedgehog entering care) to a reputable wildlife hospital or veterinary surgeon for expert advice and treatment. Be ready to take the hedgehog back to the exact place it was found either if you are advised that the animal does not need help or after it has received treatment. Never keep a hedgehog for longer than necessary and seek advice on how to rehabilitate them to the wild. Hedgehogs do NOT make good pets, they need a great deal of exercise (in the wild they often walk between 1 and 3 kilometres each night, or even longer) and their natural diet is very varied.
1. YOUR SAFETY
Always observe strict hygiene precautions when handling hedgehogs. Wear gloves, wash your hands and keep sick animals away from children and pets. Disinfect or throw away anything that the animal has been in contact with. If you get any skin rashes or other unusual symptoms go to your doctor at once and explain that you have been in contact with hedgehogs.
2. WHEN TO RESCUE A HEDGEHOG
- If it is obviously seriously ill or injured. It is not always easy to decide when a hedgehog needs to be cared for. Apart from obvious injuries such as wounds and broken limbs, common signs of serious illness include:
- Noisy or laboured breathing
- The animal appears dazed, shaky on its legs and it may feel cold and shivery to the touch. It may be out in daylight and seem oblivious to danger.
- There are fly eggs (look like clusters of tiny rice grains) on the fur or skin. This is a clear sign that the animal is in trouble. Fly eggs must be removed otherwise they will hatch and the maggots will infest ears, eyes and any wound.
- In late autumn, as the frosts of winter begin, newly independent juvenile hedgehogs weighing less than about 400-500g in the UK are unlikely to have enough body fat to survive hibernation. The minimum size needed to survive varies with where you are in Europe and how severe the winters are. However, any juvenile weighing more than about 650g is probably OK wherever you are. Slightly small animals will benefit from a few good meals and then being released to look for a good place to hibernate. If the hedgehog is very small it may have to be cared for until the spring. Ask your local wildlife hospital or veterinary surgeon for advice.
- If in doubt, either leave the animal alone or telephone a wildlife hospital or veterinary surgeon for advice.
3. CARE IN CAPTIVITY
- Ask your wildlife hospital or veterinary surgeon for advice and regular health checks. It may be necessary to test for parasites (both external and internal) and treat infestations. Weigh the animal each week to detect serious weight loss or excessive weight gain.
- Do not try to tame the hedgehog, keep it as wild as possible ready for its release by keeping contact to a minimum.
- Caring for nestlings is difficult and, unless you are experienced, you must seek advice. Some simple rules are that you should never feed babies on cow‘s milk but use an appropriate milk substitute eg. Esbilac has been found to be good. All nestlings must be helped to urinate by stimulation of their genitals and will die if this is not done frequently. Mother hedgehogs do this by licking their babies‘ bottoms and lapping up the urine and faeces. A cotton bud lubricated with petroleum jelly is a good substitute. Gently wipe the babies‘ bottoms clean. Hedgehogs should be fully weaned by about 40 days old.
- Feeding independent youngsters and adults is simpler but it is still a good idea to get advice. Never give them cow‘s milk, even though they like it. We still do not know what is the best food for captive hedgehogs but a good quality meaty pet food (eg. tinned cat food) seems to be adequate. Pet meat may be too soft to keep their teeth clean so add some rough biscuit. Specialist hedgehog foods are available but we have seen no evidence that they are any better than pet meat. Fresh water should always be available in a dish. Do not let a hedgehog become too fat – an obese hedgehog may have trouble rolling up and may suffer from fatty liver and other disorders. Never feed cow‘s milk or sugary foods to any hedgehog.
4. WHEN NOT TO RESCUE A HEDGEHOG
- It is wrong to think that all hedgehogs found active during the day are ill and must be rescued. Although it is true that ill hedgehogs are often found wandering about in a daze during the day, healthy hedgehogs may also be active by day for several reasons. Research has shown that lactating mothers (with litters) commonly forage by day in order to get extra food, especially when nights are short in the summer. If you take such a female from the wild her litter will certainly die. Do not rescue animals unless they are clearly very ill.
- If you find a small hedgehog, do not just assume that it is an orphan that must be rescued. Hedgehogs become independent when still quite small, 300-400g in weight and not much longer than the palm of your hand. Unless ill, these animals need to be LEFT ALONE to establish themselves for adult life. However, in late autumn when the frosty weather begins, these small animals are unlikely to survive the winter without some help (see above).
- If you accidentally uncover a nest of baby hedgehogs, quickly re-cover it, do not touch them or pick them up unnecessarily (use gloves if you must). If the mother is not there or runs off she will usually return and move them to a new nest. They have a much better chance of survival with their mother despite the small risk that she may abandon or destroy them. Only consider rescuing them if they remain unattended the following morning.
- Never rescue a hedgehog unless you are prepared to look after it properly or know a good wildlife hospital that will do it for you. Be prepared to give a donation towards the cost of treatment and care.
5. OTHER WAYS OF HELPING HEDGEHOGS
- All hedgehogs, even healthy adults, will benefit from a good feed. The best food is meaty cat or dog food. Bread and milk can cause lethal diarrhoea if consumed in large quantities. NEVER feed bread and milk to hedgehogs taken into care.
- Some simple ways to make your garden safer and more attractive for hedgehogs.
- They need safe nest sites all year round, not just in winter. They love nesting under sheds, in piles of wood or pruning’s, or rough areas with fallen leaves. Why not leave parts of your garden a little bit wild?
- Always carefully check for hedgehogs before lighting bonfires. Be careful with garden forks, spades. mowers and especially strimmers – these are a major cause of serious injury to hedgehogs.
- Hedgehogs, have little fear of falling, and so can easily fall into garden ponds, swimming pools, uncovered drains and other steep-sided holes. Always cover holes and drains and provide a ramp (a simple rough plank will do) as an escape route for ponds and pools.
- Avoid using poisons like slug pellets which can kill hedgehogs. Look into other methods of slug control (like beer traps, barriers of sharp sand etc).
- Don‘t make your garden into an impregnable fortress at ground level if you want hedgehogs to visit! They only need a small gap (about 5cm) under a fence or gate.