Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Hedge Fun

8 things to know about caring for these prickly pets

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Hedgehogs are crazy cute. That's probably the main reason people get them as pets. And they are unique. It's not everyone who can say that his roommate is an African pygmy hedgehog.

"They're just cool," says veterinarian Scott Weldy of Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest, California, who keeps two hedgehogs. He says it's fun to watch and interact with them, especially when they roll over to show their cute bellies and tiny feet.

Not surprisingly, though, these bristly little critters have some special needs. Read on to see if a hedgehog is a good match for you.

-- Hedgehogs are not always legal pets. In California, for instance, only people with permits can keep them. Other states and some cities have similar laws. Check before you buy. That said, even if you own one illegally, don't hesitate to take him to the veterinarian for care. In all likelihood, your veterinarian is not required to turn you in or to confiscate your pet.

-- Hedgehogs are insectivores. Dr. Weldy recommends feeding a commercial insectivore diet rather than trying to come up with a homemade diet of mealworms.

-- Hedgehogs like warmth. It's important not to let them get cold, so keep your hedgehog indoors.

-- Hedgehogs need socialization. Handle your hedgehog frequently so you don't find yourself caring for a living pincushion. A hedgehog doesn't have good eyesight, so let him sniff you before you pick him up so he knows who you are.

Another reason for handling a hedgehog on a regular basis is to make it easy for your veterinarian to examine him. If he curls up in a ball every time he's touched, your veterinarian will have to administer gas anesthesia to get him to relax enough for an exam, which increases the cost of the exam.

-- Hedgehogs are nocturnal. That makes them good pets for people who work during the day or school-age kids. They are usually less cranky than hamsters if awakened during the day, however.

"If you gently wake them up and give them a few minutes, they'll start moving around," Dr. Weldy says. "They're very food-oriented, so if you show them food, kids coming home from school can play with them until they go to bed."

-- Hedgehogs are notorious for developing tumors.

"When people come in with a sick hedgehog, that's the first thing on the list," Dr. Weldy says, "and usually the people are bringing them in on the downhill side of the disease. The spines make them look big all the time, so if you don't touch them, weigh them or get them to relax so you can palpate them, you would never know. You have to be really vigilant."

The best way to monitor your hedgehog's condition is to weigh him weekly on a kitchen scale and mark his weight on the calendar. That makes it easy to see any patterns of weight gain or loss that might indicate a health problem. You should also take your hedgehog to the veterinarian right away if he's eating or pooping less than normal.

-- Hedgehogs may also have dental problems. They can develop bone infections from infected teeth and soft-tissue tumors in their mouths. You can't really brush their teeth, but your veterinarian can perform dental cleanings just as she would on a dog, cat or ferret, as well as remove rotten teeth.

-- When buying a hedgehog, pick him up and hold him to make sure he's friendly. Go to see the hedgehog in the evening when he'll be active to get the best idea of his personality. Ask to watch him eat. Buy from someone who keeps the animals in a clean environment.

Q&A

Stiff kitty may

have arthritis

Q: My cat seems to move more slowly these days, and it looks like he's having some trouble getting in and out of his litter box. Could he have arthritis?

A: We do tend to think of cats as being the ultimate yoga masters, but they have joints, and those joints can become inflamed with age. Studies have shown that 90% of cats 10 years of age and older are likely to show signs of arthritis on radiographs (X-rays).

Because cats are so good at hiding physical problems from us, the signs of arthritis can be subtle. For instance, some cats start peeing or pooping outside the litter box because it's not so easy to climb in and out of it, as you noticed. That's often misidentified as a behavior problem instead of a pain-management issue.

Your cat may not jump as high or may prefer to stay on the floor instead of sleeping on the bed with you. He may be unable to groom himself as well as he used to, or you may notice that he shies away from being petted.

Here are some things you and your veterinarian can try to help him feel more comfortable: nutraceuticals such as glucosamine and chondroitin (Cosequin) may offer some relief. An injectable medication called Adequan seems to help as well. If your cat is overweight, talk to your veterinarian about implementing a diet and weight loss plan. Taking off some pounds will relieve pressure on his joints. Acupuncture may also be beneficial.

Environmental changes you can make include providing steps so the cat can more easily get on the sofa or bed, cutting an opening into the litter box so he can walk in and out, and providing a heated bed to soothe achy joints.

Be patient. Cats often respond better to pain therapy than dogs, but it can take four to six weeks before you start to see results. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Cats’ eyes made for

nocturnal hunting

-- A cat's eyes adjust to different lighting conditions. Having eyes that reduce the pupils to slits rather than tiny circles gives the cat greater and more accurate control in different types of lighting; this ability is particularly important in bright sunlight. This adaptation sets domestic cats apart from their relatives the lions, which hunt by day instead of night. A lion's pupils -- like ours -- contract to tiny circles, not vertical slits.

-- Persistent gastrointestinal problems in dogs may be a sign of a type of inflammatory bowel disease called lymphocytic plasmacytic enteritis. A change in food to a more digestible diet brings a good response in up to 80% of dogs with the disease, but the optimal way to manage dogs with this disease is still unknown. A study at Cornell University Hospital for Animals is seeking answers, testing dogs’ responses to different diets. Curiously, after three months, nearly all the dogs, whether they are eating test or placebo diets, have had good responses. Researchers are continuing to analyze the dogs’ gut microbiome and metabolism with the hope of improving diagnosis and therapy. Sometimes, maybe, change is good all on its own.

-- Kentucky has joined the rest of the country in allowing veterinarians to report animal abuse. A new law lifts restrictions preventing veterinarians from notifying authorities of suspected animal abuse. Previously, Kentucky was the only state that explicitly prohibited veterinarians from alerting authorities to potential animal abuse, which often occurs in tandem with child or domestic abuse. The signing of Senate Bill 21 by Gov. Andy Beshear is a significant step forward for the state, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.