As the housing crisis ends up putting more and more Valley residents in unexpected situations, the safety and well-being of pets is of growing concern.
Some residents have had to give up a pet, house a pet with a friend or relative, or consider a pet more suitable for a smaller space or with limited resources.
Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Valley residents may have begun to notice that a 2015 state agency rule change allowed a type of small animal to be bred, sold and owned in Arizona.
A late 2015 decision by the Arizona Game and Fish Department moved African pygmy hedgehogs to an “unrestricted” list.
While the list of prohibited and permitted types of animals and species remains vague and absurd in many ways and in many places, including Arizona, other states’ former hedgehog owners, and small pets from Arizona were happy to see that there is no longer a ban here.
“I worked at a pet store and someone brought one in around 2016,” said Nikki Kulak, owner of Sonoran Desert Hedgehogs. “Shortly after that I started researching everything I could possibly know about them and got one. I was hooked. I could tell how much I loved interacting with the little babies I had. was going to end up becoming a breeder.
Care and feeding
Kulak, who raises hedgehogs at her home in Maricopa, said she quickly learned about the commitments involved in effectively and responsibly caring for a hedgehog. The animal’s needs and equipment are somewhat specialized.
From kibble, the dry crunchy material resembling cat food that is often a hedgehog’s main food, to mealworms that can be used as treats, to the wheels they roll on at night (African pygmy hedgehogs are nocturnal ), there are plenty of adjustments to be made – even for lifelong animal lovers like Kulak.
Being part of the family Erinaceidae, hedgehogs would be considered insectivores except that they are omnivores. Mealworms from a pet store can be an occasional treat.
However, aside from mealworms and Aspen shavings that are used to line a hedgehog’s cage, few items that hedgehog owners prefer can be found at pet supply stores. The sometimes contentious relationship between pet stores and hedgehog breeders and owners is partly due to specialization.
A “pigloo” is part of the hedgehog’s nocturnal habits: in daylight, hedgehogs, when not eating or making brief forays around their aspen-lined cages, seek darkness. Specially designed sleeping bags, inside small domed coverings known as pigloos, provide this shelter.
Many of these sleeping bags can be used to help remove a reluctant hedgehog from a cage for cleaning, recreation, or vet visits.
Paper towel or cardboard toilet paper tubes are great toys for hedgehogs. They plant their snout there as if they were digging a tunnel.
A well-adjusted, easy-going hedgehog will be relaxed and open if held. Those who are more tense or on guard will puff up, shield their faces and soft bellies, and sometimes explode and hiss.
Kulak said hedgehogs tend to behave better in groups, although groups of all males sometimes fight, while females do not. There is no real logic in how a hedgehog personality develops, although gentle and frequent human handling throughout infancy seems to help.
“I’ve had some that were nice and a few that were just a brat and a half,” she said.
Hedgehogs live for about five years. Kulak said breeders are trying to extend those lifespans by sharing health and safety information.
A symptom of a hedgehog health problem will be if many of the animal’s 5,000 quills fall off in a short time. Regular visits to the vet are important to see if the animal is developing in a healthy way.
Kulak said COVID-19 has caused a shift in how pet stores and breeders interact with the public. In addition to keeping humans safe, breeders wanted to avoid contracting a mite or other infestation, for which treatment would have been an added burden on top of COVID preventative measures.
“That’s why I don’t accept rescues,” she said.
There seems to be some disagreement among breeders about the safest method of temperature regulation. Hedgehogs seem to enjoy life best between 75 and 80 degrees, which isn’t as cool as most humans keep their homes.
If a house or room was at 68 degrees, Halak said, it would send hedgehogs into hibernation mode. Mounted heat lamps seem to be the preferred modern way of only heating a cage area, rather than an entire room or house.
One breeder says that heating devices such as stones or heating pads are not recommended as they can cause second degree burns. Kulak echoed this: She said such heaters are nearly impossible to find now and largely discouraged.
Some breeders and owners use large plastic storage containers, without lids, as cages, which means that heat lamps or other hearing aids should not be too close to the plastic.
Aside from the 2015 Game and Fish rule change, no Arizona state agency is directly involved with hedgehogs or many other species. Hedgehog breeders need only be registered with the United States Department of Agriculture and follow all federal requirements.
Keith Lewis, a North Phoenix apartment dweller who cares for a handful of rats, ferrets and hedgehogs, has a near-albino rescue named Imani, who is about 2 years old.
Lewis said neutering and neutering is rarely done in exotic pets because it’s expensive. Separating breeding animals seems a more feasible option.
Tamra Rothenburger is the executive director of Arizona Sugar Glider Rescue. It’s a Phoenix-area non-profit rescue for sugar gliders and hedgehogs. She said there’s a short list of questions every potential owner can ask themselves when considering whether hedgehogs are the best type of pet for each person.
Arizona Game and Fish,