The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.
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When it comes to owning pets, it is always important to know what to look for in terms of their health. As much as you may not want to think about the possibility of your pet getting sick, as the owner and as the only person who can help your pet when it does get sick, it is imperative that you know what signs to look for to understand when a pet isn’t well. Take a hedgehog as an example.
Hedgehogs are often beloved pets. They are unique and exotic creatures compared to the common dog, cat, and even birds and rabbits.
However, what this means for you is that you will need to take the time to do some research on how to care for hedgehogs, as pet care resources for them may not be as widely found. Thankfully, because hedgehogs are cared for deeply by those who own them, there are many resources that you can turn to.
With all of this being said, once you have done your research and you have successfully adopted the hedgehog, there may come a time when the hedgehog’s behavior doesn’t line up with how a healthy hedgehog would behave, but it also isn’t covered in what a standard, sick hedgehog would be like (such as lethargic or seemingly has a lack of appetite).
A good example of this would be if your hedgehog begins to shake. A shaking hedgehog can mean quite a few different things, and none of the possible causes are things that anyone wants to have happen to their hedgehogs.
If you notice that your hedgehog is shaking, the first thing you need to do is stay calm. You will want to pay close attention to the way that your hedgehog behaves so that you can try and determine the right course of action.
Understanding the Causes
There are two main causes for a hedgehog that is shaking, and both of them are equally as problematic. Shaking can happen if your hedgehog is attempting to go into hibernation, and shaking can happen if your hedgehog develops a neurological condition known as Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS).
Both of these problems can become fatal very quickly, but you should not panic, as hasty actions can make things significantly worse.
In the case of hibernation, hedgehogs will shake when they attempt to go into hibernation because their core body temperature is too low. Much like with people, during this process, your hedgehog will shiver violently, which will come across as shaking, as its body temperature is not suitable for survival.
In the case of WHS, your hedgehog will develop symptoms of unsteadiness and being uneasy on its feet, and over time this will progress into seizures, among other symptoms. Do keep in mind that more often than not, people will mistake unsteadiness for WHS without that being the case, so do not think of the worst quite yet.
These are the two main causes of your hedgehog shaking unnaturally. There are some other causes that may not be as common, but you should consider them. In some cases, the shaking may be a form of a seizure caused by a lesion or tumor in the hedgehog’s brain. Other times, it can be a form of unsteadiness caused by severe nutritional deficits.
Typically, if the shaking is caused by one of these lesser known causes, there will be other (often more pressing) symptoms that will prompt veterinary attention first.
In the case of a tumor or lesion, there will usually be other neurological signs that something isn’t right, such as a loss of balance or an inability to walk in a straight line. In the case of a nutritional deficit, your hedgehog may be sickly in other physical aspects, such as a low weight, unhealthy fur and skin, and lethargy.
All of these situations, except for hibernation, cannot be confirmed without a veterinary diagnosis. If you notice your hedgehog shaking, no matter what the circumstances are, you should begin planning a visit to the vet, as you will want to get to the root cause of the shaking so that you can try and get your hedgehog to a healthier place.
Hibernation in Hedgehogs
A lot of people do not know this, but hedgehogs are creatures that will hibernate if the circumstances are appropriate. Chances are that when people adopt hedgehogs, they are adopting the African Pygmy Hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) unless they are purchasing from a breeder who specifies otherwise.
This breed of hedgehog will usually hibernate between November to April, when it is out in the wild, although during milder winters, it may remain active through December.
In the wild, hedgehogs will prepare for the hibernation phase by increasing their caloric intake substantially so that they can have enough body fat to make it through the winter.
They do this because unlike what most people think, hibernation is not a deep sleep so much as it is a state of torpor. This means that the lethargy and unresponsiveness comes from a drop in body temperature and/or metabolic activity; the sleep is a result of the torpor, rather than the sleep being the main part of hibernation.
While the metabolic rate and body temperature will be severely reduced in hedgehogs during hibernation, it will not stop completely because they will still need fuel to continue performing the minimal actions it needs to keep itself alive. They will burn through the fat during hibernation and resume normal life as the temperature reaches something more suitable for the hedgehog’s life.
You might be wondering what this has to do with hedgehogs shaking. Because the process of hibernation brings down the hedgehog’s core body temperature, it will naturally begin to shiver, coming across as shaking. You will need to try and do what you can to safely raise your hedgehog’s body temperature as soon as you see this happening, as hibernation in domestic hedgehogs is often fatal.
In captivity, hedgehogs get enough food to sustain their active lifestyle, and more often than not, this is fine. However, this food intake does not (and should not) provide the amount of body fat needed to get through hibernation.
This means that if a domesticated hedgehog successfully goes into hibernation, it will functionally starve itself and die, making it all the more important for you to stop the hibernation as soon as you notice the shaking begin.
When attempting to bring a hedgehog’s body temperature up to an appropriate level, you should never, ever use any artificial method of heat that causes a sharp change. This includes heating pads, hair dryers, heating guns, and warm water.
You need to bring the temperature up slowly, as hedgehogs do not regulate their body temperatures the same way that people do. The safest way to begin heating your hedgehog up is to set up an ambient heating system, and the most effective way to do this is through skin-to-skin contact.
If you are worried about their quills hurting you, you can put a thin cloth between you and the hedgehog, but it should still be thin enough for your body heat to transfer to the hedgehog. Keep the hedgehog touching you for about 10 minutes or until it begins to show signs of responsiveness.
When the hedgehog begins to respond, wrap it in a fleece material or consider using a space heater turned down to its lowest setting. For the next 15 minutes, remain close to the hedgehog and check in on it to ensure that it is beginning to respond more, and do what you can to comfort it.
Once you are certain that your hedgehog is recovering, contact your veterinarian. He or she will explain what symptoms your hedgehog will have after a hibernation attempt and inform you of how you should proceed forward. Your veterinarian may want to also perform a checkup on the hedgehog to ensure that there is no lasting damage from the hibernation attempt.
You can prevent this process from happening by making sure that your hedgehog has the proper heating in its environment to keep its temperature at a suitable level. Unlike people, hedgehogs cannot compensate for an altered body temperature.
A hedgehog’s habitat should remain between 72 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit (22 to 28 degrees Celsius).
Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome
If your hedgehog’s habitat is of a suitable temperature, then there’s a chance that your hedgehog’s shaking and unsteadiness could come from WHS. WHS is considered a progressive, degenerative, neurological disease that occurs in African and European hedgehogs.
This means that it will progress and become more severe over time, and the hedgehog’s capabilities will degenerate, and that the disease’s main afflicted area is going to be the brain and its neurological functions.
The closest human equivalent to WHS is going to be Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which is the progressive demyelination of the nerves in the brain. In MS, the protective coating of the nerves in the brain is stripped away, interrupting signals that the brain sends to the body, resulting in progressive loss of coordination, vision, and ability to speak.
Scientists have determined that the function of both WHS and MS is similar in the sense that it disrupts the brain’s ability to control the muscle movements.
WHS is believed to be a genetic condition that can be passed down through breeding practices, although not much is known about its causes aside from this. It tends to develop when the hedgehog is between two or three years of age, but there have been cases of it in hedgehogs that are both older and younger.
The beginning symptoms of it will be unsteadiness and weakness in the hedgehog’s hind legs, resulting in the unsteadiness that you may see in your hedgehog, and also where the “wobbly hedgehog” of the disease’s name comes from.
The wobble will often be seen when the hedgehog is standing still as well, and it will progress to the point where the hedgehog is essentially quadriplegic. This means that all four limbs are paralyzed, leading to muscle atrophy, muscle loss, and progressive weakness. This process will develop slowly over the course of 18 to 24 months, though there have been rare cases of the progression being as fast as a matter of days.
Unfortunately, WHS can be diagnosed in only one of two ways: through the process of elimination and postmortem. When going by the process of elimination, a hedgehog-experienced veterinarian will gradually rule out brain and spinal cord diseases, inner ear problems, strokes, malnutrition, toxins, tumors, and anything else that can cause your hedgehogs symptoms.
This can become expensive, as there will be a wide variety of tests, and you may opt to simply try and give your hedgehog the best life that it can have.
Aside from the process of elimination, WHS can be identified postmortem through histological examination of both the spinal cord and the brain tissues, as this will help identify the way that the degenerative disease affected the nerves of your hedgehog’s body.
Because medical technology for hedgehogs (and animals in general) is not as advanced as it is for people, this identification can only be done once the hedgehog has passed away.
Just as with MS in people, WHS is terminal and there is nothing that you can do to prevent or stop this condition once it starts. Instead, you and your veterinarian will focus on palliative care for the hedgehog, using a variety of methods to try and make your hedgehog as comfortable as possible until its quality of life has decreased enough for euthanasia to be an option.
Other Reasons for Your Hedgehog’s Shaking
The one thing you should keep in mind when considering this is that WHS is not as common as people think it is. During the battery of tests to determine the cause of your hedgehog’s shaking, there will be a good chance that your vet will discover a different cause for why your hedgehog is shaking.
Many of the other causes for a shaking hedgehog can be fixed with changes to the hedgehog’s diet and/or the environment, although some options will require surgical intervention or may mean palliative care.
Always remember that shaking in hedgehogs is not something that can be ignored or taken lightly. The most prevalent reasons for a hedgehog shaking can become fatal if they are not addressed, such as malnutrition, tumors, hibernation, and so on.
Your veterinarian will be the first person you should contact the day that you notice your hedgehog shaking. With enough prior notice, you can rest assured knowing that you can help your hedgehog become healthier and live the best life that it can.