To Bug or Not to Bug: Why I made insects a staple in my hedgehog’s diet
As soon as I brought my little bundle of rage and quills home, I found myself at somewhat of a loss on what to feed him. Sure, I’d done some cursory research to ensure he would be a good fit for me, but not much deeper than “eats cat food” and “drinks water”. Could it be more complicated than that to keep a hedgehog happy and healthy?
Oh, it can.
Turns out, you don’t want to just drop a bit of kibble in their cage and be done with it. A quick glance around breeder sites, pet sites, and forums uncovered what seemed to be a complicated dietary ratio. However, every site also seemed to toss around the word “insectivore” as often as they did “hedgehog”. I started to wonder, why then does every site only recommend bugs as a once in a while treat?
We’re just kind of in the dark about what they need
First of all, the lack of dietary knowledge on Pygmy hedgies has to do with their relative obscurity as a pet. Plenty of people have cats and dogs, hence why more money and resources are devoted to their study. Domesticated U.S. pygmy hedgehogs have only been around for fifty years. Because of this, early owners had to reach for alternative food sources. Cat food is both common and ticks enough boxes, nutritionally speaking.
Another factor I uncovered is that not only are hedgies rare pets, they aren’t even native to North America. Thus, advice that early hedgie breeders and owners got came from the British, who encounter hedgehogs as garden pests. However, the European hedgehog is a actually an entirely different species.
Even the handful of studies I found on the diets of hedgehogs share this bias: the majority focus on wild European hedgehogs. Not only does this issue transcend the issue of specie, but it also begs even more questions. As opportunistic feeders, do hedgehogs eat what is best for them or merely what’s attainable? Did the food bait used in the studies skew the results? (Answer: in some cases, yes.)
Frustrated by stymied google searches, I wondered, is there any information specific to pygymy hedgies?
The nutrition as we understand it
The first place most people look for information is vets and hedgie breeders. Unfortunately, as an uncommon pet, most vets have little in-depth knowledge about our pokey friends. Breeders, similarly, embraced the general wisdom. They are unlikely to either risk their litters’ health or recommend anything uncertain. Thus, we get the same repetition of the same rule of thumb: find a dry cat food that has at least 25% protein, a max of 15% fat, and as much fiber as possible. This is recommended to prevent common ailments: obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and (to some extent) cancer.
Meanwhile, we look to wild hedgehogs to draw comparisons to domestic diets. While others have compiled far more detailed lists, such as this one, I’ll give us all the gist. The vast majority of their diet is insects, followed by a small amount of vertebrates (such us birds and lizards), followed by an even smaller amount of plant matter. The one study I know of that studied African hedgehogs found similar results.
Why keep feeding them so much meat based kibble if its not what they prefer to eat?
The case for more bugs
The biggest reason cited about why bugs should be supplementary rather than a staple, is that excess fat produces sickly hedgies. Also, one of the most commonly available bugs on the market are high-fat meal worms. However, this “insects as a treat” advice doesn’t take into account the nutritional qualities of all the other insects to become available in recent years. Crickets and grasshoppers are low in fat, high in protein, and packed full of fiber, making them intuitive additions to the modern hedgie’s diet.
Speaking of fiber: while many breeders understand the importance in hedgies’ diets, they fail to discern the type. The two main types are cellulose, found in plants and animals, and chitin, found in the exoskeletons of insects. Much of the fiber found in cat food is cellulose based. According to this study, cellulose fiber is significantly harder for hedgies to digest and use than chitin.
Another study performed by the Bronx Zoo, found that increasing chitin had positive effects on health. Not only is it the human equivalent of eating bran, but it actually helps boost hedgie’s ability to digest fat. Thus, not only does adding chitin provide the fiber they need, it also aids them in purging excess fat that they don’t.
Variety is the spice of life
This isn’t to say that bugs should be the only thing you feed a hedgehog. There are benefits to the current regimen. Hard cat food prevents dental problems and is easy to store. Wet cat food provides extra moisture into their diets and can offer a fresher nibble. What I’m proposing is not to abandon these foods, but to scale down the amount. If we make more room in the 100 calorie hedgehog’s diet for insects, we can help them live more healthful lives.
Beyond the nutritional benefits of diversifying, think of your hedgehog’s personal experience. In the wild, they constantly forage and take a bite out of anything that seems tasty. It’s hard to imagine that the instinct to eat more than one or two things isn’t present in the domesticated hedgie. And, as almost any hedgehog owner will tell you, they adore bugs.
After switching my hedgie’s diet, I’m not going back. I feed him one tablespoon kibble, one tablespoon wet cat food, and one tablespoon canned insects every night. Instead of a huddled, irritated ball of spikes, I have a happier, more energetic hedgehog. After months of hiding and sleeping, my hedgie now spends hours on his wheel and exploring his cage.
His appetite also seems easier to self-regulate. I leave some kibble in his cage to ensure he has something to munch if I’m late to feed him. Hear me out: I know about the concerns that this could contribute to overeating. Before this diet change, this concern was valid: he licked his bowl clean every night. Once I introduced more bugs, however, he began leaving at least half of his dry food for later. I often throw out the excess.
Overall, I have to call this diet a success. His weight is steady, his poops are consistent, and he hasn’t shown any dullness in his skin or eyes. He even seems more social. I suspect he’s actually just figured out that I obsess so much over his happiness that I’m wrapped around his little paw.