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Should we keep pygmy hedgehogs as pets?

Image caption Pygmy hedgehog owners can parade their unusual pets in shows

Tiny, spiky, squeaking and snorting - pygmy hedgehogs are a prickly issue.

Animal campaigners say they should not be kept as pets. But what do pygmy hedgehog owners say?

"They're adorable balls of love," says Emma Crossan.

She owns 11 African pygmy hedgehogs and hoglets, one of the most popular species of domesticated hedgehog in the UK.

Despite dwindling numbers of wild hedgehogs in our gardens, the popularity of these tiny hedgehogs - which can be held and even tickled - seems to be soaring.

The African Pygmy Hedgehog Club UK, a website for owners and breeders, says it now has 9,000 members, compared with just 100 when it was set up in 2012.

"Until you hold one in your hand you can't understand how much you adore them," Emma says.

But the RSPCA is concerned about what it calls the "latest pet craze", saying people's homes are unsuitable for pygmy hedgehogs, whose natural habitat is the semi-arid areas of central Africa.

The charity raised the alarm after rescuing an unwanted hedgehog - now named Paddington - from a London Underground station earlier this month.

"I was relieved that the little hedgehog was still alive," says the RSPCA's animal collection officer Jill Sanders, who rescued the hedgehog from a hamster cage in Edgware Road station.

"It was far too cold for him."

Image copyright RSPCA
Image caption Paddington the hedgehog was rescued from a London Underground station

"They're not easy to keep and you need to be dedicated," admits Emma, a dog trainer from Lancashire, who has kept hedgehogs for nearly a decade.

Emma, 27, spends a few hours each evening cuddling her pet hogs - Halla, Hugo, Phoenix, Olivia, Ella, Spice, Bowie, Flick, Electra, Pinny and Tip Toe - each one less than 20cm (8in) long.

"You want to handle them every single day, even if the hedgehog is huffy," she says.

Some owners even enter their hedgehogs in competitions.

At the annual African Pygmy Hedgehog Club Show held in Manchester over the August bank holiday, around 100 pygmy hedgehog fans turned out to enter pageants, and see stalls selling hedgehog wheels and food.

The hedgehogs were judged on their temperament, as well as skin and body condition, to compete for Best Male, Best Female and Best In Show.

Image caption Emma with her hoglet Halla
Image caption Emma's hedgehogs are kept in temperature-controlled vivariums

Emma says she "never dreamed in a million years" that pygmy hedgehogs would become so popular, but worries what the demand means for their welfare.

She says: "A lot of good breeders are having to take a step back, as bad breeders have been flooding the market.

"As awful as it sounds, there are breeders out there getting female hedgehogs to have more litters than they should."

Emma has found new homes for 14 hedgehogs since setting up a re-homing service last month, where she helps people with unwanted hedgehogs.

But she says abandoned hogs like Paddington could become a "big problem" if people buy hedgehogs without knowing how to look after them.

"I have a dedicated hedgehog room," says Emma, who keeps each of hers in a vivarium, a container for exotic animals.

Image caption Emma and husband Scott Crossan keep 11 pygmy hedgehogs

She also says it is important the hedgehogs get plenty of attention, are fed a diet rich in protein and low in fat, and have a wheel to run around in.

"They can run miles in the night, a wheel is very important," she says.

The RSPCA says the animals need to stay in an enclosure of between 24C and 30C.

Anything hotter and they can suffer heat stroke, while a temperature lower than 18C can induce torpor, a form of hibernation.

While the charity says hedgehogs are not suitable pets, it advises would-be owners to research the animal's needs - and only consider keeping one if they can ensure they are fully able to provide for them.

Paddington, its latest rescue hedgehog, is now living with a specialist carer in London.

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