How to Build a Bioactive Hedgehog Enclosure
Through the following pages, we'll take a tour of our process of building an example bioactive hedgehog enclosure. Bioactive setups are common in reptile and amphibian keeping, but much less so with mammals because comparatively they are very active and produce a lot of waste - which makes upkeep more challenging. With certain expectations and considerations in mind however, you can have fantastic results!
Why did we start this project?
As pet owners we are continually learning and improving our husbandry to allow our pets to live fulfilling, healthy lives. Offering a "lifelike" enclosure provides enrichment and opportunities to express natural behaviors that we may not get to appreciate in other types of setups. We wanted to give an example of how a bioactive enclosure can be done for hedgehogs, since resources for mammals are limited and conflicting.
What is a "bioactive" enclosure?
There are a bunch of different components that can go into a bioactive setup, but the essence is that we try to replicate components of a natural ecosystem so that the inhabitant has a more natural, "real world" environment to live in. This can include soil substrates with healthy microbes, full spectrum lighting, live plants, small arthropods called "cleanup crews" which break down waste, a routine of adding water to the system, etc. You can think of the bioactive setup as the "support system" that your hedgie lives in. There are lots of biological processes happening within the enclosure.
Rather than consistently removing all your hedgehog's waste, you'll have light and water inputs which help the soil and cleanup crews to naturally break down and assimilate that waste. Then the plants and cleanup crew will use those nutrients for their own needs.
This is different from a sterile setup where all surfaces can be washed and disinfected, or a naturalistic setup which would have certain components (like natural materials - wood, straw, stones, branches, etc.) while still requiring regular cleaning.
Quick soapbox - to be honest, I do not like the term bioactive. It is poorly defined as a husbandry concept and you'll find all sorts of people with a different opinion on what constitutes "bioactive." If you find someone who says a bioactive setup HAS to be a closed system, or HAS to have plants, or HAS to have springtails... just know that they probably mean well but have a very narrow view of the subject. I use "bioactive" because it's the most well recognized term for this type of husbandry.
Do you have to clean a bioactive hedgehog setup?
So it probably sounds like all the hedgie poop will just... disappear. This is partially true, but no. While an appropriately sized setup might be able to handle the bulk of a hedgehog's waste, the fact is that hedgehogs poop A LOT - more than even a well established system can keep up with unless given some extra help. Don't plan to set up a bioactive thinking that you'll get to bypass having to clean hedgie poop. It may be less work than using a standard substrate or liners, but you'll still have to turn the soil, occasionally replace substrate, and spot clean. Even with reptiles and amphibians, which are commonly kept in bioactive setups, owners will need to spot clean now and then. To be bioactive, a setup does NOT have to be self sufficient or require no cleaning. You can have a fantastic bioactive enclosure that you spot clean frequently to reduce the waste buildup.
Why would someone choose to go for a bioactive setup?
Usually, it's because the owner would like to provide enrichment for their pet by replicating their natural habitat. It's also a lot of fun to put together an enclosure that offers opportunities for animals to express their natural behaviors. For example, pet hedgehogs rarely are given opportunities to dust bathe when kept on liners or shavings. Giving access to a loose sand/soil type substrate very frequently inspires a rolling, frolicking behavior lots of owners have never seen before!
What are the main cons?
The cost and effort involved in initial setup is pretty high. It can be a steep learning curve if you're not used to bioactive husbandry for other species. If you are dubious about having live "creepy crawlies" in the soil or averse to possible gnat infestation, bioactive might not be for you. The enclosure will be large, heavy, and likely difficult to move. If you have any health concerns with your hedgie, they may be more difficult to track and treat. Expect to still have a sterile setup as a backup if you need to carefully observe your hedgehog's food intake or stool, treat for parasites, etc.
Okay, so what are the components?
We'll cover the enclosure here, and each of the other components will have a link to additional details on their own pages.
1. Your enclosure.
You'll need to choose an enclosure. For a hedgehog, you're going to want a bare minimum of 8 square feet of floorspace (equivalent to a 4'x2' floorspace). This space is needed to make sure you have room for a sleeping area, for food and water, for a running wheel (hedgies cover a ton of area every night, and without one a hedgie may begin circling/pacing obsessively), and any other accessories. Adding plants, rocks, branches, etc. take up a lot of space, fast.
You're going to want a DEEP enclosure. Not just like 2 or 3" of dirt. For your setup to be effective, you're going to want at least 5-6" of substrate. So make sure there's room for all that dirt. You can achieve this affordably with an extra large plastic tub - you don't have to get (or build) something fancy and expensive.
Our example enclosure is 5' wide, 2' deep, and 2' tall. It worked out to be a great size which allowed space for all the key components we wanted to add. I built it with a "roof" overhang to secure lighting and heating. You will want to make sure you have a plan for safely mounting fixtures for heat/light.
As a quick recap, factor in:
- Where are you placing this heavy enclosure?
- Do you have an outlet nearby for power access?
- How many square feet can you commit? (ideally 8-10sq ft minimum)
- Is it deep enough or does it have a substrate barrier lip to contain all the substrate?
- How are you attaching your lighting?
- How are you heating the enclosure (or room)?
- Have you reviewed for any potential escape risks?
Once these have been considered, you can move onto the other components!
2. Your substrate. (link coming soon)
Your substrate is critical. The composition can vary a bit depending on what you have access to, and what types of plants you're hoping to grow.
3. Your cleanup crew (CUC). (link coming soon)
Some great options are temperate springtails, isopods, mealworms and the beetles they turn into, etc.
There are lots of options here, and super easy "smart electronics" to control and monitor them!
5. Your plants and accessories. (link coming soon)
Hedgehogs can be rough on plants, but there are options out there that can hold up to their activity level as well as the typical lighting/substrate you'll be using. Plus, you can break up the space with stones, branches, and more!