Body Condition Assessment
Do you know how to tell if your hedgehog is at a healthy weight?
We're working on putting together a body condition assessment sheet for reference, in addition to data on typical weights for pet hedgehogs. We have assessed the weight and body condition of hundreds of hedgehogs, and just need the official statistical analysis to post our results.
The best way to track changes is to have a digital scale. Over time it's easy to not fully recognize how much your pet may have gained or lost, but the scale won't lie - and is a very helpful tool for care at home as well as working with your veterinarian. [you can order a scale from us here!]
How do we know what a "healthy" weight is?
After all, there are lots of animals that naturally carry a wide range in musculature and body fat. You would not determine a healthy weight of a cheetah based on the typical body composition of a walrus.
The best way to determine what a healthy weight is for our hedgehogs is to assess typical weights and conditions of wild hedgehogs. Our pets are Atelerix albiventris, the four-toed hedgehog - native to an expansive area south of the Sahara desert. If we look at the normal weights of healthy wild individuals across all seasons, we can begin to identify what is normal, healthy, and most importantly, functional. We then can also account for the fact that we've had decades of breeding in captivity that has resulted in some minor structural changes compared to their wild counterparts.
I could go on forever about how much we need to consider and appreciate the natural history of four-toed hedgehogs, but I will leave that for my next book. The biggest thing I want you to think on is what a healthy wild hedgehog would do all night. They are covering an incredible amount of ground zipping around, sniffing for food (primarily insects). Then if they find a jackpot, sticking around and foraging through the dirt, leaves and grasses to get each last little bite. It's important for them to have the ability to explore and forage - both the physical capability, and the opportunity in the form of the size and type of enclosure we provide, and the types of enrichment we offer.
Why is body condition important?
Especially in the United States, it's unfortunately very common for people to not fully grasp how overweight their pets are and how detrimental it can be to their quality of life. With hedgehogs, we typically see issues with animals being overweight - there are multiple factors that contribute to this.
- lack of education and awareness on what a healthy weight looks like
- high caloric density food, offered easily from a dish
- minimal opportunity for enrichment and exercise
It breaks my heart to know that many people are aware that their pet is overweight, but it is not a priority to them to address it. In dogs and cats, it's easier to recognize when their quality of life declines - think of the dogs that can't exercise and interact as well with their people - but hedgehogs are nocturnal and honestly, the bulk of owners don't have a good grasp on what their normal activity actually looks like. We can draw conclusions from how messy they leave their cage and wheel the next day, but that doesn't tell us how they typically move, at what pace, what gait, and for how long. Even as hedgehogs decline in mobility as they age, people rarely pose the question of why. Arthritis and muscular atrophy are common, but often the only approach taken is to switch them to a higher calorie food if they are losing weight. If they're overweight and no longer running because it's difficult and/or painful for them, we might just say "oh, they're getting old, or they're getting lazy."
Typically if we see a chronically underweight hedgehog, it is because there is an underlying health issue at play, or they are malnourished from an inappropriate diet. Sometimes the diet may be fine nutritionally, but the hedgehog will refuse to eat enough of it to maintain a healthy weight. This is a serious condition to address and a good exotics veterinarian would be able to advise on recommended diagnostics and treatment to make sure your pet is healthy and comfortable. I completely understand that diagnostics for small exotics can be difficult and prohibitively expensive. Even so, it is worth visiting your vet for input. You might notice a great change simply by adjusting their diet, treating for parasites, or making accommodations in their environment.
As you might imagine, the more obese a hedgehogs becomes, the more difficult it is for them to get around. Without a change in diet, it's a vicious cycle - they can't get around easily, so they don't exercise, and they don't lose weight. In addition to reduced activity, we may see sores develop on their undersides, or an increase in masturbation as they are unable to do much else to keep themselves occupied. We see this in hedgehogs with arthritis, too. Masturbation isn't just a funny joke for people to post about on facebook. There can be legitimate health concerns underlying that are causing it. As a community we need to start genuinely considering why our hedgehogs do what they do, and how we can support them to be happy and healthy.
This has been more of a weight-related rant than a well organized page. Sorry about that! I wanted to share some information in the meantime while I work on a more formal, educational write-up. I hope it helps get people thinking about the welfare of their hedgies. :)