A friendly hedgehog won't bite unless you smell tasty.
Hedeghogs are seldom overtly aggressive, but the maxim "anything with teeth
may bite" certainly applies. In order to know how to manage that behavior,
it's important to look at why the hedgehog is biting. The most common reason
is because there is something on your hands that smells yummy, and they want
a taste. In this case, they will often lick first, and the bite is more of a
nip. Keep in mind, hedgies can find some strange things yummy, like tobacco
smells or soap smells, so this may be occurring even if you have just washed
your hands or haven"t recently had anything you'd consider yummy. Probably
the best way to manage this kind of biting is what behaviorists call response
prevention. Watch carefully, and if hedgie licks or shows any other sign of
biting, move your flesh so hedgie simply can not bite.
In young hedgehogs, biting/nipping may be a way of exploring the
environment. This may or may not be preceded by a lick. To discourage this
behavior in babies we think have gone overboard with the exploratory
nibbling, we use a mildly aversive "air puff" technique. We watch the hedgie
carefully, and as soon as it begins to open its mouth we blow a puff of air
toward the hedgie. The hedgie's natural response is to lower the visor or
ball up. It can"t bite when it"s doing that, and it usually only takes about
2 to 4 times of doing this for hedgie to learn that trying to bite something
that smells like human flesh leads to something uncomfortable, and to stop.
In hedgies who don"t normally bite, biting is probably a way for the hedgie
to communicate something. Your challenge is to figure out why. Some hedgies
do not like to be handled for very long, or may become uncomfortable in a
noisy environment, and the bite is their way of saying, "This is too much.
Put me down." Usually the hedgie will squirm and otherwise let you know it's
not happy with the situation before it bites, so learning to be attentive to
what hedgie does before the bite can help you to keep hedgie happy so he or
she doesn't have to bite to express displeasure.
There are a small number of hedgies who just seem to bite very consistently
and for no apparent reason. It is also very important to rule out health
concerns as a possible reason, as some hedgies may bite because they don't
feel well and don't want to be messed with. Out of the several hundred
hedgies who have passed through our home in the last 5 years, I think there
have only been two that really fit this category of determined biters with no
health problems and consistent biting behavior. One of them appeared to have
been hormonally driven. He was a male who came from a line of very friendly
hedgies, but he would constantly bite, even going so far as to bite through
cloth. Once bred, he completely stopped this behavior and in almost 2 years
has never fallen back into his biting pattern. The other was a life-long,
incorrigible biter. We found that with her, if we didn't put flesh in front
of her, she didn"t bite. So, I learned quickly to pick her up in a way that
kept her happy and my fingers out of danger.
Although I have not had to use aversive techniques to manage biting in hedgehogs
who fall in that category of incorrigible biters, I have heard of others who
have had success. The technique that was described to me involved keeping a
q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol (a very unpleasant smell) handy. When the
hedgie bit, the person would touch the q-tip just above the nose. This gave
the hedgie a very nasty smell to associate with the biting, while not
endangering senstitive nasal tissues by actual touching of the alcohol to
the nose. The report I got is that this person's hedgie stopped biting after
just 2 or 3 trials. As a trained behaviorist, I would recommend trying to
apply the aversive (alcohol smell) before the bite happened, as I would
rather teach the hedgie not to bite without actually having to be bitten.
I would also caution that if the biting continued after 4 or 5 trials, the
technique should be considered a failure and discontinued. I would also attempt
the puff of air technique before trying this technique, since it is always
best to use the least level of aversiveness possible. If hedgie's biting
continues after all of these techniques have been tried, you may want to ask
your veterinarian if he or she has any ideas, or if there is an animal
behaviorist in the area that might be willing to consult.
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This page most recently updated 3/25/01.