Kia Benson, DVM
Associate Veterinarian, Clinical Toxicology
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a warning on Friday, January 25th 2019 regarding a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella bacteria. Eleven people across Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming have been infected since October 2018, and one person needed to be hospitalized. Of those affected, 91% reported contact with a hedgehog the week prior to becoming ill. The CDC issued the warning when it linked this Salmonella outbreak to the zoonotic transfer (transfer from animals to humans) of the bacteria from pet hedgehogs.
Now, hedgehogs are not exactly a household name as a pet. What exactly is a hedgehog? How can they spread Salmonella? And how can you protect yourself as a hedgehog owner?
A Brief Look at Hedgehogs
Hedgehogs are not native to the United States. Wild hedgehogs are native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. They were introduced to New Zealand and are considered an invasive species there. Those available in the United States as an exotic pet are actually African pygmy hedgehogs, bred from the original wild African species. They are considered a domesticated species in most parts of the U.S., and live up to 5 years on average.
Hedgehogs have been described as “cute but challenging” pets. Looking like small porcupines at just 5-8 inches in length, they are covered in sharp spines or quills. Like porcupines, they will curl into a ball when threatened or nervous. Hedgehogs tend to be solitary animals and do not seem to crave the companionship of other hedgehogs. Like other exotic species, hedgehogs have been on the rise in the last few years in terms of popularity.
These diminutive creatures are naturally nocturnal, sleeping a lot during the day and snuffling, snorting, squealing, grunting and running around their habitat during their nightly explorations. Their level of activity does necessitate a generous sized cage complete with exercise wheel(s) and other toys to substitute for the miles of activity hedgehogs would normally cover in the wild while foraging for insects, grubs, snails, spiders, etc. It’s also advisable to have a large playpen outside the cage for exercise and enrichment.
Hedgehogs were blamed in a previous Salmonella outbreak several years ago. In that instance, 26 people were affected from December 2011 to April 2013 – one person died, and eight required hospitalization. As with the current outbreak, most of those affected reported contact with hedgehogs.
Hedgehogs can carry Salmonella without developing any symptoms of the illness. They may appear healthy while still passing Salmonella in their feces. Hedgehogs who are affected by Salmonella will develop non-specific symptoms of diarrhea, lethargy, loss of appetite, and dehydration. Their lymph nodes may become abscessed.
Symptoms of Salmonella in humans include diarrhea, fever, headache, and stomach cramps within 3 days of being exposed to the bacteria. Symptoms typically last 4-7 days and most people do not require treatment, recovering on their own. Children younger than 5 years, people older than 65 years, and those with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable.
Hedgehogs are not the only exotic pet capable of transmitting Salmonella to people. Reptiles can also transmit the bacteria, as can pocket pets (e.g. rodents like hamsters or guinea pigs), and amphibians like frogs and turtles. Non-exotics can also spread Salmonella – backyard chickens and other live poultry have been implicated in 70 outbreaks since the year 2000.
Rest assured, the vast majority of Salmonella cases in the United States result from eating contaminated food – not from exposure to Hedgehogs or other exotic pets. Notices from the CDC or recall notices regarding eggs, meat, poultry, vegetables, raw milk, or other foods contaminated with Salmonella are not at all uncommon in our modern world.
Basic hygiene is the key to preventing Salmonella infections from exotic pets. Thoroughly washing hands with soap and warm water after handling the hedgehogs themselves is very important, as is washing hands after cleaning their habitat, toys, and equipment. This is especially true when handling any fecal material or cleaning feces off exercise wheels, toys, etc.
Kissing a hedgehog or snuggling with a hedgehog close to your mouth is not advised. Not only could it spread disease, the sharp quills of a hedgehog make them pretty prickly snuggle-buddies! It is also a good idea not to allow hedgehogs to sleep in your bed.
Hedgehogs should be kept away from food preparation areas, and their cages and equipment should not be cleaned in the kitchen or other areas of food storage/preparation. Pet hedgehogs are typically fed specially formulated pellets containing mashed up insects along with essential vitamins and minerals. Small amounts of vegetables or fruit can be given as treats, as can insects such as mealworms or crickets. Care should be taken to remove any fresh food treats not eaten within several hours to prevent the animal from being exposed to bacterial spoilage.
Hedgehogs infected with Salmonella will rarely pass the bacteria to other animals in the home such as dogs and cats. However, as a precaution, other animals should not share food or water bowls or housing/playpens with a hedgehog.
These spiky little critters can be a lovable pet, and will bond with an owner if they were handled often and were well socialized when young. Take a few practical steps, and they can also be a very safe pet to have in the home.
The information in this blog is not a substitute for consultation with a veterinarian or physician. Some states, cities or counties in the U.S. consider hedgehogs wild animals and have made them illegal to own (though you may be able to obtain a permit). Always check your local and state regulations if considering to purchase an exotic animal like a hedgehog.
Outbreak of Salmonella Infections Linked to Pet Hedgehogs, Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Keeping Backyard Chickens and other Poultry, Center for Disease Control (CDC)