You may have heard stories of hedgehog mothers eating their young, often choosing the weakest hoglets in the litter. But is there any truth in it? And does this often happen among these spikey mammals? Here is what you will want to know.
So, do hedgehogs eat their young? Hedgehogs have been known to eat their young when under significant stress. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common problem amongst breeders, as there are so many environmental factors that can cause this type of stress on the mother, including loud noises and unfamiliar scents.
This is all too unfortunate.
Although scientists believe the main motivation for this cannibalistic behavior is fear.
So, it is possible to successfully breed these animals if you take the appropriate precautions.
For instance, you need to ensure you do not disturb the mother or hoglets for the first two weeks after birth.
This is why it is essential to ensure expectant mother hedgehogs feel safe and secure in their environment.
If you plan to breed hedgehogs, you will need to recognize signs of stress and act swiftly to remove the cause.
Let’s now explore the topic in much further detail!
Are Hedgehogs Cannibals?
Hedgehogs can exhibit cannibalistic tendencies on occasion; however, they are not the only animal species to perform this behavior. It is something that they turn to, giving particular contexts and circumstances.
Perhaps surprisingly, cannibalism is seen across the animal kingdom, from ladybirds to lions.
In 2013, Khali, a sloth bear at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, went into labor, but almost as soon as she gave birth to her first cub, something went terribly wrong.
Instead of leaning down to lick her cub, she ate it whilst still in labor with the rest of her cubs.
Was the cub ill?
No one really knows for sure, but scenes like this are seen across multiple species.
Scientists are not certain of the cause, but this behavior could be influenced by a number of external factors, including limited food supply, overcrowding, or the presence of a predator.
Like hedgehogs, these animals are not cannibals by nature but can exhibit cannibalistic tendencies under certain circumstances.
Being omnivorous, it is more than possible for a hedgehog to feed on the remains of another of its species if food is scarce or to even attack another individual in situations of high stress.
Put simply, hedgehogs will not resort to cannibalism if resources are plentiful and they feel safe – there has to be something wrong.
Perhaps the only exception is male hedgehogs killing and eating young hoglets.
The hedgehog breeding season occurs in the Spring and Summer months, with the most activity occurring in May and June.
Hedgehog courtship is quite a lengthy affair, and competition between males can easily become violent, with males charging at one another and attempting to shove each other out of the way!
To make matters worse, females are known to be just as promiscuous as males, so litters can often have multiple fathers.
With this confusion in paternity, males will kill and eat any young they come across, simply because they are not sure who the father is!
This behavior is seen in many animal species; males will kill any babies in order to have the opportunity to mate with the female and pass on their genes to the next generation.
In a perfect world, females should never feel the need to eat their young. Still, it is a common problem when breeding hedgehogs in captivity.
Why Do Hedgehogs Eat Their Young?
The act of a mother hedgehog eating her young is a basic survival instinct that kicks in when conditions are not right. Food scarcity, birth defects in the hoglet, or out of fear are the most common reasons for it.
Let us now break down these three main reasons:
The Mother Cannot Consistently Find Enough Food
This is perhaps the most common reason for the cannibalization of young hoglets in the wild.
On a basic level, the mother will have realized that both she and all her hoglets are in danger of starvation and possible death, so she will eat one or two of her brood in order to give the rest of her hoglets (and herself) a better chance of survival.
As cruel as this sounds, it does ensure a higher survival rate overall.
A mother may also eat the carcasses of the hoglets she has killed, presumably so as not to waste any valuable nutrients.
A Hoglet With Birth Defects
Mothers may also eat one of their young if it is considered to have a birth defect or debilitating illness.
The ‘survival of the fittest’ is hardwired into practically every animal species, so a mother’s instinct is simply to focus her energy on the hoglets that have the best chance of survival.
It would make no sense to invest valuable resources in a baby that would not make it on its own in the wild.
Furthermore, she cannot afford to have a hoglet that may compromise the safety of all the others when out foraging if it is too slow, for example.
Fear Of A Predator Attack
This may sound a little counter-productive, but hedgehog mothers may eat their young when under threat from a potential predator.
If the chance of survival for her hoglets is small, she will ingest them so as to gain the nutrients, rather than them being eaten by a predator.
This way, she will be able to survive and have further litters in the future, when hopefully more of her hoglets live into adulthood.
This basic instinct seems a little ruthless but has been observed across the animal kingdom.
Hopefully, you can now see that mother hedgehogs are under considerable stress when raising young hoglets, especially considering they are completely blind and entirely dependent on their mothers’ milk for food for the first 3-4 weeks of life.
Hedgehog fathers also play no role in raising the young, so it is entirely down to the mother to ensure the survival of her hoglets as much as possible.
Life isn’t particularly stable for the hoglets either, as immediately after birth, they begin competing for their turn to nurse.
Runts of the litter rarely survive as they are simply not strong enough to push their way to the best nursing spots, so they often die of malnutrition early on.
After the breastfeeding stage, hoglets are ready to move onto the same food as their mother, where she will grind up hard food into smaller pieces, so it is easier for her hoglets to digest.
How To Prevent A Hedgehog From Eating Their Young
If you plan to breed hedgehogs, you will need to be aware of the risks involved and be prepared.
First off, it is essential that you have a healthy female to breed from, which should ideally be around 8-9 months old.
You should never attempt to breed from a female younger than six months old or older than a year if it is her first litter.
Breeding from an older female in the first instance could be extremely dangerous because her pelvic bones will have likely fused together, making giving birth much more difficult.
You don’t have to be as particular with males but do make sure they are at least 4-5 months old as they are not sexually mature before this age.
Luckily, mating males and females is fairly simple in hedgehogs – just pop them in the same cage together (preferably the males’ cage) for a few days and then separate.
If your female is not pregnant, you can simply try again.
However, it is essential that you watch closely for any signs of aggression when the two hedgehogs are together and separate immediately where necessary.
The easiest way to tell if your female is pregnant is to monitor any weight gain. She may also begin to perform nesting behaviors to ensure she has plenty of bedding.
You must separate the female from the male if you suspect pregnancy and refrain from cleaning out her cage or disturbing her in any way.
A female hedgehog needs plenty of quiet time in order to prepare herself and her nest for the hoglets.
Any intervention or handling at this stage will just stress her out and could cause her to lose her babies.
After approximately 35 days, she will hopefully have given birth to anywhere between one and nine tiny hoglets, although 3-5 is the average.
Leave the mother and babies completely alone for the first 10-14 days at least.
It can be difficult to stay away from the cage when you suspect that the cute little hoglets have arrived, but this is a crucial stage in the development of the hoglets, plus this time helps the mother to bond with her young.
This is also the period when cannibalism is a strong possibility, so it is essential that the enclosure is quiet and undisturbed.
All you need to do is ensure the mother has plenty of food and water, and that’s it!
After the two-week period is up, you can start spot cleaning the enclosure but always watch the mother for any signs of stress, which can include hissing, aggression, or unusual vocalizations.
You must back off immediately if this happens!
Around this time, you can also begin trying to introduce the hoglets to a bit of handling, but again you must stop if the mother appears to be stressed.
It’s best to start by gently stroking one of the hoglets with one finger, and if mum seems comfortable, you can try picking one up then gently placing it back in the cage.
It is important to remember that this can be a very slow process, and you may need to go back a step or two if the mother seems wary when you handle her young.
At around six weeks old, the hoglets will become more independent, so this is when you should start taking them away from their mother.
You should also separate the males and females at this time to prevent inbreeding.
Even if you do everything right, there is still a possibility that the mother could become stressed or reject one or more of her hoglets.
This is more common with first-time mums, especially if they are young, so you should keep an eye out for any worrying signs (from a safe distance, of course).
Breeders have successfully hand-reared hoglets when needed, but you can always consult a vet for advice if you are unsure of the process.
Finally, it is important to be aware that you may need to apply for a license in order to breed hedgehogs officially.
Rules will differ depending on where you live, so it is best to get in contact with your local agriculture or animal agency to check before you begin breeding.
Unfortunately, hedgehogs have been known to eat their young.
And it can happen for numerous different reasons that primarily relate to survival.
It could be the survival of the mother. Or, cannibalism of young could be an act to improve the chances of as many hoglets in the litter as possible.
All in all, the eating of young is all about conditions, circumstances, and context.
Thankfully with this knowledge in mind, we can help to reduce the number of incidents from occurring.
Whether we support some wild hedgehogs local to us, or we decide to keep them as pets and look to breed.