Harry the hedgehog

Caroline found Harry the hedgehog walking across her garden in the middle of the day. When she picked him up with gloves, he curled up at first, but then he poked his head out and sneezed at her. She could see that he had a runny nose, and he just did not look well.

The last three months have been busy on the hedgehog front. Hedgehogs across the UK and Ireland came out of hibernation from late-March onwards, and they have been busy eating as much as possible since they emerged. After starving during their four or five winter months of hibernation, hedgehogs are voraciously hungry, and they need to replace their fat reserves, which have been severely depleted. (They lose a third of their body weight during hibernation).

In the wild, hedgehogs eat beetles, caterpillars, earthworms and bird eggs. They also nibble on such delicacies as slugs, snails, small mammals, earwigs and bees. Most hedgehogs manage by finding enough food in the wild, but some individuals become so weakened from hunger that they end up in difficulty. Hedgehogs are normally nocturnal, and if a hedgehog, like Harry, is out and about in broad daylight, it is a sign of desperation, and they need human help.

When Caroline brought Harry to me, it was obvious that he was small and very thin. When I put him on the electronic weighing scales, he weighed only 400g. A normal adult hedgehog should weigh at least 600g at the end of hibernation. It is difficult to tell the exact age of a hedgehog, but I suspected that Harry was a very young adult, perhaps born at the end of last summer. The mortality rate of such young adult hedgehogs during hibernation is very high, and Harry had been very lucky to survive.

Hedgehogs are difficult animals to examine. Their natural instinct to curl into a prickly ball makes simple tasks very complicated. Normal veterinary procedures like temperature-taking, examination of eyes, ears and mouth, and listening to the chest with a stethoscope are not easy to accomplish. In Harry’s case, a darkened room, and plenty of patience were necessary. Soon he began to feel more relaxed, and he uncurled for long enough to allow me to examine him thoroughly.

Harry had runny eyes, a dirty nose, and I could see that his breathing was laboured. He was suffering from a respiratory infection, probably brought on by his weakened state from hunger and hibernation. Hedgehogs are prone to internal parasites, and it was likely that he might have some type of lungworm as well as a bacterial or viral infection.

He was hospitalised for intensive treatment, and placed into a cage with a hot water bottle (double wrapped in towels for protection against his sharp spines). He was fed by hand, using a syringe, with special high-energy high-vitamin liquid food, designed for helping cats recovering from serious illness. I prescribed a worming dose, a course of antibiotic injections, and some antibiotic eye drops to treat his sore eyes. One of our nurses was designated to give him special attention, spending time with him four times daily, using moist cotton buds to keep his eyes and nose clean.

He made good progress over a few days, and soon he was eating normal tinned cat food. Hedgehogs are very messy eaters, and the newspaper on the floor of his cage needed to be changed after each meal because of the widely splattered food. He put weight on, and he began to grow stronger. He also grew used to his human handlers, and it became easier to examine him.

After a week of treatment, his eyes were bright, his nose was black and shiny, and the discharges had disappeared. His breathing was normal, and he was eating well. He was ready to leave our animal hospital.

Caroline took him back home with her, and put him in a large cardboard box in a utility room. She has been feeding him twice daily with a high quality dried cat food, soaked for an hour so that it is soft and mushy. His antibiotic course has been continued with drops mixed with his food. Later in the summer, when he is bigger, she will release him into her garden, but continue to feed him every day. Hedgehogs are known as “the gardener’s friend”, providing a natural form of pest control by eating slugs, snails, caterpillars and other plant-eating creatures.

Harry was lucky to find Caroline, but equally, Caroline feels she is lucky to have her own hedgehog to help her out in the garden in the future!

Tips

  • If you find a hedgehog wandering around during the daytime, it needs your help
  • Many vets are happy to give first aid to wildlife free of charge
  • If you want to encourage hedgehogs in your garden, leave a saucer of food out at night
  • Hedgehogs like eating cat food –either tinned or soaked dry food
  • Do not leave out bread and milk – this causes diarrhoea in hedgehogs

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