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Hedgehogs increasingly popular as pets

Not since Sonic the Hedgehog became a home video game star in the early ’90s have the prickly little creatures been so popular.

A plump hedgehog adorns the April cover of National Geographic. Biddy, a 3-year-old African Pygmy hedgehog from Oregon, has more than 311,000 followers on Instagram. And, perhaps most telling: the long waiting lists to adopt a hedgehog.

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“In the past year I’ve had a waiting list of about 400,” said Jill Warnick, the dean of Massachusetts hedgehog breeders, who charges $300 apiece for hedgehog babies. “And that’s interesting, because even during the economic downturn, sales, adoptions, requests all remained steady. But now they’re not just steady, they’re increasing.”

Local breeders estimate they’ve sold about 2,000 hedgehogs — or “hedgies,” as enthusiasts call them — over the past two years, due in part to social media, where thousands of smitten owners post snapshots of the so-called exotic pets.

The hedgehog may be the perfect pet for the way we live now. Breeders say the creatures thrive in quiet living situations, which can make them appealing to the growing number of people who live alone. Weighing in at 2 pounds or less, they’re small, don’t take up much space, and never need to be walked during a snowstorm. And they’re unusual. Anyone can own a cat. But a hedgehog? That’s different.

Warnick is a dental hygienist by day who, since 1995, has operated Jill’s New England Hedgehogs from her Brookline home. That was the year owning hedgehogs became legal in Massachusetts. The rising inquiries about hedgehogs cross all lines in terms of age, gender, and race, she says, but college students outnumber families with children these days.

“Small children can be loud, and sudden noise and hedgehogs don’t mix well,” said Warnick, adding that 10 is the recommended minimum age for kids to have a hedgehog. “The other part of it is you think of college students as social, but in their home lives they represent the solitary among us — living in dorms alone or small apartments. And if it’s not loud and crazy, that can be a perfect, low-key setting for a hedgehog — with one or maybe two quiet, attentive humans.”

Victoria Siddall, 20, and Matisse Newton, 23, are two of those quiet, attentive types. Roommates and students at Lesley University, they share an apartment in Cambridge with Winston, Siddall’s 2-year-old African Pygmy hedgehog.

“He’s perfect for our lifestyle,” Siddall said. “We study. We work. And there’s not too much here to startle or upset him. He’s unique in that he’s not a dog or cat, and he’s definitely a conversation starter when friends come over. The best part is he has personality and enjoys being held. So even though hedgehogs aren’t snugglers in the traditional sense, they do express appreciation for your company.”

That’s right, charming and weirdly adorable as they are, hedgies aren’t cuddlers. But if one trusts you, it’ll keep its quills flat and happily sit in your hand or lap, just wiggling its nose.

Derek Kouyoumjian and his wife, Sarita Rogers Kouyoumjian, of Somerville have been considering a hedgehog for several months after having a brief taste of ownership, when they inherited a hedgie from a friend who moved away. The hedgehog died six months later of cancer. Having a low-maintenance pet that didn’t need to be walked, groomed much, or taken outside for potty breaks appealed to them. But the best part was that they would be able to bond with the little creature.

So they went to Crespo’s Crazy Critters in Gardner recently, hoping to find the same spark. Sarita sat on a couch gently cupping Marvel, a 7-week-old brown speckled hedgehog recently weaned from his mother.

“We thought this would be a good compromise,” said Sarita. She is a dog person, but the couple decided against a pooch because they live in an apartment. “Just having that warm presence is nice. That can be comforting in a pet, even if it’s not the kind of pet that plays fetch or snuggles.”

Dr. Elisabeth Simone-Freilicher, head of the avian and exotics practice at Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, agrees that hedgies are pleasant and quiet, but says that people shouldn’t let the animals’ cute appearance and personalities blind them to potential challenges.

African Pygmy hedgehogs live an average of just three to five years, the veterinarian said. Often identified as marsupials, hedgies are actually small mammals more closely related to shrews than porcupines. They don’t see well, but their sense of smell and hearing are off the charts, thus the need for quiet. If they’re afraid or unfamiliar with a person who has picked them up they will curl into a ball or raise their sharp quills defensively, which can hurt. And, like all animals, if startled or sufficiently frightened they may bite.

Like cats, hedgehogs can be up part of the day and part of the night. In the wild, they are nocturnal and may roam hundreds of yards to forage at night, so even the most bashful hedgies need to be let out of their cages or tanks to explore their owners’ homes. Otherwise they get depressed and often fall ill. While owners don’t need to walk them outside, they must supply, and change, bedding at the bottom of the cage, much as do owners of pets like guinea pigs. In recent years some hedgehog owners had reported success in training their pets to use litter boxes.

“They are wonderful pets,” Simone-Freilicher said. “But they can develop kidney problems. They can develop skin problems, like mites. There is also a risk of obesity if they’re not fed properly — fed dry cat food, for example, which is an old practice among hedgehog owners, instead of feeding them newer hedgehog-specific foods that are available today.”

Still, not everyone believes hedgehogs should be kept as pets. Born Free USA, a group that opposes keeping exotic animals as pets, says one of the biggest problems with ownership is risk of disease or bites. They cite a Centers for Disease Control report that says even domesticated hedgehogs sometimes carry a rare strain of salmonella and that people should always wash their hands after holding a hedgehog. The ASPCA likewise decries exotic pet ownership as bad for the animals, dangerous for people, and “bad for the environment,” because ecosystems can become imbalanced if animals are taken from the wild.

But for Hilary Andreff, a Boston University graduate student who lives in Allston, the ease and comfort of living with her nearly 3-year-old hedgie Rose outweighs any drawbacks.

“They’re very gentle animals, generally speaking,” said Andreff, “but one of their great qualities is to keep you company without needing to do much.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@
globe.com
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