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Breeding hedgehogs can be both the most rewarding, and the most heart-wrenching of endeavors. Few activities can come close to matching the wonders and pleasures of having babies, but at the same time the dangers involved, and problems that can arise are very great.
We are not going to try and cover all the basics of animal husbandry, here -- that's a topic better left to many books on the subject. We are only going to address hedgehog issues. Besides, if you don't know the basics of husbandry and breeding, you should not be considering it -- at least not yet.
Baby hedgehogs are nothing short of addictively cute. If you think an adult can steal your heart, beware that a mother being followed by a litter of adorable little hoglets is many levels of magnitude cuter. The reason for this warning is that it can be very easy to fall into the trap of breeding just to enjoy the babies. There is an immense responsibility that goes with breeding, and it should not be undertaken lightly -- these are living, feeling animals, and that thought must always be at the forefront of your mind.
If you are going to breed, make very very sure of the following, first:
(1) That you are willing to risk losing the mother, due to complications!
(2) That you can find good, caring homes for ALL the babies. This can certainly include you, but remember, you may need as many as 8 new cages or enclosures to keep the results of one litter!
(3) If there are complications with the birth, or problems with the babies, it might entail some not inconsiderable veterinary bills.
(4) If mom rejects the babies, you might have to take care of them (a very considerable effort), or have them put to sleep.
Okay, you've considered the points, above, and you want to breed your hedgehog(s). The following will cover various points of breeding. I would strongly recommend that you seek out an experienced hedgehog breeder and spend some time talking with him/her, someone you can turn to with questions will prove more than invaluable.
First, a few guidelines for deciding who, of prickly nature, to put together for the romantic event. To breed hedgehogs, obviously, the minimum you need is a male and a female, but there are many other points to consider. Breeding of ill tempered hedgehogs is not a good idea, breeding of related hedgehogs can also be a bad idea. Choose the hedgehogs to be bred with some care. This can be for colour, temperament, or other values, but don't be indiscriminant.
Females should not be bred before at least 5 months of age, as they have not finished growing and maturing themselves. Once bred, the hormonal changes will basically stop further maturation, and the drain on their metabolisms caused by having babies while still trying to grow themselves, can have permanent adverse affects on their health.
Males, too, should not be bred before about 4-5 months, although the side effects are not as problematic for them. The biggest problem is that they just may not be up to the task, at least as well as they should be.
Also, don't breed a female for the first time, if she is beyond 1.5 years old. If you do, there is a very good chance that the bones in her pelvic area will have fused, such that she will not be able to have the babies. If you are not sure how old she is, but suspect she may be beyond 1.5, don't risk it!
There is also a point at about 3.5 years of age, when many females become menopausal. Breeders will often note that litter sizes may taper off as this age is approached.
Finally, after each litter, it is important to give your female a break to recover from the effort. I would not recommend any more than 3 litters per year. Beyond that is going to place an unnecessary drain on the female, and affect her health (and her ability to produce and care for ongoing litters). More than this number of litters per year really suggests that you are not breeding hedgehogs, but trying to run a production line.
Breeding hedgehogs is not difficult, but it does come with a wide variety of problems. Probably most notable is that mother hedgehogs will tend to eat the babies if disturbed at all for a few days prior to, and for up to about 10 days after the birth. This can be heartbreaking and very frustrating to would be breeders.
By our (human) standards, this sort of thing is unthinkable, and very hard to accept. Before you think too badly of hedgehogs for this, take a look at their natural environment. In the wild, any kind of disturbance is all but certainly a predator that WILL eat the babies (mom can and will try to defend them, but in a burrow, there's only so much she can hope to do). Because finding enough food and energy to develop the babies is a very difficult thing in the rather harsh conditions in which our little friends are native, mother hedgehogs cannot afford to lose all of that. In the end, it's a matter of survival to ``reabsorb'' the babies, in this way, then to lose all of that to a passing predator. If all are lost, try again in 3 months. If losing litters continues to happen, it might be that the female is just not cut out to be a mom, and it would be better not to breed her.
So, for the actual amourous encounter, what is needed? Actually, not that much. Simply put the two loverhogs together, sit back, and watch the fun. Male hedgehogs know what to do (females do as well, but will often play hard to get). Males will usually squeak very loudly and plaintively when they encounter a female -- and the actual courtship antics are usually VERY entertaining.
There are opinions both ways on whose cage (hers or his) to use, but most breeders seem to prefer to use the male's cage, under the assumption that the female will be more receptive, and the male will feel less out of place and more inclined to do his `duty.' It is wise to remove as many items from the cage as is reasonable, while they are together, such as wheels, extra dens, and items that make good hiding places for a female who wants to defend her honour. Even so, you can pretty much count on the entire cage being severely `redecorated' frequently and often!
Hedgehogs DO have a `heat,' or estrus cycle, and are not entirely induced ovulators, as had been previously thought. The cycle is typically about 9 days on, followed by 7 days off, but is not absolute.
In order to catch the cycle, many breeders will put the male and female together for about 4-5 days, separate them for 4 days, then put them back together for another 4-5 days. Others breeders have suggested using a single 10-day period, while others still will use only a single 3-day get together, observing the female to see if she is responsive. Experience and trial and error will likely be your best guides here. If you have spoken to a breeder with experience, try the schedule that they use, or one of the schedules mentioned here. In most cases, the pair will get along quite well, but do watch out as sometimes fights will occur.
Once the romance has passed, it is now time to separate the pair. Now that mating is over, the father to be, can drop out of the picture, as he plays no further role in what follows. Keeping the male in with the female when the babies arrive is virtually guaranteed to have them both eat the babies.
Is your female pregnant? Well, this is another place that I can only offer theory. Personally, I have gotten it wrong (both ways) far more often than right! As you might guess, it can be quite difficult to tell if a hedgehog is pregnant, but there are some clues to look for. Probably one of the best methods is to weigh her every few days, and watch for a weight gain. Obviously, this goes part and parcel with an increase in appetite. Next, if you are very careful, and gentle, you can palpate her abdomen, and you `may' be able to feel the babies as she gets closer to the birthing date. Achieving good results with this is very difficult, even for experienced breeders, so don't be dismayed if you can't tell anything from it. Another sign to watch out for is that her teats or nipples (which run in two rows along the sides of her tummy, will become more enlarged, and more obvious.
As time gets closer to the birth, typically within about the last week, there are a few more signs. One of these to look for is the odour from her urine often becomes noticably stronger. She may also exhibit signs of `nesting' where she may make piles of bedding material, or even block up her den entrance. She will also likely lose appetite in the day or so prior to the babies being born.
In spite of these signs, it's easy to be wrong in thinking she may be pregnant when she is not, or that she is not pregnant when she is. Trust me! This is one place I have AMPLE personal experience to speak from! Because of this, I strongly recommend that you always assume that she IS pregnant until WELL past her last possible due date.
Speaking of the due date, the gestation period for hedgehogs is approximately 35 days. I have heard of births happening from about 33 days through to about 42, so the 35 is not absolute. Most will be within the 34-37 day range, however.
This generally brings us to the end of the actual breeding topic. We will add a few further comments, here, as they relate to the mother, and health issues:
After the birth, mom's appetite will likely skyrocket. Give her all the high-quality food she wants. This is not a time for diets, as she is trying to produce enough milk for her hungry hoglets. She will also go through a lot more fresh water than normal. Just be careful about disturbances as you go into her cage to feed or water her. If mom appears overly exhausted, or wobbly, extra vitamins or supplements, such as KMR (Kitten Milk Replacement) may help. Also treats (not too much) of cottage cheese or sour cream may help keep her calcium levels up, as she produces large quantities of hedgehog milk.
The good news is that there really isn't much for you to do -- it's largely a case of mom knows best.
Following the birth, keep an eye on the mother for possible complications. If mom either loses the babies (not that unusual) or seems very inactive, possibly lying out of her den, and/or not eating, it may be that she has suffered a problem during birth, or that one or more babies are still caught inside her. If you think this might be the case, get her to a veterinarian, quickly -- especially if she lost her babies, and is acting like this. There is much a vet can do to help in a situation like this, but it is imperitive that you get her there quickly. The longer the problem exists, the greater the likelihood that you will lose the mother in addition to the babies.
Of course the ideal situation is to leave the babies with their mother as her milk will provide not only the proper balance of nutrients, protein and fats, but also necessary antibodies to help the babies fight a world of germs in infections. Now there are good mothers and bad mothers in this world but sadly it's impossible to know what you have until the first litter arrives. Good mothers tend to their babies, nurse them and raise the litter without problems. Bad mothers sometimes reject and other times attack their babies, but most mothers can be taught to care for their young.
Minimizing stress before and after birth is paramount. Keep the mother in a dark, quiet corner covered with a sheet with an abundance of bedding, food and water so you don't need to enter the cage. If the mother gets stressed for any reason she can kill the babies, especially if she is nervous in the first place (a huffy hedgehog). If this happens there are still some things that can be tried to turn things around. The easiest approach is to leave the father in the cage with her throughout the pregnancy and child rearing, often with rodents the father will defend the babies from a bad mother and persuade her to nurse. Removing the father should be done immediately after she is impregnated if he is to be moved, removing him just before birth will stress the mother significantly. A more time consuming approach is to distract the mother with a treat she likes (I've heard of jello cubes working well as well as slices of banana or mango) while the babies are trying to latch on to her nipples. The idea is that she will care more about the treat than the babies, feel full so she is not stressed about a lack of food and even begin to associate suckling with something positive and learn to enjoy it. Of course, if this doesn't work and she still lunges at them you will then have to remove the babies for hand feeding.
An alternate approach is to have two pregnant mothers share a cage, one you know is a good mother and the new/bad mother. If you can time the 29 day gestation periods such that the good mother gives birth a day or two before the other mother, and the bad mother still turns on her litter, the good mother will generally defend and adopt the extra babies, nursing them as her own. The idea here is that the bad mother will have a tutor on what to do with babies when the hoglets arrive. Next time she has a litter she will be familiar with how to care for her babies and be able to do it on her own.
If the babies must be removed then you have quite a handful for the next few weeks. One thing I learned is that hedgehogs only require 5 to 10% of their body weight in food each 24 hour period. What this means is a newborn hedgehog weighing only 10 to 12 grams can have at most 1 milliliter of formula over the entire day, divided into hourly feedings. This might not seem like very much food, but it is enough to keep them growing and likely more than they would get from their mom in full day of suckling. Babies of any species (birds, fish and mammals) are voracious eaters and commonly eat more than they can handle. In fact, feeding a newborn hedgehog even a little more than this will cause their intestines to impact, stomachs to bloat and distend, and their colon to rupture. Within a couple hours of rupture they will die of septic shock. This was my error, I was so excited to see them eating and pooping (upon stimulation of the perianal area with a warm damp cloth as recommended) that I let them eat until they stopped and it was entirely too much. They all died of sepsis.
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