Pet Vet: Illicit pet hedgehog simply won’t stop scratching

Jan. 30, 2017

Skin problems are some of the more common cases we deal with as veterinarians. Regardless of the species, skin diseases crop up regularly in our patients and can be challenging at times to diagnose.

Spike has a skin problem. It seems that over the past two months or so, what started as an occasional bout of scratching has progressed to almost constant irritation. Spike, according to caretaker Andrea, spends most of his waking hours scratching himself. Early on, Andrea noticed nothing on his skin — although she admits that it is hard to see his skin — but reports lately that she has started to see scabs with evidence of small amounts of blood and lots of what appear to be flakes of skin.

Andrea says she feels bad for Spike and wants to do whatever it takes to bring him some relief, but has been afraid to take him to a veterinarian because he is a fugitive from the law. More precisely, Andrea is the one breaking the law because Spike is an illegal companion — a hedgehog.

Hedgehogs are small mammals native to Europe and Africa that have been introduced into the pet trade and are legal pets in many states in the U.S. Not, however, in California, where they are illegal. Nevertheless, veterinarians are able to treat these companions legally as patients.

Hedgehogs can be quite intriguing companions and there is a lot of available information on caring for them properly in captivity. They do have one characteristic that precludes them from being one of those cute cuddly little furball companions, however, and that would be the fact that they are covered in spines. These spines are modified hairs similar to those found in porcupines, except that they do not easily come out of the skin as they do in porcupines. They are, however, every bit as sharp. The presence of these spines is likely why Andrea did not notice a problem with Spike’s skin early on when he started to scratch. It is simply too hard to see his skin through the spines.

Spike’s now-intense pruritis does have an underlying cause. Andrea needs to find a veterinarian comfortable with working with hedgehogs and take him to be examined.

One distinct problem arises when we try to examine a hedgehog. They are not usually very cooperative and will ball up during an attempted exam, exposing nothing but needle-sharp spines. It is for this reason I like to give them a bit of gas anesthetic to breathe, which allows them to take a short nap while I complete an examination. In Spike’s case, this would be done with magnification to get a close look at the skin and most likely a skin scraping to examine some of the cells and debris under the microscope.

It is my guess that Spike has mange. In hedgehogs, mange is usually caused by a sarcoptic mange mite. These mites burrow into the skin, and as the population grows and the burrowing becomes extensive, intense itching results, which then leads to intense scratching. This condition is relatively easily diagnosed through the above-mentioned skin-scraping procedure and, once diagnosed, it is straightforward to treat.

Hopefully for Spike, this problem will require very little conscious involvement on his part and his skin condition can be resolved.




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