Posted: June 27, 2010, 5 a.m. EDT
Q: I have two hedgehogs. Every night I feed them, pet them a bit or bathe them. Up until last night everything was normal. I went to feed them at the usual time, and my male hedgie (Sid) was lying in his cage breathing very shallowly. He didn't reacting to me touching his face (he hates his face touched normally), so I got concerned and picked him up. His heartbeat was slow, and I could hear him breathing kind of quickly. I wrapped him in a T-shirt and woke up my husband.
A little while later Sid started throwing up/spitting blood that was clear/light pink. I wiped it off his face and took him downstairs. We were looking for the phone number to an emergency vet in our city, but before we could even figure out what to do he passed away as I held him.
He was eating earlier in the evening and even playing in his wheel. It was so sudden, I don't even have a clue what could have happened. I'd just cleaned out their cages completely and put in new bedding two days before, and he was eating/pooping as normal. Nothing was different. He's been eating a commercial food and one or two mealworm treats every couple of nights.
The only time he was out of his cage was when I bathed him a couple nights before, and he didn't get into anything because they have their own bedroom that I keep hedgie-proofed (laminate floor). He was almost 5 years old. I don't think it was old age. I had a hedgehog that lived to be 11 years old previously. Has something like this ever happened to you? I would really like to know if it was something I did.
A: I am very sorry for the loss of Sid. It sounds like you did everything you could to provide a great life for your hedgehog. Unfortunately, nothing you mention gives a clue about what could have happened to Sid.
Hedgehogs, like many nontraditional pets, can hide their illness, even serious illness, to the point that you do not know they are sick until it is too late. So, he could have been suffering from a short- or long-term disease and you would not have seen signs of this until he was close to death.
Very few diseases cause an otherwise healthy hedgehog to die suddenly. Toxins can cause this, but it sounds like you were meticulous with the environment that Sid lived in and he was not exposed to toxins. Heart disease can cause sudden death, but he was not an old hedgehog and usually there are other signs if heart disease is present.
What you describe is not that uncommon — a pet dying unexpectedly and both the owner and the veterinarian being at a loss to understand why the pet has died. What we recommend to end the mystery is a necropsy (an animal autopsy). At necropsy, the vet can examine the tissues under a microscope and give the owner a cause of death. When there are other animals in the home, we highly recommend this. Losing one animal to a disease is very sad, but losing a second or third pet because the reason for the first pet’s death was not determined is a preventable tragedy.
See all of Dr. Rosenthal's Critter Q&A articles>>