Health check: Leg inspections: What should I look for?

This article was orginally printed May 2003 in the IHA News.

Checking a hedgehog's legs may be really easy for you, or quite an adventure depending on your hedgehog and how well it likes being touched. In this article, I'm going to cover a couple of techniques for dealing with the not-so-cooperative, and what you are looking for when inspecting legs.

Let's start with what we are looking for. First, with any leg check you should look for any obvious hairs or strings that have gotten wrapped around your hedgehog's leg. A hair or string may not be easily detected. Things to look for are discoloration of toes, as with loss of circulation they will start to turn red or purple. Also, look for lines which look like they are cutting into the leg. Often a hair will cut into the leg and the only way you will be able to see it is by the indentation it makes.

A hair or string can be extremely dangerous to your hedgehog and should be considered an emergency situation. Hedgehog legs are well known for their ability to get a string wrapped around them. Once a string or hair has wrapped around a hedgehog's leg, they typically will continue to tighten until the blood supply to the leg is cut off. They may also inflict deep cuts in the flesh, and if left on too long the tissue on the leg may start to become infected, leading to gangrene and tissue death if not dealt with promptly.

If you discover that your hedgehog has a string or hair wrapped around its leg, you will want to remove it. First, remain calm. Animals can sense when we are upset and will react accordingly. Chances are your hedgehog is already worried or even scared by the situation. Next, you will want to get hold of the leg. If your hedgehog is fighting, let the leg go and try another method. There is no need to complicate the situation by scaring the animal or breaking a limb. Depending on how tight the string is you may be able to simply work the string off with your fingers. If it is too tight, try using a pair of tweezers. I use a pair of angled tweezers that are easy to maneuver under a string (insert image). Minor cuts in the flesh are likely to occur, as long as the cut is minor, keep the leg clean and watch for any signs of infection. If the cut should start to swell, turn red, or doesn't look like it is healing, it is time to go to the vet, as some string may still be left and infection may be setting in.

Once the string is removed, normal color should return to the limb. If the limb has started turning black, or if the string has cut deeply into the leg and the color doesn't return normal soon after removal, or you cannot get the string off, take your hedgehog to a veterinarian to be examined immediately. Your hedgehog's leg and possibly its life now depend on a veterinarian's care.

If your hedgehog is free of any strings or hairs, next you will want to ensure the legs are not discolored or swollen. Such symptoms could indicate a sprain, infection, a fracture, or even a tumor. If you discover any of these problems with your hedgehog's legs, please take your pet to a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.

But I can't check my hedgehog's legs, he curls up whenever I try!

This seems to be a common dilemma for many hedgehog owners. For hedgehogs that are very friendly, simply rolling them on their back until they uncurl and show you their legs will suffice, but for a hedgehog that doesn't like to be touched, this isn't an option. Here are some ideas that you may try:

1. Watch the hedgehog as it walks around, looking for changes in gait, limping, etc. An animal whose foot is starting to lose blood flow may have some numbness in its foot, hence affecting the way the animal walks.

2. If your hedgehog will uncurl while on your lap, use treats to distract him while you take a look at his legs.

3. Many hedgehogs will allow you to play with their legs more easily after they have had a bath. Most are just so happy to be out of the bath that they will be more likely to tolerate you touching their legs. Plus, most hedgehogs don't like getting water in their nose, and thus will not curl up in a ball while standing in water.

4. Set your hedgehog on a tabletop or some other flat surface, and when he uncurls try to take a peek at his legs.

5. Some hedgehogs will allow you to get a peek at their legs by gently rubbing the quills on their back. Hold the animal and with one hand and gently rub the quills in the middle of the back in a circular motion with the other hand.

I recommend checking your hedgehog's legs at least twice a day. By doing so, your hedgehog will become accustomed to the routine, and in time will hopefully fight with you less. Plus, you may just prevent something really terrible from happening to your hedgehog.

I hope this has given you some ideas as to how to inspect your hedgehog's legs as well as what you are looking for. No matter how careful you are to keep your hedgehog out of harm's way, accidents can happen.