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Susceptibility of juvenile hedgehogs to disease: some observations

by Toni Bunnell PhD

The following observations are based on captive hedgehogs obtained from York RSPCA animal home, where they are taken by members of the public who have found them injured or collapsed. Since the public became more aware that hedgehogs found wandering about during daylight hours are not generally in the best of health, the number of animals taken to the RSPCA has escalated.

The animals that come into my care are initially placed in sterile conditions in a brick-built unit, then transferred to my enclosed garden. They are monitored and weighed at regular intervals until they reach an appropriate weight, then released to one of a number of hedgehog-friendly sites.The sites are all as far away from traffic as is possible in the countryside surrounding York, as far away from badger setts as possible, and consist of organic, non-pesticide-sprayed terrain.

One site offers extra support for youngsters who might have struggled to gain their adult weight, by providing food and shelter on a continual basis. This is very useful as studies have shown that providing food following initial release increases long-term survival by up to 20%.

When releasing young animals (hand-reared or otherwise) into my garden it has become obvious that youngsters who were deprived of food very early in life (orphaned babies not found for several days after the mother has gone/removed from their nest by cats or dogs), succumb much more readily to disease. Hand-reared youngsters with a body weight of 8oz, that never suffered a period of starvation, coped well with the transition to the garden, continued to gain weight, and were released into the wild on achieving their target weight of 1lb. Hand-reared youngsters with an uncertain start in life, and those who arrived already weaned but malnourished, succumbed to an assortment of ails, suggesting a more poorly developed immune system than their stronger peers.

The illnesses included:

* Trematode infestation (Brachylaemus erinacei), the infective stages of which are carried by snails, and which presents as hyperactivity, loss of appetite and consequent loss of weight. The cure for this is Praziquantel, a drug effective in the treatment of fluke and tapeworm infestation. Panacur is apparently much less effective than previous times due to its plentiful use with sheep and its resultant entry into the soil, leading to a strong resistance on the part of the pathogens it is intended to treat.

* Clostridium perfringens (potentially fatal bacteria), the symptoms of which are virtually non- existent; the first signs generally being a dead hedgehog. With my animals, the two animals that fell prey to this bacterium were youngsters recovering from demodectic and sarcoptic mange, were isolated (but obviously not enough) in a hutch, and had presumably made contact with an infected animal through the mesh front of the hutch. The infected animals were collapsed, very cold to the touch (indicating peripheral shut-down), severely dehydrated and haemorrhaging from the mouth and anus. Treatment of the remaining youngsters (which was successful) consisted of an initial injection of baytril followed by 0.2ml orally, twice a day for five days. Recent studies have shown that as smaller animals metabolise drugs very quickly it is necessary to administer baytril twice a day, rather than once daily, as previously.

* Meningitis (caused by a potentially fatal bacterium), with animals displaying poor co-ordination, loss of appetite and weight loss. Caught early, this can be cured with an injection of amoxycillin, followed by a steroid injection (such as demadex) accompanied by an antibiotic injection, as steroids are known to reduce immune status when administered alone.

In conclusion, those animals with a good nutritional start in life seem to have much greater immune status than malnourished ones, which prevent bacteria/flukes etc from taking a hold on the animal to the extent that they affect their physiology. The rule of thumb, then, is to only release animals into an environment where slugs/snails are present (or where they will come into contact with other hedgehogs of unknown background), when the animals have reached a body weight of at least 11oz, and have been given a vitamin supplement during the preceding days/weeks. Regular monitoring of their weight until they reach the regulatory 1lb, should ensure a good outcome.

The above article was published in IMPRINT , The Yorkshire Mammal Group Newsletter, No.25, 1998

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