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What do hedgehogs eat & what can you feed them?
18th May 2021
I have written this article with the intention of offering positive and helpful advice for anyone who wants to help hedgehogs in their garden. For over 30 years I’ve studied hedgehogs, and during the course of my professional career I have read and funded research into hedgehog nutrition and digestion in the wild. I hope you find this guide useful on what you can feed to hedgehogs in your garden.
The short answer.
What food should I feed to wild hedgehogs?
Good quality proprietary hedgehog biscuits, dog biscuits and cat biscuits are best in that order. Along with plenty of fresh drinking water offered in a shallow sided dish. Cooked meaty dog and cat food are also good alternatives. Ark wildlife stocks a great range of hedgehog food that means you don’t have to go making your own!
The main things to avoid when feeding hedgehogs in your garden are peanuts, oats, sunflower hearts and mealworms because these can lead to metabolic bone disease. Bread is also not good for hedgehogs because it’s low in nutritional value – and don’t feed them milk because they are lactose intolerant and it can cause diarrhoea.
The slightly longer answer.
What do hedgehogs eat in the wild?
Of course, there are no specialist hedgehog biscuits (or even dog/cat biscuits) out in the wild, so hedgehogs tend to eat a more carnivorous diet when there are no handouts on offer. Beetles, caterpillars, earthworms, millipedes, snails and slugs are all favourites, but hedgehogs are fairly flexible when it comes to their diet. As well as chicks, bird eggs and even frogs, they will sometimes eat berries and other fruits if they come across them.
Like many wild animals in the UK, hedgehogs face disappearing habitats, as well as predators and various other threats, so their numbers continue to decline. As a result, they have learned to be adaptable, right down to the foods they eat.
What else should I consider when feeding hedgehogs?
Hedgehogs are natural insectivores* but in addition to insects, they can enjoy and digest quite a variety of foods. Insect and animal proteins are best but bear in mind hedgehogs need a lot of fibre (think of all those insect and snail shells they eat!), so overly processed foods are out. Being nocturnal insectivores*, they are necessarily very efficient at processing vitamins (we need sunlight to produce vitamin D, hedgehogs do not), so watch the additives in pet foods as some cat food can have very high levels of vitamin A and D. Hedgehogs have evolved to metabolise fat easily and gain weight quickly, ideal for an animal that hibernates. While I’ve never seen an obese hedgehog in the wild, I’ve seen plenty in captivity! Just bear this in mind and avoid overfeeding, or excessively fatty foods.
More to consider when feeding hedgehogs.
I’ve heard mealworms are harmful to hedgehogs, is this true?
No (but please read the full answer). Mealworms contain excellent proteins and amino acids that are beneficial in an insectivore’s diet. However, they have a poor calcium : phosphorus ratio meaning they should only be fed as part of a balanced diet. The problem is hedgehogs seem to become addicted to mealworms, eating them to the exclusion of other foods. In the long term, this can result in illness and disease and it is therefore probably better not to feed them at all.
Can I feed dried fruit such as banana chips and raisins to hedgehogs?
While hedgehogs will forage fallen fruit and berries and can digest them, they are not an important part of their diet. The issue with dried fruit is the much higher sugar content and stickiness compared to fresh. As there is no nutritional reason for feeding dried fruit, the small risk of tooth decay excludes their use. Dried fruit will not attract hedgehogs to your garden and better foods are available.
Is fish bad for hedgehogs?
While I’ve never witnessed a hedgehog consume a fish (and I’ve no intention of offering one either) this question generally relates to fish-based cat food. Fish protein is beneficial and therefore within a balanced, cat or dog food is fine for hedgehogs. Hedgehogs have an excellent sense of smell and may be put off by (or attracted to) strong odours and fish of course, have a strong odour. Consumption of a lot of fish protein will travel through a hedgehog’s digestive tract very quickly resulting in fishy smelling hedgehog poo. This was once thought to be proof hedgehogs couldn’t digest fish but this has long since been shown to be untrue.
Are sunflower hearts and peanuts dangerous for hedgehogs?
Sunflower seeds and peanuts are not a dangerous food type and provide a major contribution to many animal feeds, as well as being widely available in health food shops for humans. Sunflower hearts and peanuts are very fatty, and hedgehogs enjoy them for this reason, so feed them only as a treat or within a balanced diet. Hedgehogs can often be seen foraging under bird feeders, and it’s believed that it’s the food that attracts them. From my own observations I believe hedgehogs enjoy all the invertebrates that spilt food attracts: worms, slugs, bugs and beetles, every bit as much if not more than the seeds themselves.
Should I feed vegetables to my hedgehogs?
Hedgehogs do not generally feed on any vegetable matter but do ingest some greens incidentally while feeding on worms and other invertebrates. They do not make a nutritional contribution and do not need to be provided.
I’ve heard about Hedgehog Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), should I be concerned?
We have a specific article covering this subject: HERE.
MBD is a disease of all vertebrates including humans and it has many causes, diet being one of them. It is a weakening of the bones (amongst other symptoms) caused by a lack of calcium. The hedgehogs’ diet is poor in calcium and much of its natural food prey have a poor calcium : phosphorous ratio (the same is true of bats, another nocturnal insectivore). Therefore, when providing supplementary feeds, it’s important to ensure we add calcium to their diet and do not strip it even more. The two things hedgehogs need are room to roam and good quality food that has an appropriate calcium balance to avoid this condition.
A little more about Hedgehogs in the garden.
“What can I do to help hedgehogs in my garden?”
My top 4:
- Water: Make sure there is clean accessible drinking water available for hedgehogs every night.
- Room to roam: Hedgehogs are natural foragers and need access to large areas to find food, accommodation and a mate.
- Food: Hedgehogs need reliable access to food whatever the weather. Hot, cold, wet or dry they need to eat every day. A small bowl of supplementary food will be greedily appreciated.
- Shelter: Hedgehogs need sleeping, breeding and hibernating quarters and these are usually different for each requirement. Plenty of space, quiet corners and dry cover will help them flourish.
We have lots of blogs on hedgehogs if you want more tips and ideas.
Finally the don’ts.
What should hedgehogs not eat?
- Raw meat
- Citrus fruit
- Sunflower hearts
While hedgehogs are quite adaptable when it comes to their diet, eating both meat and fruits, there are some foods you should avoid putting out for them.
Bread is something that many people have traditionally given to hedgehogs, as well as birds, of course. But it has little nutritional value and only serves to fill them up, meaning they won’t then go in search of more nutritious foods.
Milk is another foodstuff traditionally left out for hedgehogs. However, it will do them more harm than good due to their lactose intolerance.
What harms hedgehogs?
There are so many easy ways to support and provide food for hedgehogs, that there are simply never reasons to offer milk, salted food or sweets. Hedgehogs may well appear to be enjoying them but you could well be killing them with kindness. Do not feed these items.
*There is an argument to be made for hedgehogs being omnivores rather than true insectivores. This is based on their slightly longer intestine and adapted molars compared with true insectivores such as shrews. Research into gut content shows the main bulk of their diet is made up of beetles, millipedes, caterpillars, earthworms and small slugs and snails. Vertebrates were also found including frogs, bird eggs, chicks, as well as carrion. Plant material was often found including grass and leaves, but this is thought to be incidental eating whilst consuming other food matter. Fruit and berries have also been found and these are believed to be deliberately eaten.
– Ark Wildlife continue to research hedgehog wellbeing and dietary health and are currently carrying out trials on new ways of providing highly palatable balanced nutrition with improved digestibility.
We are pleased to offer you a copy of Vale Wildlife Hospital’s advice sheets for feeding hedgehogs in your garden. They are one of the UK’s largest wildlife hospitals and hedgehog rescue centres. We therefore follow their guidance regarding hedgehog care as appropriate.