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What is NOT Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome

Quite a bit of attention has been given to Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS) in recent years. WHS is a chronic, progressive paralysis that typically starts with the hindquarters and progresses until the hedgehog is completely incapacitated. It has been observed to occur in hedgehogs of all ages, and this incapacity appears related to a condition called progressive mutlifocal leukencephalopathy, which is similar to the brain lesions seen in human AIDS patients.

With all the information that is available about WHS, many people jump immediately to the conclusion that their hedgehog must be afflicted with WHS if it shows difficulty with gait, particularly if this is progressive. There are other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of WHS, so it is important to consult with a veterinarian immediately, in order to avoid losing precious time for treatable disorders. 

Originally, it was believed that biggest thing that distinguishes WHS from other disorder is family history. There are at least two families that I am aware of that had confirmed cases in nearly all the members of two generations (mom and all her babies). While the pathologist working with these animals stated that this is proof that it's a genetic condition, other pathologists and veterinarians with whom I have spoken indicate that this is greater than chance occurrence and that you can't conclude from this, that it's necessarily a genetic link. If you don’t know the lineage of your hedgehog, you won’t have any information to help you with assessing the probability of genetic links. If you do suspect WHS, let the breeder know immediately and let them know the veterinary findings. This is very important in helping them to decide what lines to continue, and which should be retired if patterns of problems are found. It is also very important to note that things other than genetics appear to correlate with the appearance of WHS lesions, such as cancers and other immunosuppressive conditions. Please read the article on what is WHS for more information about this.

Hibernation is probably the most frequent cause of wobbliness in hedgehogs. There may be mild wobbliness or there may be significant lethargy. Hibernation is not safe for hedgehogs of African origins and they should not be allowed to hibernate. A hedgehog that is trying to hibernate is often cool to the touch. Onset is often rapid, although symptoms of mild wobbliness and lack of appetite can drag on for quite some time if the problem is not rectified. Hibernation can generally be reversed within half an hour to an hour by warming up the hedgehog. Holding it under your shirt or providing a heat pad on low is generally sufficient. Do not use heat rocks as they often have hot spots that can cause burns and do not raise the ambient temperature. 

Injury is another frequent cause of wobbliness. Hedgehogs can break legs or even slip disks. X-ray or ultrasound can be used to quickly determine whether an internal injury appears to contribute to the hedgehog’s gait difficulty. Hedgehogs can also develop problems with excessive bone calcification, leading to progressive wobbliness. This can also be diagnosed with ultrasound or x-ray. External injury, such as overgrown nails that have curved into the pad of the foot or hairs wrapped around a leg can also cause a hedgehog to look wobbly, so you should visually inspect for these types of problems. 

Tumors can also create problems with balance and locomotion. These can very strongly mimic WHS. Tumors of the abdomen or brain can create progressive difficulty with movement. These types of problems can sometimes be diagnosed by ultrasound or exploratory surgery and can sometimes be treated successfully by early detection and removal of the tumor. 

Bacterial and fungal problems of the skin have also been reported to cause a wobbly appearance in afflicted hedgehogs. Hedgehogs with these types of problems are reported to have a noxious odor, in addition to seeming wobbly. At least one case of a hedgehog with allergic dermatitis that gave the appearance of wobbliness has been reported. 

Strokes do occur in hedgehogs and can give the appearance of WHS. However, onset is typically fairly rapid. Early treatment can help to reverse some of the damage in many cases, or there may be slow, spontaneous recovery over time. 

Nutritional deficiencies can also create a symptom picture that looks like WHS. If you are concerned about dietary issues, consult a knowledgeable veterinarian about how your hedgehog’s diet can be improved. If diet is the issue, you will see improvement with a healthier diet.  In addition, dehydration can also cause wobbliness.

Definitive diagnosis of WHS is at present only possible with a necropsy because it is diagnosed by the presence of lesions on the brain. As you can see, there are many other things that can contribute to a similar symptom picture, so it should not be assumed that all wobbly hedgehogs have WHS, even if it “looks just like WHS.”

For additional references to take to your veterinarian if you are concerned about a differential diagnosis for a "wobbly" hedgehog, please see these pages:

Vestibular Syndrome in Hedgehogs

Common Disorders and Care of Pet Hedgehogs

Hedgehog FAQ- Wobbliness Section

Atlantis Hedgehogs (wobbly section toward bottom of page)

Hedgehog Lameness, by Teresa Lightfoot, DVM (order CD with article on it here)

Zury talks to Cygnet about important health issues. We have had several hedgehogs who were suspected of having WHS, but were able to receive appropriate treatment for some of the other ailments noted in this article. We have had two confirmed cases of hedgehogs who were diagnosed with WHS lesions after they had passed on. Both also had cancer, and examination of the pedigrees allowed us to calculate that they shared approximately 2% of the same genes. The other 200+ animals in their line that we were able to trace did not have any evidence of neurological problems. Always consult with a vet when you are unsure about your hedgehog's health!

Antigone Means-Burleson

Iola, KS

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This page last updated by Tig on  11/15/05