Treating hedgehog internal parasites – lungworm, roundworm, fluke.

Studying poo under the microscope
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A majority of hedgehogs admitted into my hospital will have a high burden of internal parasites.

Although it is normal for hedgehogs to have a few worms, a healthy hedgehog will develop a natural immunity to them. If a hedgehog is sick, however, it tips this careful balance tips in favour of the parasites, sending the hedgehog on a downward spiral. A high parasite burden will stop the hedgehog getting enough nutrients from their food and they will slowly starve. A poorly hedgehog is less able to cope with internal parasites and so the downward decline is exascerbated.

Once they are critically sick, a hedgehog will display the unnatural behaviour (for a nocturnal creature) of coming out in the day – often due to starvation.

So how do hedgehogs get internal parasites and why are sick hedgehogs coming in with so many more types of parasite?

We think of hedgehogs as voracious slug munchers. It is true, of course, that hedgehogs do eat slugs, but they are not high up on the menu. I mean, would you choose to eat slugs if crunchy beetles were also available? Looking at the chart below, you can see that slugs, snails and even earthworms are lower down the hedgehog menu.

Slugs, snails and earthworms are also the intermediate host to three of the key internal parasites that affect hedgehogs.

wild hedgehog diet

wild hedgehog diet

The internal parasites seen by hedgehog rescues vary across the country. I don’t find the dreaded Thorny Headed Worm here in York. I do find lots of roundworm and fluke though and a few cases of lungworm. Here’s which parasite is carried by which host.

Roundworm = earthworms

Fluke = slugs and snails

Lungworm – slugs and snails

These internal parasites can only be correctly identified by looking at the hedgehog’s poo under a microscope. There are some other signs that can indicate a particular parasite but checking poo is still essential. Fluke can cause excessive hyperactivity and the poo to smell particularly horrid. I can smell fluke before I see it under the microscope. Hedgehogs with lungworm can have a terrible deep cough like a smoker’s cough.

So why are hedgehogs coming in with a greater range of internal parasites than I have seen previously? Well, I’m not a scientist so I will leave that to the experts but I note several things. As a gardener, I’ve seen fewer beetles in recent years, even though I am an organic gardener and I create habitats for beetles. Habitat loss will affect hedgehog’s access to beetles. Concrete gardens with a square of grass and nothing else are not attractive to beetles. Pesticides sprayed on crops target beetles and may explain why there are fewer hedgehogs around farmland. If a hedgehog cannot find enough food, they start to starve, reducing their immunity to internal parasites.

Milder winters are not killing off slugs and snails. There are more of them around. In the absence of other foods, hedgehogs will munch on them. They don’t know they carry parasites!

The time of year also affects what parasites hedgehogs come into rescue with. In Winter there are few beetles around. Late born babies often have a high burden of roundworm, picked up from eating earthworms – one of the few food sources still around.

You can read more here about the causes of the decline in hedgehog numbers.

Studying poo under the microscope

Studying poo under the microscope

Hedgehog roundworm

Roundworm egg. Credit: Whitby Wildlife

Hedgehog lungworm

Adult lungworm. Credit: Whitby Wildlife

But before you go reaching for the slug pellets to eradicate the hosts, don’t forget that slug pellets kill hedgehogs. Try organic methods of controlling slugs. I use nematodes, such as Nemaslug.

The best thing you can do to help is to create a healthy habitat for hedgehogs through wildlife friendly gardening and helping to prevent hazards that can cause injury. A healthy environment should mean healthy uninjured hedgehogs that are able to tolerate and self-manage their worm burdens.

I run a hedgehog rescue in York, England. Like all wildlife rescues, my work is entirely self funded and you can find out how to support my work here.

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Squashing the myth – hedgehogs are full of fleas….

Hedgehog flea
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The phone rings. “Help, I have found a baby hedgehog but I can’t pick it up to put it in a box because it is full of fleas. The fleas will get onto my dog and I have a baby and the baby will catch fleas.”

It’s a myth that all hedgehogs are covered in fleas. I’ve been running a hedgehog rescue for over 5 years and I have seen around 6 hedgehogs in that time that have had fleas. That is out of over 350 hedgehogs admitted. Yet, you’d be surprised how many people say that they cannot help rescue a hedgehog due to the risk of fleas.

The very few hedgehogs that have had fleas have either been incredibly poorly or have been young hoglets that were orphaned some time ago and have been struggling on their own.

In the very rare instance that a hedgehog has fleas, the fleas will not infest your dog, your cat, your house, your baby….. The hedgehog flea (scientific name: Archaeopsylla erinacei) is host specific. That means that it can only live on hedgehogs. It cannot live on anything else.

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The hedgehog flea

“But” I hear you say, “I’ve got a resident hedgehog who visits every night and I often see it scratching….” Well, itches can be caused by many things, just like they can in humans. It is nothing to worry about unless the hedgehog is found out in the day, which is a sign that is is unwell. If it is only seen at night, leave it alone.

What you are more likely to see on a hedgehog, are ticks. These blood-sucking critters also affect other animals and there are many species of them. Hedgehogs are affected by the hedgehog tick (scientific name: Ixodes Heagonus).

Increasingly mild winters mean that ticks are not being killed off and it is quite common and normal to see a hedgehog with a few ticks. One or two will not cause any harm and will drop off naturally once they’ve had their feast.

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Ticks removed from a hedgehog. Notice the variety of sizes and colours – they are all the same species.

Sometimes a hedgehog is found that is absolutely covered in ticks. The ticks can cause anaemia and pass on other infections. Sometimes this is an indication that the hedgehog is sick, likely to be the case if the hedgehog is found out in the day. But lots of ticks don’t necessarily mean that the hedgehog is sick because milder winters mean that fewer ticks are being killed off. The unlucky hedgehog may just have slept in a tick nest and been targeted. But, the ticks will need to be removed to prevent anaemia.

The treatment of fleas and ticks is a specialist job and you can do more harm than good if you try to treat them yourselves. Flea treatments for cats and dogs will kill hedgehogs. If you remove ticks the wrong way, it can lead to infection and disease.

if you find a hedgehog that you suspect to be ill, follow the advice here and remember that a few ticks are absolutely normal and fine…..

I run a hedgehog hospital in York, England. My work is entirely self-funded. You can help me continue my work by supporting me here.