They are tiny animals with cute faces. They're covered in quills. They roll into prickly balls when they are scared. The ideal pet?
Hedgehogs are steadily growing in popularity across the United States, despite laws in at least six states banning or restricting them as pets.
Breeders say the trend is partly fueled by the fact that hedgehogs require less maintenance than dogs and cats, and because they emit little odor — in sharp contrast with rodents and rabbits. They are largely hypoallergenic and are solitary, making them ideal for those with a busy lifestyle.
"A hedgehog can hang out all day while you are at work, you can come home, hang out with it for a couple of hours or, you know, put it away," said Massachusetts-based hedgehog breeder Jennifer Crespo.
Ms. Crespo's 4-year-old son, Wyatt, sat on the sofa in their home recently, his arm wrapped around the neck of a German shepherd named Ares while an African pygmy hedgehog named Jambalaya clambered across his legs.
The attraction to the animals may have started with a video game — "Sonic" is a blue hedgehog who runs at supersonic speeds and curls into a ball to attack its enemies — but it has grown through people sharing pictures of their pets on social media and elsewhere online.
An Instagram account set up by the owners of a hedgehog named Biddy in Oregon has nearly 370,000 followers, while National Geographic Magazine put a hedgehog on the cover of its April edition to illustrate a trend of people owning exotic animals.
The US Department of Agriculture, which requires anyone breeding at least three hedgehogs to get a license, says it has no data on hedgehog ownership.
The breed is a hybrid of the four-toed hedgehog or African white-bellied hedgehog and the Algerian hedgehog. Its natural habitat is central, eastern and southern Africa. It is now illegal to import them into the United States, meaning the current breeding stock cannot be expanded.
But Jill Warnick, a breeder in Brookline, Massachusetts, said demand for hedgehogs has grown so much over the years that potential pet owners have to fill out an application form and then wait for their turn to buy the weaned offspring.
"When I first started I might have a waiting list of five people," Ms. Warnick said, as hedgehogs slept in hiding spots installed in their cages. "Well, 19 years later, I have a waiting list of 500 people."
Breeders typically begin holding hedgehog offspring in their hands for a short time each day beginning a few days after their birth, in an effort to get them accustomed to humans. That helps make pet hedgehogs bond with their owners, said Warnick, who has sold about 350 hedgehogs.
The animals are banned in six states and Washington, D.C., for reasons ranging from being nonnative species to concerns that they could set up a wild population.
In addition to a wild population, there are also concerns around the cleanliness of hedgehogs. Pet owners can minimize those concerns by washing their hands immediately after handling hedgehogs, cleaning their cages, or feeding them, said Sarah McCormack, a veterinarian at Fresh Pond Animal Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.
One positive side-effect of the tiny pet's growing popularity is the ability to find responsible breeders. As a National Geographic article about the hedgehog covers puts it, "The trade in captive-bred exotic pets has its seamy side." It seems that increased demand has helped hedgehogs, and only time will tell if the pokey little pet unseats other family favorites for a prime lap spot.