As we move into autumn clean up mode in our gardens, there is a chance you could come across a hedgehog. Hopefully, he or she will scuttle off out of your way. But if the hedgehog does not move what are you to do? How do you know if it’s dead or hibernating? And what should you do in either case?
How to Tell If a Hedgehog is Dead or Hibernating.
In most cases, we can check whether an animal is alive or dead by checking for signs of movement, breathing—pulse or checking the temperature.
Things aren’t so simple with a hibernating hedgehog. Hibernation is a state of torpor where the hedgehog dramatically slows down many of its biological processes to conserve energy over the winter.
- A hibernating hog takes very occasional shallow breaths.
- The heart rate slows to sometimes as little as 2 beats per minute.
- The body temperature will drop to between 5 and 10 degrees Celsius.
So you can see how difficult it will be to check for signs of life in the usual way. A hibernating hedgehog will feel cold, you probably won’t be able to find a heartbeat (even if you do happen to have a stethoscope with you in the garden!) and breathing will be difficult to detect.
You won’t want to leave a dead hedgehog in the garden. But equally, it’s very important not to move or disturb a hibernating hedgehog. So what to do – how do you tell the difference?
Signs That a Hedgehog is Hibernating Not Dead
Luckily there are some telltale signs to look for.
Firstly, hedgehogs generally hibernate curled up in a ball. But they don’t naturally die curled up. So if your hedgehog is in a ball, there is a good chance it is hibernating, not dead.
If the hedgehog is curled into a ball, you can also touch it’s spines lightly. A gentle touch will not be enough to rouse the hog from hibernation. But if the hog is alive, it will ripple or shudder, and it may let out a little snoring noise.
So if you’re hedgehog is curled up in a ball and gives a little ripple or shudder when you touch it, as well as maybe a little snore, it is most likely hibernating, not dead.
What To Do If You Disturb a Hibernating Hedgehog
Ideally, hibernating hedgehogs should not be disturbed at all. Hibernation is a difficult process for hedgehogs. They need to store up a lot of energy to get through it. They will rouse from hibernation several times during the winter. But the process of waking uses a tremendous amount of energy. So if you can avoid rousing them unnecessarily, you should.
It takes quite a lot to rouse a hibernating hedgehog. So if you have simply uncovered one whilst clearing up outdoors, you probably won’t have disturbed it.
You should cover it up again as quickly and gently as possible and leave it in peace. Don’t do any more cleaning up in that area until spring.
But there will be occasions when you simply can’t leave the hog where it is. Maybe it’s hibernated in a shed or outbuilding which is usually closed. Or maybe it’s in a spot where you are having building work done. Or in a bonfire.
If you must move the hog, do it gently and quietly; you may be able to make the move without rousing the hog from hibernation.
Try not to move him far from where you found him. Hedgehogs know the territory where they live. They know where to find food, water and nesting materials. Moving a hibernating hedgehog away from his home range will put him at a severe disadvantage when he does wake. Just imaging yourself going to sleep in your bed and waking up in a strange bed in a strange city – scary stuff!
You can help by leaving a dish of water and a small amount of dry hedgehog food close to the hibernation site. This way, when the hog does rouse, there will be food and water close by.
Never try to Rouse a Hibernating Hedgehog.
When hedgehog rescuers overwinter a hedgehog, they may occasionally need to rouse an underweight hog who is trying to go into hibernation. This is a very risky process and should only be undertaken by trained experts.
Warming a hedgehog up will bring it out of hibernation. But warming it up too quickly is also very likely to kill it.
So, unless you can see or smell other obvious signs that the hedgehog is dead, it is best to assume that a balled-up hedgehog is hibernating and leave it in peace.
Hedgehog Lying Flat.
A hedgehog lying flat who is cold and still is much more likely to be dead. More likely, but not definitely.
Hedgehogs who overheat lie flat and press their bellies to the ground, which is usually a cooling surface.
If this doesn’t work, they go into a state called aestivation. This is a bit like hibernation. Bodily functions create heat, so an overheating hedgehog who can’t cool down any other way will start to shut down its bodily functions in an effort to cool down. So once again, breathing and heartbeat will be difficult to detect.
In very hot climates some hedgehog species like the African Pygmy use aestivation to sleep through the worst of the hot weather, in the same way, that our hedgehogs use hibernation in the cold.
An aestivating hedgehog will ripple or shudder when touched, same as a hibernating hog.
Though aestivation is a natural process in hot climates, it shouldn’t really be happening in the UK. So we would suggest that if you come across an aestivating hedgehog, you contact your local vet or hedgehog rescue.
What to Do with a Dead Hedgehog.
First be very, very sure that it is dead. If you are in any doubt at all contact your vet or your local hedgehog rescue.
Once you are confident, you can either:
- Bury it on your own property.
- Contact the local vet, who may be able to get it cremated for you.
If you choose to bury the hog at home:
- Dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
- Wrap the hog in something biodegradable – newspaper or cardboard is fine.
- When you have refilled the hole place something heavy on top to stop pets or other animals digging it up. A heavy plant pot or paving slab will do.
Always report a dead hedgehog to Garden Wildlife Health. You can do this online in a couple of minutes using this link.
Garden Wildlife Health is a collaboration between The Zoological Society of London and several of our leading conservation organisations. It’sIt’s aim is to track the health of wildlife in our gardens. It’s vital work, and every report counts.
Conclusion: Be Very Careful Before You Bury a “”Dead”” Hedgehog.
There will sadly be times when it’s obvious that a hog is dead just by looking at it. But other times a hog that looks dead could easily be hibernating or aestivating. So we need to be very, very careful before making any decisions about what to do with it. If in doubt, always contact your local hedgehog rescue or vat.
We hope you have found this article useful. If you have any questions or suggestions, we would love to hear them. Leave us a comment below.