La PORTE – Mr. Prickles and Miss Prickles are unusual names for pets, but these aren’t your usual pets. They're a couple of hedgehogs owned by La Porte resident and breeder Nicole Dunifon.
She was first introduced to the spiky yet lovable critters over 10 years ago.
Her son, Cody, a sophomore at Purdue University, wanted to get a sugar glider. When Nicole vetoed the idea, he got a hedgehog instead. Later, Cody’s brother, Taylor, joined him at a fraternity house and they bought another.
Unfortunately, an electrical fire destroyed the frat house, and hours later, when the brothers were cleared to return, they were afraid to look in the cages.
“The plastic trays in the bottom had melted into bowls from the fire and ice cold water was standing there,” Nicole Dunifon.
And miraculously, the two male – so they thought – hedgehogs survived. Cody put them in his coat pockets and they were placed into a cage for two days before Nicole could bring them to her home. It wasn’t long before she heard squealing and discovered six hoglets.
Before doing any research, Nicole instinctively picked up a couple.
“The mother hedgehog ended up killing two of the six because I had handled them,” she said. “I learned a quick lesson that year.”
Through research and first-hand experience, she's learned much more about the out-of-the-ordinary pets. For example, their senses of smell and hearing are best – they can only see a short distance. She feeds them a diet of quality cat food in addition to wax, meal or super worms.
Hedgehogs can be litter-box trained, aren’t smelly, and their nails require trimming. Pine or fleece bedding is suitable, and they love to “nest” in fleece or knit hats, typically living 4-6 years.
And a ceramic heat lamp must be placed in a hedgehog’s cage at all times. “They can go into hibernation. It’s really hard to get them out of it, and if you do, they usually die. If their belly gets really cold they think about hibernating,” said Nicole, who keeps plenty of hand warmers in stock.
Especially important is socialization and taming. Hedgehogs should be petted from neck to tail, in the direction of the quills, with firm but gentle pressure. Some, such as baby Phoebe, enjoy belly scratches.
With white quills that have dark tips, Miss Prickles is considered to have salt and pepper coloring. Her baby, Phoebe, also has salt and pepper coloring with pinto (white spots) markings.
Nicole breeds her females, Miss Prickles and Natasha, with chocolate chip (brown quills with creme) coloring, once in the fall and once in the spring. About five weeks later, a typical litter is 3-6 babies. Accustomed to how moms' react, she starts handling them twice a day for two weeks.
“It’s a huge issue. When breeders don’t tame them at all, the hedgehogs don’t come out of that spikey ball,” Nicole explained.
That's when hedgehogs roll up in a ball, beginning with their forehead and eyes, quills straight up as their sole means of defense.
“It’s hard to breed them in captivity because they are so protective,” Dunifon said.
She currently has two for sale – a male salt and pepper, pinto colored one; and a chocolate female. Both are about 7 weeks old.
Hedgehog babies are usually weaned at four to five weeks, but she keeps hers a week longer.
“I want to make sure they're eating and drinking on their own before I send them on their way,” she said. “And, I try to give them support. I always tell customers that I will take hedgehogs back if there is a problem.”
Explaining that her babies are 80-100 percent tame before she sells, she said, “I try to do everything that I can do not to make them jumpy or scared.”
She currently has a waiting list for babies, with customers coming from La Porte, Crown Point and Dyer, and as far away as southern Indiana, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. The Washington Park Zoo has also purchased a hedgehog for educational programs.
La Porte resident Sara Kessler is one of Nicole’s customers. A professional photographer, she was introduced to the unusual pets while taking photos for her friend.
“I love animals – I think it’s in my bloodline,” Kessler said. “My grandfather even owned a bear once.”
Kessler’s daughter, Khloe, got one for her ninth birthday in May 2018. Dexter, another salt and pepper, was the runt of the litter.
“I like how he’s an animal that Khloe can take care of,” said Sara, who fondly recalled how Dexter “at first would sit in his bowl and eat.”
“It’s a lot of work. You need to do your research,” she advised. “There’s a lot of information online.”
Nicole said “each hedgehog has its individual personality,” and Dexter is no exception.
“He will bite me if I eat Twizzlers and there’s some on my hands,” she said with a laugh. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s more of a latching on.”
Unfortunately, she also learned how painful stepping on a quill is. Hedgehogs lose quills at about 12-14 weeks and again at 2 years.
Still, despite the mishap, Sara said, “I think he’s great. He’s super cute and fun. I love watching him on his wheel.”
Nicole is quite an animal lover herself, having had a variety of pets as a child and adult, including horses, pygmy goats, hamsters, fish, bunnies, dogs, cats and more.
“I have learned to love these guys (hedgehogs), especially the babies – handling and playing with them a lot,” Nicole said.