Planning Commission Tackles Prickly Issue of Pet Hedgehogs

Chinchillas, hedgehogs and hermit crabs face scrutiny over health and safety concerns as the county debates legalizing them as pets.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission held a public hearing last night (Nov. 29) on possibly changing the definition of commonly accepted pets to include all three.

The proposed amendment to the county’s zoning ordinance was spurred by the increasing popularity of chinchillas, hedgehogs and hermit crabs as pets in recent years, according to the proposal.

Casey Judge, a senior assistant to the county’s zoning administrator, said that care for chinchillas is similar to rabbits and care for hedgehogs is similar to ferrets in her presentation to the commission.

Judge said that research for the proposal included consultation with nearby breeders and veterinarians for exotic animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was not contacted, she said.

Arlington and Loudoun counties allow hedgehogs and chinchillas as pets, with Loudoun County also permitting hermit crabs.

Arlington County has reported two hedgehog abandonments since 2013 and no reports of any strays, the presentation said.

Fairfax City and Falls Church either do not allow or are unclear about the legality of the three animals as pets.

During public comment, local James Hart brought up concerns about hedgehogs’ ability to spread salmonella. Hedgehogs, along with cats, dogs, frogs, hamsters and many other animals, can spread the bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In response to the salmonella concerns, Judge said that a common pet — turtles — poses the same risk for spreading the bacteria, according to the CDC.

Another concern that came up involved how well owners can care for hedgehogs, given their high levels of maintenance. Hedgehogs are nocturnal animals that require space, exercise and room temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure they do not start hibernating, according to the Hedgehog Welfare Society.

Judge said that it would be difficult to enforce requirements on temperature and enclosures for the animals.

Phillip Church from the county’s Animal Services Advisory Commission, which opposes the amendment, said that three vets he interviewed said hedgehogs are expensive and challenging to care for.

“I don’t think many people who are going to take home a hedgehog will give them proper care,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to give people the opportunity to abandon or unintentionally mistreat the animals.

Judge said that breeders self-regulate for responsible pet owners and provide a plethora of resources, guides and training to ensure the animals will be safe at their new homes.

Local Mark Spisak likened hedgehogs to porcupines in his public testimony and said that demand for them as pets fuels an exotic pet trade that poses risks to animals. “I can see no advantage to wild animals being kept as pets,” Spisak said. ‘They should live their lives outside as nature intended.”

The commissioners lauded testimony from a student from Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, who argued for legalizing pet hedgehogs.

The student, who said he has cared for his turtle for eight years and his monitor lizard for two years, said that he believes hedgehogs are easier to care for than reptiles, based on his research. He also gave an overview of hedgehog breeding — since the importation of wild-caught African pygmy hedgehogs to the U.S. was banned in the 1990s, people have to go to local breeders for one.

If the county approves the amendment, he said he would get a hedgehog.

Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Alexandria, also voiced support for hedgehogs as pets.

Mary Cortina, an at-large member of the commission, asked to delay a decision on the proposal until the meeting next Thursday (Dec. 6). The county’s Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter in January.

Hedgehog photo courtesy Kelly W.

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