Every hedgehog has its thorn.
Two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people not to “kiss or snuggle hedgehogs” because of a salmonella outbreak, the federal health agency announced that six more people in three more states, including Virginia, have fallen ill after coming into contact with the prickly pets.
As of Friday, 17 people nationwide have been infected with a strain of Salmonella typhimurium that the CDC first warned in January could be linked to pet hedgehogs.
No one has died, but two people were hospitalized.
“Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence indicate that contact with pet hedgehogs is the likely source of this outbreak,” the CDC said in an investigation notice.
In Virginia, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors legalized household hedgehogs in January — just days before the CDC issued the first notice that it was investigating the salmonella outbreak in connection with the creatures. A separate effort to do the same in the District of Columbia failed in December.
It doesn’t appear that the recent legalization of pet hedgehogs in Fairfax County is linked to the two cases reported in the state based on information from the Virginia Department of Health.
Both of the people sickened lived in the southwest region of Virginia and “one definitely had hedgehog exposure,” said Maribeth Brewster, a department spokeswoman.
“Washing hands after handling and cleaning up after these types of pets and all pets can reduce the likelihood of illness transmission,” she added.
Other states where people have been sickened with the salmonella strain include Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.
The largest number of cases come out of Minnesota and Missouri, with three each.
Elaine Becker, who has cared for more than 100 hedgehogs over the years through her work at local animal rescues in Roanoke, Virginia, said having pet hedgehogs has become a recent fad. People have become enamored with the cute creatures but don’t know how to care for them. Household hedgehogs are usually in cages and running on wheels, where poop can get stuck on their feet, she said. Pet owners should clean out hedgehog cages weekly and pick up droppings daily — preferably with gloves to avoid getting sick.
“After touching any animal or raw food wash your hands,” said Becker, also a member of the Hedgehog Welfare Society and International Hedgehog Association. “You wouldn’t let your kid play with raw chicken and then let them stick their hands in their mouths.”
Hedgehogs have become so popular that many have their own social media accounts. The spike in hedgehog demand has also lead certain jurisdictions recently to lift bans on having them as pets.
Officials identified the salmonella strain in the recent outbreak after studying samples collected from eight hedgehogs in Minnesota, including three that were in the homes of two people who got sick. Most of those who have fallen ill appear to be young children, according to the CDC.
Of the people interviewed, 13 out of 15 said the had contact with a hedgehog before they fell sick, but the CDC said it has not identified a common supplier that may be the source of the outbreak.
“Hedgehogs can carry Salmonella germs in their droppings while appearing healthy and clean,” the CDC warned.
But some longtime lovers of the pincushions incarnate say the recent CDC hedgehog warning is hogwash.
Zug Standing Bear, who has cared for more than 500 hedgehogs in 20 years through his rescue based in Colorado, said the recent warning from the CDC echoes an alert the agency sent in 2012. That year, the CDC reported 20 cases of salmonella — including one death — in eight states where a hedgehog was in the house of someone sickened.
Standing Bear said the hedgehog-related illness could be random statistically and it shouldn’t deter people from responsibly owning one as a pet.
Becker said the recent CDC alert unfairly singles out hedgehogs. Many household pets, such as turtles and birds, can carry salmonella, Becker said. Following common sense hygiene rules and doing research before buying a hedgehog — or any pet — can prevent problems.
“They can make wonderful pets, but they’re not for everyone,” Becker said. “If you can’t handle the poop and feeding them meal worms, get a stuffed animal.”