Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (WHS) and Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) are very similar and can both occur in hedgehogs.
Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome has been reported in captive hedgehogs since 1995. It is common in animals older than 2 years, but it can occur at any age. One of the first indications of WHS is the inability to roll into a fall. Then follows laziness. The symptoms start very mild and are therefore not directly traceable to anything. Gradually the symptoms get worse:
- Falling over
- Bulging eyes
- Scoliosis (back deformity)
- Muscle weakness
- Self mutilation
- Weight loss
- Increasing paralysis
Paralysis usually starts in the hind legs and slowly spreads to the front legs. Typically, it leads to complete paralysis 9 to 15 months after the onset of symptoms. Ultimately, hedgehogs with WHS die 18 to 25 months after the onset of symptoms.
WHS can only be determined by autopsy. It is described as a decrease in myelin in a bilateral, symmetrical spongy shape from multiple sites in the central nervous system including the cerebellum, medulla oblongata (the part that connects the brain stem to the spinal cord), and the spinal cord. Nerves outside the central nervous system may also be affected.
The cause of WHS remains unknown, but a hereditary basis is suspected, as WHS often occurs in animals whose ancestors are also known to be affected. Although this is not always the case. Unfortunately, a cure for WHS is not possible, treatment is aimed at palliative care with euthanasia as the last step when quality of life is compromised.
Intervertebral disc disease is regularly seen in hedgehogs. Symptoms include:
- Increasing protrusion of the hind legs
- Urinary stasis (inability to empty the bladder)
- Loss of position awareness
The symptoms are similar to those of WHS and IVDD is often overlooked as a result. Damage to the cervical and lumbar vertebrae is common in IVDD; multiple drives can be affected. Wear and tear of the spine, narrowing of the disc space and disc mineralization also occur. Ultimately, this leads to degeneration of the cartilage and jelly core of the affected intervertebral discs, protrusion of disc material and mineralization of the jelly core. Treatment with corticosteroids can show a temporary improvement, but unfortunately IVDD cannot be cured. Treatment will ultimately focus on palliative care with euthanasia as the last step when quality of life is compromised. IVDD can be diagnosed by a living MRI scan, although this is not always clearly visible in hedgehogs. It can also be determined by autopsy.
WHS as a waste bin diagnosis
Many veterinarians have basic knowledge about hedgehogs, especially European hedgehogs, but are not aware of the wide variety of disorders and diseases that occur in hedgehogs in captivity. WHS is well known to many veterinarians, after a major outbreak of WHS was reported in America and this news has been widely shared worldwide. Due to the mild symptoms early in the development of WHS, due to a lack of knowledge to conduct further research, the diagnosis of WHS is quickly given to hedgehogs in captivity, even though it cannot be diagnosed in life. As soon as a veterinarian does not know which possible disorders can be further investigated, he chooses to diagnose the animal with WHS, even if the cause could lie elsewhere. Symptoms of ear infections, IVDD, permanent damage from hibernation attempts, bacterial and viral infections, and cerebral hemorrhages or cerebral infarctions can closely resemble symptoms of WHS. In most cases, however, the symptoms in these health problems develop much too quickly, which should make WHS easier to rule out: WHS develops very slowly over 6 to 12 months, never within days or weeks. Yet WHS is frequently used as a trash can diagnosis. If there are doubts about the knowledge of a vet after such a diagnosis, it is better to look for another vet for a second opinion. Please note that the vet has specific experience with exotic hedgehog species.