In 2013, 11-year-old Georgia resident Bella Hayes fell in love with hedgehogs after watching YouTube videos of the tiny, quilled animals.
"They're so cute, they're tiny, and they're sweet," she told the Athens Banner-Herald.
When she learned that pet hedgehogs are illegal in Georgia, she got in touch with her state representative, which led to a 2014 proposal to exempt African pygmy hedgehogs — the species most commonly kept as pets — from the state's ban.
The bill failed. In February 2017, it was reintroduced to the Georgia House of Representatives only to fail again.
Georgia isn't the only state that's declared it illegal to keep hedgehogs as pets. So have California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and the five boroughs of New York City.
If you're thinking of having a pet hedgehog, keep in mind that they are more alert at night. (Photo: Justin Snow/Flickr)
What's the big deal about these little creatures?
According to wildlife experts, hedgehogs could negatively impact local ecosystems if released into the wild because they'd compete for food and habitat with native species. Exotic pets like sugar gliders, ferrets and Quaker parakeets are banned in some states for the same reason.
This is why some states hold regular amnesty programs that allow people to relinquish exotic animals like hedgehogs without penalty.
Hedgehogs also present a health risk to pet owners because they can carry foot-and-mouth disease, as well as salmonella. In fact, in March 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked a multistate outbreak of the disease to pet hedgehogs. The agency also suggested that one of the best things handlers can do is to wash their hands frequently.
Those who oppose legalizing pet hedgehogs may also take issue with domesticating wild animals.
"There always are ethical and moral issues with keeping exotics," Dave Salmoni of Animal Planet told ABC News. "In the case of hedgehogs, one of the big cons is that it is a nocturnal animal. So the pet owner either lets it sleep all day or takes it out of its enclosure to interact with it at a time in the day that the animal should be resting."
Hedgehogs should not be left unsupervised with other pets because they may bite. (Photo: Hands Optek/Flickr)
The USDA doesn't maintain data on pet hedgehogs, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that hedgehog ownership is increasing, especially given the popularity of hedgehog social media accounts.
Jill Warnick, a Massachusetts hedgehog breeder, says demand for the animals has grown so much that she has a waiting list of adopters.
"When I first started I might have a waiting list of five people," she told The Christian Science Monitor. "Well, 19 years later, I have a waiting list of 500 people."
It's not hard to see why hedgehogs are so popular. For starters, they're undeniably cute. However, they're also hypoallergenic and low maintenance, and they emit little odor.
Those who support keeping hedgehogs as pets say that many of the arguments against the animals don't hold up.
For example, they point out that other animals legally kept as pets — including dogs, cats and turtles — can also carry and transmit salmonella. Supporters also argue that hedgehogs released into the wild wouldn't negatively impact ecosystems.
"Hedgehogs in the United States were all bred in captivity, and they cannot exist out in the elements," Deborah Weaver, president of the Connecticut-based Hedgehog Welfare Society said. "And while hedgehogs are nocturnal, they respond very well to being up and about during the sleeping hours."
To learn more about hedgehogs, visit Hedgehog World on Facebook.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in May 2015.