LONDON Can man's best friend be replaced by a prickly pal the size of your palm?
Busy British pet lovers have been buying hedgehogs, whose nocturnal habits make them appealing to the modern worker because they wake in the evening when their owners arrive home after a day in the office.
Although Britain has its own wild breed of hedgehogs, the latest pet craze focuses on African pygmy hedgehogs -- a cross between Algerian and white-bellied hedgehogs.
"They are unbelievably pretty little creatures, the way they bumble along, the way they poke their noses into everything," British hedgehog breeder Bonnie Martin told Reuters.
Initial costs for the animal and accompanying equipment can run to 300 pounds ($591). But hedgehogs, who can survive on cat food, are cheaper to feed because they eat a third of the household cat's daily diet, Martin said.
"People will travel vast distances to get them in order to get them from reputable breeders...there's about eight to 10 serious breeders in the UK. It takes a lot of traveling in order to get a good hog," said Martin, who has sold two litters already and has a waiting list for the rest of the year.
But animal conservationists said the trend poses a serious threat to the declining population of Britain's native wild hedgehogs, which last year made the government's species protection list.
British Hedgehog Preservation Society trustee Kay Bullen said the expense of buying rare types of hedgehog could tempt people to lure a cuddly British cousin in from the garden.
"Why buy that when you can get one for nothing from the wild?" she told Reuters.
The impact from poaching on the wild hedgehog population could be greater in the next month if mothers are removed from their litters during the Spring breeding season, Bullen said.
"The babies will die without their mum," she said. "They're completely dependent for four weeks."
Bullen also said that the introduction of a foreign species could cause a secondary wildlife problem if pet owners who tire of their hedgehogs attempt to release them into the wild.
"People will probably think they can exist in our country, but I don't know if they can."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)