You may have never heard of a lesser tenrec or if you have, probably assume they're related to hedgehogs in some way.
Despite being similar in appearance to hedgehogs, they are actually completely unrelated. Native to Madagascar, they only recently made their way to the United States.
You're most likely to find them at the zoo or in an exotic animal collection. They are still incredibly rare animals within North America, but have began to grow in popularity in recent years.
They can also make amazing pets and are fairly low maintenance. Since you are probably brand new to lesser tenrecs, we'll dive a little deeper into their origin and care requirements.
Are Lesser Tenrecs Friendly?
Lesser tenrecs tend to have a naturally calm temperament and are completely comfortable being held and handled. Many will climb into your hand and immediately fall asleep and show very little aggression, if any.
Unlike hedgehogs, they also very rarely roll into a ball. This makes them far easier to handle. Despite the spines on their back acting as a similar defense mechanism, we almost never see them react this way in captivity.
We do recommend daily handling to keep them accustomed to interaction with people and being handled.
Where Are Lesser Tenrecs From?
Lesser Tenrecs in the wild can be found in the dry forest and coastal regions in Madagascar. They're actually one of five types of tenrecs from the family Tenrecidae.
You're far more likely to find them by looking up in the branches above you than on ground level. To hide they'll wedge themselves into crevices and dens within tree trunks.
Southern Madagascar is considerably different than the rest of the country with a semi-desert climate and limited rainfall throughout the year. Depending on the season the temperature can vary between as low as 50°F and as high as 90°F.
Due to these wide fluctuations in temperature in their natural habitat they are far less temperature sensitive than hedgehogs. During the spring and summer months we tend to keep the cages at room temperature, somewhere between 72°F and 75°F.
During the cooler months in Madagascar Lesser Tenrecs will also go into a light hibernation known as Torpor. While in captivity many owners will simulate these conditions for adults by reducing the room temperature to as low as 65°F.
What is Torpor?
Another stark difference between tenrecs and hedgehogs is Torpor. As we mentioned earlier, this is a form of light hibernation that can last anywhere between 3-5 months. In captivity torpor could begin as earlier as September and last as long as March.
It is usually triggered by lower temperatures and/or seasonal changes in light, although it has been reported even in some tenrecs that are kept with the same temperature and light schedule year-round.
During this time lesser tenrecs are far less active and will go long stretches without eating or drinking. It's still safe to handle them during this time, but it best to leave them sleeping rather than trying to wake them and use up any of their store energy.
Daily handling is ideal, both to keep them socialized and accustomed to interaction with people, and to be able to get the most out of the relationship. They do not require focused, high-intensity attention, and instead do very well simply being with a person in whatever context best fits that individual's lifestyle and routine. They are not particularly delicate - they can be manhandled, turned on their back, pet and stroked, and generally messed with in various ways.
They are nocturnal animals and will be most active at night. Interaction tends to be more active and animated closer to the evening, with a tendency toward more sleeping and cuddling earlier in the day. Although they are not considered social animals, they are far more friendly than a traditional hedgehog. This is also highly dependent on how much human interaction they are accustomed to early in their life.
In the wild, a Lesser Tenrec’s typical lifespan is somewhere between 10 - 15 years. However, those raised in captivity have been known to live up to 20 years. This can only done through proper diet and care.
Unfortunately, lesser tenrecs can suffer from calcium deficiency and are prone to developing Metabolic Bone Disease (A bone disease caused by a lack of calcium or Vitamin D).
This can be easily avoiding by adding calcium and Vitamin D to their diet. As well as a source of UVB which can be as simple as natural day light or through the use of UVB lighting sold in most pet stores. Of course it's also important to provide plenty of room to explore, climb, and play.
The lesser tenrec is classified as an insectivore, but is actually an omnivore. In addition to eating insects and their larvae on the ground or in trees, it can also prey upon small vertebrates and bird eggs and it occasionally consumes fruit. Most bred in captivity are raised on a mix of high protein cat food and a wide range of insects. This includes meal worms, dubia roaches, superworms, or hornworms.
While the vast majority of their diet does consist of a wide range of insects, we also provide them with dry kibble at all times. When insects are available in large supply they tend to ignore the kibble for the most part, but it's important to provide them multiple food sources.
A comfortable enclosure size for a pair of tenrecs is approximately 18" wide x 30" long x 18" tall at the minimum. For the most part, the bigger the better. The floor of the cage should be solid no wire bottom as it can cause damage to their feet.
If using a wire-topped cage, the spacing between the bars should be as small as possible, as tenrecs are quite small and can make themselves much smaller when trying to squeeze through a small space. An enclosure with solid walls, such as a vivarium or a large, clear bin (with modified lid), is a better option.
The enclosure must have adequate space for a wheel, various climbing obstacles, and at least one (preferably several) hideaways. The best objects for climbing are textured to allow for an easy grip with their claws, such as wood/logs and various fleece or fabric items (i.e. for rats and sugar gliders). They'll also need bowls for kibble, insects/treats, and water (no water bottle).
Tenrecs are typically not overly sensitive to temperature changes, although a very large or extended decrease can trigger torpor behavior, which should be avoided during the warmer months. During the spring and summer, the cage should be kept at "room temperature" (68-72 F) or higher during daytime. During autumn and winter, when in torpor, the cage can be kept in the mid 60s.
Fun Fact: Scientists now think that the lesser hedgehog tenrec is really the cousin of elephants, aardvarks, and manatees.