vulture investigates

We Asked a Hedgehog Dentist to Explain Why Sonic’s Human Teeth Are So Upsetting

He’s cute if you don’t look at the teeth. Photo: Sonic the Hedgehog.

This interview originally ran last year, but we’re republishing it ahead of the release of the new-and-improved Sonic the Hedgehog movie.

As most devoted children of the 1990s already know, the trailer for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie dropped. And it’s clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the worst thing about its confusing display of both live-action and CGI scenes are … those teeth. Someone made the awful decision to give Sonic (clearly a hedgehog) human teeth. It’s terrifying, and we hate it. So we asked Laurie Hess, an exotic-animal veterinarian at the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York, to walk us through the horror.

What were your initial thoughts on the new Sonic the Hedgehog image I sent you?
It was adorable. I mean, I love hedgehogs. They’re really adorable. I guess for me, the main thing is that I love the idea of drawing attention to hedgehogs, as long as it promotes responsible pet ownership. You know, it’s a cute picture. It doesn’t look like a real hedgehog looks obviously. It’s got a different color, little prickly things, you know.

What do hedgehog teeth really look like?
So hedgehog teeth are actually very tiny, and the big problem, ironically, given the big teeth [of new Sonic], is the overgrowing of their gums. Their gums actually grow up over their teeth and obscure their teeth or make them look actually smaller. So they’re definitely not large or, like, canine-looking teeth.

If you could compare hedgehog teeth to the teeth of another animal in the animal kingdom, what would that animal be?
They’re not at all related to them, but they’re more like ferret teeth. You know, they’re very small and they get a lot of the same diseases that ferrets get and cats get.

What would you say is the most common ailment that you treat when it comes to hedgehogs and their teeth?
Both the buildup of tartar in the mouth and then they get periodontal disease, where their teeth get loose and fall out. And also the overgrowing of the gum on their teeth, which means they’re chewing with their gums, which can get very painful.

Whenever the hedgehogs get checkups once a year, it should include a thorough, full oral exam, which can be really difficult because, as you know, hedgehogs ball up, and it’s hard enough to get them to open up and even glance at their faces. So there are some tricks that we have, like filling a plastic tub or pan or little plastic container with water, and we put them in there, try to get them to unfurl and to open their mouths. Sometimes we can’t even do that and we have to anesthetize for a brief period to get into their mouths. They get a lot of tumors in their mouths.

Are hedgehogs your primary patient types?
I don’t think they are any one person’s primary patient types. I’m an exotic-animal vet, so I don’t treat cats or dogs. I treat quite a few hedgehogs. I don’t think any one veterinarian could survive on seeing just hedgehogs because I don’t think they’re that popular as pets. They’re definitely popular; they’re definitely fun. I definitely see more hedgehogs than anybody in the New York area.

An adorable hedgehog named Prickle. Photo: Dr. Laurie Hess

Approximately how many hedgehogs’ mouths have you worked on?
It comes in spurts. In the course of the week, we might see two to three hedgehogs a week. I examine every one of their mouths. Dental problems and mouth problems are a really big part of what we see.

When do you usually give hedgehogs an anesthetic?
They have this incredible ability to ball up, and that’s how they hide from predators. They literally ball into a big prickly ball. They’re not like porcupines, so they don’t shoot their quills, but their quills are prickly, and it’s really hard. They have strong muscles along their back that enable them to completely hide their face. If someone brings in their pet hedgehog and expects me to do an exam, and they’re very tame and social and they unfurl readily, you know, I can do a very regular exam like you would on any animal — cat, dog, or bird. Starting at their heads and looking at their eyes and their noses and their mouths, working my way down their body and feeling the abdomen, looking at their reproductive regions and at their feet and all those things.

If they won’t cooperate with me, the first thing I’ll try is filling up that little bowl or bin with water. They don’t love to stand in water, so they do kind of stretch out. Sometimes I get so far that I can do an overall exam, but if I try to open their mouths or listen to their hearts, that’s a little more specific in detail; they’ll ball up again. So if they really fight me and don’t respond to the whole get-them-in-water thing, I have to put a little anesthetic mask over their body and give them gas anesthesia, which lasts a couple of minutes and enables me to get them to relax, and I can do a thorough exam. It’s a pretty common obstacle that people with hedgehogs have to overcome. It’s the balling up.

Have you ever been bitten during a procedure?
I’ve been bitten by everything. [Laughs.] Have I been nipped by hedgehogs? Sure. With hedgehogs, they’re really shy and they’re not aggressive. The balling up thing enables them to hide their mouths from me and avoid their whole interaction. That’s kind of their defense mechanism.

Would you say their bites are painful?
It’s a nip. It’s not like daggers or anything. They’ll typically try to curl up.

Have you ever tried to floss a hedgehog’s teeth?
It’s really hard. So no. [Laughs.] … There are little teeny tiny toothbrushes used for puppies and kittens that I use for ferrets, and I’ve actually given them to hedgehog owners too. They’re called finger brushes and they fit over the tip of your pointer finger. They actually come with meat-flavored toothpaste. [Hedgehogs] eat insects and things like that, but they have chicken toothpaste. I will have owners try to brush their hedgehogs’ teeth. I think if you start at a really young age, and you try to get them used to getting their teeth touched with water and a brush, you can prevent a lot of the dental things since you eliminate all the tartar. Most adult hedgehogs just won’t let you start doing that. Flossing is not really an option.

When you do oral exams, do you have really small dental tools?
Yep. We have little mouth speculums that open their mouths. There’s actually a human nasal speculum built to go up someone’s nostrils, but we use it in hedgehogs and guinea pigs and rabbits. It kind of looks like a clamshell, but instead of up and down it opens side to side. There’s a little light and we just put it in their mouths. They don’t love it, but it lets us look at the backs of their mouths so we can see their teeth and their gums and all that stuff.

Do you think the live-action Sonic would be scarier with actual hedgehog teeth?
I think real hedgehog teeth would be less scary than [the teeth in the movie]. They’re not really aggressive. They’re active animals; they’re not aggressive animals. They tend to be kind of shy and fearful, and that’s why they ball up; it’s a defense mechanism. I think Sonic is more outgoing than most hedgehogs, unless you socialize them and get them young and handle them a lot. A lot of them can be really friendly and open to strangers. Unfortunately, most people don’t do that, so [their hedgehogs] get really scared and ball up. I can’t say that I’ve watched Sonic in action, but if Sonic is balling up and doing those normal things, and then is interactive and social, that’s a good way of portraying a hedgehog. That’s reality.

Do you have any feelings on the rest of Sonic’s look?
The blue is not realistic, but they do have white on the bottom. The part that’s all spiky and prickly, that’s called the mantle on a normal hedgehog. They do have a soft area underneath the prickly part on their back. You can kind of see the little quills on the back. That’s realistic. The nose is similar. There are two main types of hedgehogs. There’s the European hedgehog. We don’t really see those in the U.S. We see African pygmy hedgehogs, and those are the ones we keep as pets. They’re the ones that I see. I would say [Sonic is] a stuffed-animal version of what a hedgehog would look like.

In the end, what do you think it is about Sonic with human teeth that makes people uncomfortable?
Hedgehog teeth are cute and small, just like them. Their teeth match their size. Maybe that’s why people don’t think big teeth match the tiny, cute hedgehog.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Hedgehog Dentist Agrees, Sonic’s Human Teeth Are Not Cute