African pygmy hedgehogs have become the latest must-have handbag accessory, prompting condemnation from animal welfare campaigners.
The tiny creatures are said to be stealing the hearts of rich women, including footballers' wives and girlfriends, ousting designer dogs like Chihuahuas from their handbags.
At five inches long, owners have told breeders they prefer the hedgehogs to take in their bags because they are easier to maintain than dogs. Their popularity has been cemented by the variety of colours buyers can choose between – from albino to apricot and chocolate to salt and pepper.
However, animal welfare experts are outraged that the hedgehogs, which sell for around £250, are being marketed as fashion accessories. Leanne Plumtree, of the RSPCA, said: "Pygmy hedgehogs are undoubtedly very cute but animals aren't accessories and promoting them as such is irresponsible."
"These are exotic animals whose needs are very difficult to meet in a household situation and where that's the case, the RSPCA does not believe they should be kept."
Janet Thornton from North West Animal Welfare rescue centre, in Warrington, Cheshire, added: "These hedgehogs are not fashion accessories. These are disgusting deplorable people who swap and change their pets like their outfits."
Cheshire Waterlife wildlife centre, which stocks the hedgehogs, has witnessed a sharp increase in demand for the animals as pets in the run up to Christmas. It said customers had travelled the length and bredth of the country in search of the creatures.
Steve Birchell, owner of the centre, said: "Our business is based on respect for animals and we ensure that anybody who buys a pet from us knows and understands the importance of proper care for their pet."
"We've been astounded at the popularity of these cute little creatures. I bought a number of the hedgehogs from a breeder who I met a few months ago little realising how popular they were set to become. Apparently they are all the range among the WAGS because they are cute, they love being handled and they will sit quite happily in a handbag. What's more they are also inexpensive to keep, feeding on cat-food."
Diana Mather, a self-styled etiquette and style guru, said: "These lovely little animals should make a perfect present for the trend setter who has everything. They're ideal for designer mums to give to their children."
"The African pygmy hedgehog is a delightful little creature which is increasingly seen gracing designer kitchens and peeping out from the handbags of our fashionistas."