DISCLAIMER: I am not a qualified equine nutritionist or veterinarian. The information in this post should only be used in conjunction with professional advice. The correct healthcare and diet for any individual donkey depends upon a wide range of factors.
- Health & Welfare
- The Five Freedoms
- Donkey Enrichment
- Donkey Hoof Care
- Donkey Dental Care
- Medical Emergencies
- Feeding Donkeys
- Poisonous Plants
- Worming Your Donkey
- Monitoring Your Donkey’s Weight
- Donkey Passports
Health & Welfare
The Donkey Sanctuary Health & Welfare Excellent online resources from the Donkey Sanctuary with links to the Donkey Care Handbook, feeding and nutritional advice, training courses, DVDs and fact sheets on all aspects of donkey care including: foaling, winter care, clipping, colic, dental and foot care, transport, elderly donkeys, laminitis, worming, wounds and understanding behaviour.
Understanding Donkey Behaviour The Donkey Sanctuary.
DEFRA Code of Practice Welfare guidelines for owners of equines, including donkeys, published by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2009. These include ensuring that equines have a suitable environment to live in, a healthy diet, are able to behave normally, have appropriate company and are protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
Comportamiento Natural Del Burro Mauro Madariaga, Equine Behaviour Specialist at The Donkey Sanctuary. Spanish article on Natural Donkey Behaviour.
The Five Freedoms
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
Environmental enrichment helps donkeys in our care to carry out their natural behaviours, providing mental stimulation and physical activity vital to their health and well-being. Here are 10 easy, fun and inexpensive enrichment ideas for donkeys:
- Take an old bucket and drill some holes in the bottom. Place donkey treats inside it and hang it from the barn ceiling (or other high place where there is room for it to swing). Trying to get the treats out of the bucket will keep your donkeys amused for hours!
- Donkeys love stripping the bark from willow logs. Older donkeys often enjoy eating the leaves as they contain naturally occurring aspirin. Other trees that are non-poisonous to donkeys are beech, hazel and ash.
- Donkeys are very nimble. Place logs or other obstacles on the ground where they walk for them to step over. You may need to lead your donkeys gently around the obstacle before walking them over it. This helps to build trust and increase their confidence.
- Hide treats in old cardboard boxes (removing any staples first), rubber tyres, wellington boots or piles of willow branches, so they have to ‘forage’ to find them.
- Rubber buckets, tyres or boots make popular tug toys, especially for male donkeys, as do pieces of cotton rope tied in knots (about the size of a tug toy for a large dog).
- Leave a choice of mineral licks around the barn or shelter so your donkeys can select essential oils and minerals according to their needs, much as they would in the wild.
- Donkeys are very inquisitive and they like to investigate new smells. Equine play balls can be scented with peppermint or ginger to make them more interesting.
- Steam hay with peppermint infused water or leave out buckets of cold herbal tea. They like sweet flavours such as raspberry and will sniff, lick or drink it.
- Carve little wells in willow logs and fill with treats or scented oils.
- Equine play balls or yoga balls provide plenty of amusement for donkeys. They are best slightly deflated so that they can lift them. For some reason they also love orange traffic cones!
Remember: Make sure toys are safe for donkeys and not likely to cause injury. Remove sharp or metal parts and don’t allow your donkeys to eat anything that is harmful to them. Always consider the age and physical health of your donkeys.
Thanks to: Alice Robinson, RSPCA Lockwood Centre for Donkeys and Horses.
Donkey Hoof Care
Picking Your Donkey’s Hooves
To pick your donkey’s hooves, run your hands gently down towards the hoof, to give him time to prepare to lift the hoof. Keep the leg you’re lifting level with and under the body to help the donkey balance. Pick out the dirt between the frog and the sole with a hoof pick, moving the pick from the top of the hoof down towards the middle. Remove any stones from the white line and use the brush part of the hoof pick to remove any remaining dirt.
A donkey’s hooves should be picked out daily and this is a good opportunity to check for signs of White Line Infection (Seedy Toe), Laminitis, Abscesses, Thrush and overgrown hooves. See Hoof Problems.
How do donkeys’ hooves differ from horses’?
“Compared with horses hooves, donkeys hooves are oval rather than round; more upright and more elastic; thicker soled; and with a frog extending out behind the coffin bone. The hoof needs to be trimmed so that the ground surface of the coffin bone is pretty much parallel to the ground; and the hoof wall is trimmed to be level with the sole plane, with the frog in contact with the ground.” The Donkey Society of Western Australia
Examples of correctly trimmed donkey hooves:
Donkeys need their hooves trimming every 6-10 weeks and it’s best to choose a farrier who is experienced with donkeys. See Donkey Vets for lists of recommended donkey farriers.
Natural Care of Donkeys Teresa Ramsey, Natural Hoof. Article covering donkey’s hooves, the importance of water and hoof problems in donkeys.
Donkey Foot Care – Notes for Farriers Alberta Donkey and Mule Club.
The Donkey’s Hoof David Familo, Horse Farrier
Donkey Foot Care – Notes for Farriers The Donkey Sanctuary Guide to trimming normal and overgrown feet and some of the common conditions and their treatments.
Donkey Hoof Disorders www.inpractice.bmj.com article, published by group.bmj.com
Donkey Dental Care
“A donkey has the same number of teeth as a horse. At a minimum they have 36 teeth, 6 molars on each side – top and bottom – for a total of 24 molars, and 6 incisors top and bottom at the front for a total of 12 incisors. They can also have up to 4 canine teeth (also called tusks or tushes) erupt, one on each side, top and bottom, in the space between the incisors and molars. They can also have up to 4 wolf teeth (also called premolars) erupt, one each at the front of each row of molars”. JC Dill, AFA Certified Farrier Equine expert
Donkey Dental Check
Stand at eye level with the donkey and gently part his lips to check the front teeth, which should meet accurately in a horizontal line. Then gently push up the cheeks to check the back teeth using the palms of your hands. Check for any missing teeth, uneven, long, sharp or overhanging teeth and any gaps in between adjoining teeth.
Signs of dental problems include weight loss, difficulty eating, poor digestion, bad breath, nasal discharge, food collecting around the teeth, head tilting, tooth grinding and changes in behaviour such as irritability or becoming withdrawn.
Mark Kerr, Donkey Welfare Adviser for The Donkey Sanctuary finds plaque buildup on this donkey’s tooth. The dentist can file this off:
The Donkey Sanctuary recommends that dental checks are done twice a year (and more frequently for old donkeys) by a BEVA/BAEDT qualified Equine Dental Technicial or Veterinarian.
This is Sussex-based Equine Dental Technician Penny Brownings carrying out a routine dental treatment:
The dentist places a metal gag (dental speculum) on the donkey so that they can reach right inside the mouth. They wash the mouth out to get rid of any food. After rinsing, they feel around the mouth, checking for lumps, bumps, swelling and fractured or sharp teeth. Here, Penny uses a motorised rasp with a diamond chip disc to file down any sharp points and finishes with a manual flat blade.
Donkeys’ teeth continue growing throughout their life. Unless they eat lots of tough, woody fibre (as they were designed to) it is likely that they will need their teeth filing down regularly. Sharp points can cause painful ulcers in the mouth. Donkeys are stoic and may not show signs of pain but it is dangerous for them to stop eating. They are trickle feeders and periods of hunger can lead to hyperlipaemia, so it’s very important to look after your donkeys’ teeth.
Dental Care Information for Owners The Donkey Sanctuary
British Association of Equine Dental Technicians Member List 2016
See Donkey Vets for lists of recommended donkey dentists.
Medical Emergencies in Donkeys
Professional donkey trainer Rachel Karneffel lists things to look out for in donkeys, which may require urgent medical attention:
1.Any deep cut or gash.
2.Cuts over or near eyes or joints.
3.Lameness, especially acute lameness (unless you know it is an abscess and can deal with it yourself).
4.Difficulty breathing or swallowing. Coughing more than a couple of times.
5.Any mucous in copious amounts or not clear in color.
6.Eye squinting/ excessive watering.
7.ANY concern with a foal or dam.
8.High temperature, excessive sweating not involving exercise.
9.Shaking/shivering excessively (if does not warm up when blanketed or brought indoors).
11.Listelessness/not wanting to eat.
12Laying down excessively or rolling excessively. (know your animal…some are lazier and like to sleep more than others).
13.Tenderness on feet, especially on the fronts and leaning back away from the pain.
14.Any object lodged IN a hoof capsule/bleeding from hoof.
15. Straining to urinate or poop.
16. Acting very stiff all over.
18. Holding body hunched up, stiff and uncomfortable.
19. ANY animal bites.
20. Large bumps or lumps. Edema on belly or on genitals.
“Some of these are not emergencies IF and only IF you know your donkey well. For instance, I had a donkey that would regularly go three legged lame. I knew it was an abscess and I could take care of it myself. I also had a donkey who would get bitten by bugs and swell up to big bumps on her belly. It wasn’t an emergency, but I already knew what to do.” Rachel Karneffel at Foghorn Farm Donkey Training.
See Donkey Vets for lists of recommended donkey vets.
The Donkey Diet
Donkeys require food that is high in fibre and low in protein, starch and sugar. Their ideal diet is made up of at least 50% straw, topped up with grass, forage, hay and equine-specific minerals. More hay may be required during winter months, or in areas with overly rich or sparse vegetation. Some donkeys may require extra forage balancer or high fibre feed.
The type and amount of feed that is suitable (and available) for your donkeys will depend on their age, level of activity, health, condition, where you live and the time of year.
Donkeys are trickle feeders, needing to eat small amounts throughout the day. They also need a supply of fresh, clean water available at all times.
Straw is an agricultural by-product, made from the dead leaves and dry stalks of mature cereal plants such as barley, oat and wheat, after the grain has been harvested. Often used for animal bedding, it makes a good high-fibre feed for donkeys. Even when grass is available, straw can make up at least 50% of the diet.
Barley straw is high in fibre and low in enough in sugar that donkeys can be given free access to it without gaining weight.
Oat straw has higher nutritional value than Barley straw but can be suitable for old or underweight donkeys.
Wheat straw is more fibrous (and harder to chew) with lower energy values than Barley straw but can be fed to young healthy donkeys.
Linseed straw is not suitable as the seed is poisonous to donkeys.
Donkeys with missing teeth may struggle to eat straw, as it requires lots of chewing. For these donkeys, pre-chopped fibres (chaff or chop) are easier to pick up and chew, reducing the risk of choking and ensuring that sufficient nutrients are consumed.
Hay is made from specifically grown grass, legumes and other herbaceous plants, which are then cut and dried. It has a higher nutritional value than straw. For donkeys, coarse, thick-stemmed (overly mature) hay is preferable. If straw is not available, mature grass hay is the best option.
Meadow Hay is a natural mix made from grass grown on old pasture.
Seed Hay is made from specific grasses such as Bermuda, Bluegrass, Brome, Fescue, Orchard and Timothy with the grain removed.
Pasture Hay is made from cow pasture and is too high in energy for donkeys.
Legume Hay such as Alfalfa / Lucerne, Clover, Cowpea, Groundnut, Lespedeza, Soybean, Trefoil and Vetch is too high in protein for most donkeys, although rationed amounts can be good for growing, working or pregnant donkeys, or for extra nutrition in winter.
Hay should be stored in a dry barn, off the ground, for at least two months before feeding (freshly cut hay can cause colic or laminitis). It should be dry (mouldy hay can contain fatal allergens) – dry hay will be flaky and not heavy or stuck together.
Hay quality will depend on a variety of factors, including soil quality, plant species, and harvesting method. In The Donkey Companion Sue Weaver describes the different types and cuts of hay and what to look for. Your local environmental agency will be able to advise you on the soil and vegetation in your region.
Haylage is also made from dried grass, but is not dried out as much as hay. This allows fermentation which breaks down some of the sugars. Lower sugar content can make haylage a good alternative to hay for some donkeys. According to The Donkey Sanctuary, donkeys should only be fed preserved haylage or hay with an energy level of less than 10MJ/kg and ideally a level 8-9 MJ/kg should be aimed for.
Levels of nutrients, protein, sugar, starch, mycotoxins and nitrates in grass and forage will vary depending on crop species, pasture management, harvesting methods and climate.
Testing is advised for new supplies of straw, hay and haylage. In particular, some hays can be dangerously high in sugar for donkeys. Many horse-feed companies and independent laboratories offer reliable forage testing and can advise on how to collect samples. The Donkey Sanctuary can assist if you need help interpreting the results.
The Donkey Companion Sue Weaver (Storey Publishing, 2008)
The Complete Book of the Donkey Elisabeth D Svendsen MBE (Kenilworth Press, 2009)
Feeding Donkeys A Donkey Diary
What to Feed Your Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary
Feeding Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary
Care of the Miniature Donkey Quater Moon Ranch
Feed Guide Donkey Land
Poisonous Plants often don’t appeal to donkeys and in most cases they will only resort to eating them if there is little else available, or if they are bored. Providing the right diet along with enrichment in the form of safe shrubs, herb patches and cut branches, will help.
Awareness of toxic and potentially toxic plants, good pasture management and food storage, watching out for symptoms, buying forage and seed from a reputable distributor and regular testing will further reduce the risk of poisoning.
Ragwort is highly toxic and needs to be completely removed. Click here for guidance on identifying and controlling Ragwort.
For more plants that are safe, unsafe and poisonous to donkeys, see Safe Plants for Donkeys.
Toxicity in Plants
Annual Ryegrass is prone to corynetoxins produced by the bacterium Rathayibacter toxicus. Symptoms of poisoning from infected grass or hay include tremors, weakness and drooling. It can be fatal. Infected grass may look normal, or there may be an orange-yellow secretion on the seed heads. Seed heads may also be twisted or deformed.
Corynetoxins have been known to affect Annual Ryegrass, Blown-grass and Annual Beard-grass. If you have these grasses on your farm and they are prone to infection you should consult your local agronomist for advice on an integrated pasture management plan.
Bran is not suitable feed for donkeys as it is high in phosphorus levels and can lead to the depletion of calcium levels.
Cereal grain feeds can be prone to infection by the Aspergillus fungus, which can lead to aflatoxicosis if consumed in large quantities. Always buy feed from a reputable distributor and store it in cool, dry conditions. Cereal grasses used in pasture should not be allowed to go to seed. Hay and straw should be grain-free.
Clovers along with Alfalfa, Lespedezia, Soybean and Lupins have been known to be infected with the Rhizoctonia leguminicola fungus, which can cause Slaframine poisoning if consumed in large quantities. A rust colour on the upper side of the leaf indicates presence of the fungus. Symptoms of poisoning include excessive salivation.
Brown blotch disease, identified by brown spots on the underside of the leaves, has also been known to affect some clovers. Consumption of affected clover in large quantities can cause liver damage.
Corn ear and stalk can contain harmful substances and the cobs are high in starch, difficult to digest and can cause choking.
Endophytes are bacteria or fungi that can grow on plants, including grasses and cereal grains. They improve plant growth and tolerance to drought but they can also produce harmful mycotoxins, such as ergot alkaloids, particularly in certain conditions.
Ergot Alkaloids are most common in Perennial Ryegrass although they can occur in Paspalum, Phalaris, Triticale, Brome, Couch Grass, Crested Wheatgrass, Feather Grass, Fescue, Foxtail Grass, Orchard Grass, Red Top, Timothy, Wheat, Barley, Oat and wild grasses.
Symptoms of Ergot Alkaloid Toxicosis (Ergotism) include lameness, tremors, loss of coordination and gangrene. In rare cases it can be fatal. Grass infected with ergot can be identified by the presence of long black or purple structures where the seeds should be. Pregant mares and foals are especially susceptible to ergot alkaloids.
Fescue is prone to toxicity when infected with the Acremonium coenophialum endophyte, which is not visually identifiable. It is particularly detrimental to pregnant mares and young foals.
Regular testing is advised. If your pasture is dominated by endophyte-infected grass, you may need to consult a local agronomist for advice on pasture management.
Grain Legumes and Pulses such as Broad Beans, Chickpeas, Lima Beans and Red Kidney Beans contain lectins and other harmful substances. They should not be fed raw. Crushing and soaking in boiling water for 2 hours is advised. They are also high in protein so should be fed in small quantities as an occasional treat or not at all.
Grass containing high concentrations of non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) can be unsafe for donkeys. Levels of NSC are highest when the grass has gone to seed, when there are large amounts of weeds, when grass is stressed due to drought conditions or cold nights below 40°F. Dead or dying pasture will also have high NSC levels.
Mushrooms are not safe for donkeys.
Oxalate Grasses contain chemicals, known as soluble oxalates, which can lead to the depletion of calcium levels in the body. Oxalate grasses include Brachiaria (Signal grass), Buffel, Guinea, Kikuyu, Pangola, Para and Setaria grasses.
If your pasture is dominated by these grasses, grazing for longer than one month is not advisable, particularly when grass is fast-growing, and it is important to provide calcium and phosphorus supplements.
Symptoms of chronic oxalate-related poisoning include colic, diarrhoea, lameness and swelling of the head (Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism or Big Head syndrome).
Veterinary care should be sought immediately if you suspect poisoning of any kind.
Worming Your Donkey
Equines are prone to different types of worm, which emerge at different times of the year. Therefore worming checks are required every few months. To check for roundworm, a feacal egg count is carried out. You can send a dung sample to your vet, who will charge around £10, or to The Donkey Sanctuary, who will check it for free.
You may need to separate your donkeys for a few hours before collecting dung so that you can be sure which dung belongs to which donkey. Wearing rubber gloves, take a small pinch from a few nuggets from each donkey to get a good cross section. Once the faecal count is done, your vet will advise you on what, if any, worming treatment is needed, although it will cheaper to do the actual worming yourself.
Tests often come back negative and it is not advisable to administer worming treatment that is not needed as this will build up resistance. It’s not possible to test for Tapeworm so worming for this is required for every 6 months. Worms are more prevalent in spring, summer and autumn. In winter the cold tends to kill them off. The ideal time for testing is going into winter and going into spring.
Guide to Worming Your Donkey The Donkey Sanctuary
Monitoring Your Donkey’s Weight
Body Condition Check
Use your hands to check the neck, sides, back and hindquarters for overall body condition. Feels for prominence of bones, muscle development, skin condition, irregular fatty deposits and any unusual lumps and bumps which may require further investigation.
Heart Girth Measurement
Pass the tape measure around the girth area of the donkey near the heart at the back of the front legs, to monitor the donkey’s weight. An increase or decrease in measurement of 1 cm equates to approximately 5 kilos of weight. An average donkey in the UK weighs about 180kg.
Monitoring Your Donkey’s Weight and Condition The Donkey Sanctuary
“Horses, ponies, donkeys, mules and zebras must have an equine passport, even if they never leave their field. This is applicable across the United Kingdom. The legislation states that owners or keepers with the primary responsibility for the care of the horse, have a legal duty to ensure that the horse is correctly identified.” British Horse Society
Every equine in France must hold a valid passport issued or overstamped by the HARAS NATIONAUX.
Please note: The information on this page should only be used in conjunction with professional advice. For matters relating to the health and wellbeing of your donkey, you should always consult a qualified vet.
Copyright 2016 Amy Swift