“Spoil your donkey with love, not treats”, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, USA
It can be really hard not to overindulge your donkeys. When they look at you longingly with those big brown eyes and impossibly sweet faces, you just want to give them all the goodies their hearts desire…
Given half a chance, donkeys will enjoy a fantastic array of munchies, from your basic apples and carrots, to peppermints, parsley, pretzels, gingersnaps, crackers, bananas, watermelon, oranges, pears, sweet potato, liquorice and even Weetabix. Some will even happily wash it all down with a nice cold beer!
However, before we get completely carried away, let’s remember, donkeys started out as desert dwellers, able to survive on little more than woody plants and shrubs. They have extremely efficient digestive systems and can extract every last bit of nutrition from what they eat. This means that snacks that are suitable for humans and even for other equines, are often not suitable for donkeys.
New donkey owners are often surprised at just how easily their donkeys can gain weight, especially in places with temperate climates and an abundance of lush green grass. Overweight and obese donkeys are vulnerable to serious health problems such as laminitis, founder, joint problems, liver disease and metabolic disorders.
It’s also true that if your donkey gets lots of treats, he can become agitated when he doesn’t get them, or develop unwanted aggressive behaviour, seeing people as nothing more than a source of food.
So, what’s the best way to treat your donkey, without turning him into an ill-mannered and unhealthy podger?
Fruit and veg (apples, pears, watermelon, oranges, bananas, carrots, turnips, sweet potato, squash and swedes – including skins and rinds) are healthy and will add variety to your donkey’s diet.
Offer different treats to keep life interesting. Add a dash of cinnamon to vegetables to make them extra tempting. Put fruit in a bucket of water for bobbing fun, or freeze it to make iced snacks on a hot day.
Donkeys at RSPCA Lockwood in Surrey enjoying some refreshing watermelon (turn up the volume for slurping noises):
Video used with kind permission of RSPCA Lockwood
How Much to Give
A handful (one or two pieces) a day is generally thought to be a reasonable amount. Cut carrots into 2″ strips to avoid choking and cut apples into wedges. If you have an older donkey without many teeth, you can grate or mash apple or carrot and feed it as a treat or mix it in with their daily mulch. It’s not advisable to hand feed foals as this can encourage biting and, in any case, they really don’t need treats.
Never give too much in one go as this can cause colic. The golden rule is everything in moderation. Some owners would say once a day is too much, preferring to limit treats to every other day, every few days or no more than once a week.
It also depends on the age, temperament, condition and weight of your donkey as well as how much exercise he gets. A working or active donkey will burn more calories than one who doesn’t move around much. If your donkey is already overweight you need to cut treats right back, or out altogether, until his weight is normal.
What to Avoid
Cereal grains such as oats and barley are are high in starch and sugar so give sparingly or not at all. If using rationed amounts for donkeys who require extra nutrition, grains should be crimped, cracked or rolled (not whole). Avoid sugary biscuits, bread and cake and never feed meat or dairy products – animal protein can be fatal to donkeys.
Onions, leeks, garlic, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower), anything from the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergine), stoned fruit and chocolate are also to be avoided.
Donkeys are natural foragers and will enjoy munching on Huckleberry, Wild Thyme, Lettuce, Mint, Fennel, Brambles, Thistles, Cow Parsley, carrot tops, celeriac, apple and lime leaves, Field Maple branches, Bamboo, Raspberry Cane, Palm leaves, Salal Berry, Oregon Grape or whatever the local hedgerows have to offer.
Alder, Birch, Blackberry, Blackthorn, Clover, Dogrose, Dogwood, Gorse, Hawthorn, Hazel, Heather, Poplar, Quickthorn, Rosa Rugosa, Sweet Briar Rose, Garden Vetch and Willow (in limited quantities) are also safe according to The Donkey Sanctuary. Just watch out for plants that are poisonous to donkeys.
RSPCA Lockwood Centre for Donkeys and Horses provides lots of environmental enrichment for their resident herd of donkeys. At Donkey Treat Time grooms place an array of items in and around the barn for the donkeys to play with. Treats are hidden inside hanging buckets with holes in the bottom, willow logs and piles of straw.
Donkeys love stripping the bark from willow logs and other branches and will enjoy investigating scented oils and mineral licks (only use licks made for Equines, not for other livestock).
Try scattering dried herbs on the ground for them to explore, or leave out a bucket of lukewarm fruit or herbal tea for them to sniff, lick or drink. If you’re feeling really adventurous, hay can be steamed with peppermint infused water and equine play balls can be scented with ginger to make them more interesting.
Place treats at distances to encourage your donkeys to walk, or inside objects so that they have to work to retrieve them. Milk bottles, old tyres and cardboard boxes make great hiding places. See my 10 Easy Enrichment Ideas for Donkeys.
If you’re training your donkey using food rewards, break them into small pieces so that they last longer. You also don’t want your donkey to have to stop and chew as this will disrupt your timing and flow.
Low sugar treats such as hay pellets and broken hay cubes work well as do Mini Wheats, Cheerios, animal cracker pieces and carrot sticks. Gingersnaps, peppermints and crimped oats make great high value rewards but use them sparingly.
You can also try using verbal praise or scratching your donkey in his favourite spot instead. This often works surprisingly well.
What treats do your donkeys enjoy? Please comment below!
Feeding Donkeys A Donkey Diary
What to Feed Your Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary fact sheet
Safe Trees and Shrubs for Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary
Poisonous Plants and Trees The Donkey Sanctuary
Equine Enrichment Facebook Page
Please note: The information on this page is not a substitute for individual professional advice. For matters relating to the health and wellbeing of your donkey, you should always consult a qualified vet.
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift