DONKEY CARE Q&A
What Should I Feed My Donkeys?
Donkeys originated in the desert. They have extremely efficient digestive systems and easily gain weight on lush green pasture. All donkeys require a diet that is high in fibre and low in sugar and starch. They are natural grazers and need to eat small amounts throughout the day. Periods of hunger can lead to hyperlipaemia and eating large amounts in one go can cause colic. Little and often is best. Being overweight can lead to a host of serious health problems, including laminitis, founder, arthritis, liver disease and metabolic disorders.
Donkeys need a diet of straw, topped up with grass or hay/haylage, supplementary vitamins and minerals and clean water. Barley Straw is ideal as it is less fibrous and easier to chew than wheat straw and has fewer calories than oat straw. If straw is unavailable, The Donkey Sanctuary suggests haylage such as High Fibre or Timothy Horshage and for donkeys with poor teeth, 2-3kg per day of Mollichaf Donkey. An unmolassed equine specific vitamin or mineral/salt lick (or granules) should be accessible at all times. Clean water that is not too cold must always be available.
If added vitamins, minerals and micronutrients are required, for example, if your donkey is on very restricted grazing and eating mainly straw and hay, you can feed a small daily amount of balancer. For a straw only diet, The Donkey Sanctuary recommends Top Spec Donkey Forage Balancer fed at 100g per 100 kg bodyweight per day.
According to The Donkey Sanctuary, Barley Straw should make up 75% of your donkey’s diet in spring and summer and 50% in winter. It can be available in a straw feeder at all times, or if this is not possible, fed several times a day. At the end of each day, any uneaten straw can be used for bedding as fresh straw must be provided each day.
Feeders should be at floor level, in a bin to avoid soiling. This allows donkeys to eat in their natural posture, which is better for their digestion, breathing and eyes. Some older donkeys have trouble bending down and may benefit from a slightly raised feeder – just make sure it is comfortable for them when the feeder is both full and almost empty.
If your donkeys are on green pasture, their grazing should be restricted. The best way to do this is to fence off small sections and rotate grazing areas. If your donkeys are on dry lots throughout the year or during winter months, you will need to feed them more hay.
What is the best hay to use?
The ideal feed for donkeys is grass hay. The type available will depend on where you live. In the UK, meadow hay (made from grass grown on old pasture) or seed hay (made from grasses such as rye or timothy) are good options. In America you will find orchard, timothy, brome, Bermuda and fescue hay, among others. Legume hay, such as alfalfa, is not suitable as it contains too much protein.
Hay should be dust, mould and grain free and freshly cut hay should be stored in a dry barn for at least 2 months before feeding. Low quality, late cut hay has lower energy values and is therefore suitable for donkeys. Sue Weaver has written a comprehensive guide on which type of hay to use, which cut to go for, how to store it, what to look out for and alternatives to use when hay is in short supply, in The Donkey Companion.
Feeding old or sick donkeys or those with poor teeth
As your donkeys age, they may struggle to chew straw, grass and hay. One clear sign of this is quidding (dropping half-chewed food). There are several hay replacement products on the market, such as Mollichaff Donkey. These should be freely available or fed several times a day. For an even softer feed, you can soak high fibre cubes, such as Saracens Donkey Diet or TopSpec FibrePlus Cubes, in lukewarm water until sloppy. If your donkey is able to chew little or no fibre, this mixture can be mashed up with a forage balancer and fed once or twice a day, to provide extra protein, vitamins and minerals.
You may find your donkey is not keen on this new diet and is reluctant to eat. To make the mulch more tempting, you can try adding small amounts of grated carrots or apples, mashed tinned carrots, unmolassed sugar beet, such as Speedibeet (no more than 250g at a time) or a drop of peppermint cordial.
Feeding underweight donkeys
Before making dietary changes, your donkey should be examined by an equine vet and dentist, to rule out or treat any underlying health issues. You also need to carry out faecal egg count tests and ensure your donkey is wormed as necessary. Any changes to the diet of an underweight donkey must be made gradually, to avoid upsetting the digestive system.
The Donkey Sanctuary says,
“For particularly underweight donkeys it may be useful to add small quantities of alfalfa to the diet as this has a higher level of protein. Alfalfa can be added to the diet in a short chop form (e.g. Mollichaff Hoofkind or Hi Fi Lite) or alternatively alfalfa pellets can be fed (e.g. Fibre Beet which must be soaked prior to feeding). A forage balancer such as Top Spec Comprehensive would be a good addition to the diet of an underweight donkey and will provide essential protein, vitamins and minerals that will aid weight gain.“
Feeding overweight donkeys
As with any changes to your donkey’s diet, getting him to lose weight should be done gradually. The Donkey Sanctuary recommend weight loss of no more than 5kg per month.
Grazing on grass should be severely restricted, with the majority of the diet made up of straw and topped up with hay. Avoid cereal based feeds as they are too high in starch and sugar. A forage balancer can be given to ensure he gets sufficient vitamins and minerals.
Increasing your donkey’s levels of activity will also help. Try placing feeders and water buckets at opposite ends of the pasture, to encourage him to walk to and fro. Provide environental enrichment such as logs to walk over and boxes to play with. If you can lead your donkey, take him out on walks.
Healthy foals only need their mother’s milk and forage/grazing until weaning. Post-weaning, The Donkey Sanctuary recommends a diet of ad lib straw alongside hay/haylage or grazing plus a balancer such as TopSpec Comprehensive to provide essential vitamins, minerals and protein for growth. This should be continued until maturity, at around 2 or 3 years old. Larger breeds take longer to mature.
Things to remember:
- Carry out regular dental checks to help your donkey get the most of out of his food.
- Monitor the weight and condition of your donkey closely and adjust diet accordingly.
- If your donkey is underweight, overweight, dropping partially-chewed food, not eating or showing any signs of being unwell, consult a professional equine vet and dentist in order to rule out or treat any underlying medical conditions.
- Any change to your donkey’s diet should be carried out gradually, over a period of four to six weeks.
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 Faith Burden, The Donkey Sanctuary
Feeding and Managing the Overweight Donkey The Donkey Sanctuary
Feeding and Managing the Underweight Donkey The Donkey Sanctuary
Feeding Youngsters and Broodmares The Donkey Sanctuary
Care of the Miniature Donkey Quarter Moon Ranch
You can find all products mentioned on the Donkey Equipment page.
What Treats Can I Give My Donkeys?
“Spoil your donkey with love, not treats”, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, USA
It can be really hard not to over indulge 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, 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, citrus fruit, bananas, carrots, turnips, sweet potato, squash, swedes and cabbage – 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 even more tempting. Add fruit to a bucket of water for bobbing fun. You’ll soon find out what your donkeys favourite goodies are.
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 with their daily mulch.
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 will also depend on the age, temperament, condition and weight of your donkey as well as how much exercise he gets. A working donkey, or one who does a lot of walking, will burn more calories than one who doesn’t move around much. If your donkey is already overweight or is showing signs such as fat pockets or a crusty neck, you need to cut treats right back, or out altogether until his weight is normal.
Cereal grains such as oats and barley are high in starch and sugar so a small handful of these should be given as an occasional treat, or not at all. Avoid sugary biscuits and bread and never give donkeys meat or dairy products – animal protein can be fatal to donkeys. Avoid potatoes, anything from the brassica family (onions, leeks, garlic) and stoned fruit, as it can cause choking.
Providing enrichment is a great way to prevent boredom (and chewing on fence posts). Donkeys are natural foragers and will enjoy munching on Huckleberry, Wild Thyme, Lettuce, Mint, Fennel, Brambles, Nettles, Thistles, Hydrangea, Cow Parsley, Elder (leaves, flowers and berries), carrot tops, celeriac leaves and stalks, Ground Elder, Apple, Lime, Maple branches, Bamboo, Raspberry Cane, Palm leaves, Salal Berry, Oregon Grape or whatever the local hedgerows have to offer. Just watch out for plants that are poisonous to donkeys.
The Donkey Sanctuary lists the following as safe to feed your donkey: Alder, Birch, Blackberry, Blackthorn, Clover, Dogrose, Dogwood, Gorse, Hawthorn, Hazel, Heather, Quickthorn, Oak leaves, Poplar, Quickthorn, Raspberry, Rosa Rugosa, Sweet Briar Rose, Vetch and Willow (limited quantities).
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 or enrichment items at distances to encourage your donkey to walk, or inside objects so that they have to work to retrieve them. Milk bottles, buckets and cardboard boxes make great hiding places. See my 10 Easy Enrichment Ideas for Donkeys.
If you’re training your donkey and using food rewards, try using low sugar treats such as hay pellets or broken hay cubes. Breaking treats into small pieces will make them last longer. You can also try using verbal praise or scratching your donkey in his favourite spot instead. This often works surprisingly well.
Feeding Donkeys A Donkey Diary
What to Feed Your Donkeys The Donkey Sanctuary fact sheet
Do Donkeys and Dogs Get On?
Donkeys are prey animals. They can see dogs as a threat and act aggressively towards them. A donkey can chase, injure and even kill a dog. One kick or bite from your donkey could be enough to do serious damage. For this reason, many donkey owners simply never allow their dogs into their donkeys’ pasture.
While many families have dogs and donkeys who get on well (or at least tolerate each other), it will usually be the case that they have known each other since a young age, or that introductions have been made slowly and patiently, with the dog always supervised and on a leash. When introducing them for the first time, be prepared for the donkey to lunge at the dog.
Dogs should have restricted access to the donkeys’ area, especially for the first few weeks and they should only be allowed into the pasture together once you are sure they are getting on. The pasture is the donkeys’ space and they will protect their space by chasing the dog away. This is especially true of young male donkeys. The dog should eventually learn to respect the donkeys’ space and invade it with caution or not at all.
It will also depend on the donkey and the dog. You may have one donkey who is fine with dogs and another who isn’t. By the same token, some dogs seem to have a better understanding of how to behave in a non-threatening way around donkeys than others. It is worth bearing in mind that your donkey may get along with your dog but still be a danger to a dog he doesn’t know.
If your donkey is chasing your dog, don’t assume it’s a game. Your donkey is likely to be warning the dog off and you may need to remove the dog from the area quickly. Never leave any dog unattended with an equine, even if they normally get along fine.
Donkey Hoof Problems
Laminitis: If your donkey is limping, check the hoof and fetlock for heat. If both front feet are hot, it may be Laminitis, especially if the pulse is raised in both fronts. If you suspect Laminitis, you should call the vet immediately and ice the feet.
Abscess: If only one foot is lame, or hot, it could be a bruise or an abscess. You should call a vet or farrier, who can use a hoof tester to determine which it is. If it’s an abscess, The Dancing Donkey blogspot recommends wrapping Elastikon bandage tape around the hoof, with Magic Cushion under the wrap,
“The elastikon does get wet and looks awful very quick, but the MC forms a watertight seal over the sole so it does not matter. The bandage is really there to keep the magic cushion in place. It squishes down onto the sole like a form-fitting pad.”
Bruise: If your donkey has been walking on stony ground and has thin or flat soles, or if his feet have been over-trimmed, he may have a bruise. This will take care of itself over time. The vet may prescribe Bute. A bruise will often show up on the bottom of the sole as a purple, reddish colour after 4 or 5 days.
Hoof Trush: If the frog of the foot is soft, and producing a black substance with an unpleasant smell, this is Thrush. It is advisable to consult a vet before deciding on the right course of treatment. Some owners recommend the following:
- Dry Cow Tomorrow (a treatment for mastitis in cows)
- Thrush Buster / Purple Spray (for mild cases, apply to each hoof daily for 10 days, make sure you wear gloves or it will stain your hands purple)
- Dilute bleach and spray on the affected hoof
- Soak the hoof in epsom salts
- Keep the hoof clean and dry – put your donkey on a dry lot or inside. Before he goes out, wrap the hoof.
Mark Kerr, Donkey Welfare Adviser for The Donkey Sanctuary, treating hoof thrush with purple spray:
Wrapping the hoof: You can make a boot with a plastic bag and duct tape. Different wraps work best for different conditions. Read more in Wrapping the Hoof (link below), which includes step-by-step photos showing how to bandage the hoof.
Abscesses and Thrush are more likely to occur when the ground is wet or muddy. If your donkey is limping or showing any signs of pain, call the vet.
White Line Infection or Seedy Toe: Signs include include weak or chipped hoof walls, lameness, hollow sounding hoof when tapped, misshapen or bulging hoof, tender soles and a soft, cheese-like texture to the white line. Treatment involves removing the affected section of the hoof wall and keeping the hoof clean and dry.
Canker The Dancing Donkey blogspot
Wrapping the Hoof The Dancing Donkyey blogspot
Donkey Foot Care The Donkey Sanctuary
When to Rug Your Donkey
Donkeys are more resilient to harsh weather conditions than you might think. In winter they grow thick coats and can fluff them up to keep warm. Many owners avoid rugging, even in cold weather, unless their donkey is very old or very young, sick, underweight, has very fine fur, has recently been clipped, or is simply freezing cold, shivering and miserable.
Some owners only rug a healthy donkey if temperatures drop as low as -25 or 30. On a regular, cold, sunny, winter’s day, most prefer not to. Again, older donkeys or those in poor condition may benefit from a rug. Rugs with fillings are best for keeping your donkey warm.
Donkeys need access to shelter as their coats are not waterproof and, while most will take cover when it’s wet, some like to stay out in the rain, so may need a rug. Lightweight rugs are fine if you just want to keep the rain off. You don’t want a rug that’s too warm as this will cause your donkey to sweat, which can lead to rain scald.
You should remove the rug at least once a day and brush out the coat before putting it back on. Wet rugs need to be changed for dry ones and it’s important to keep an eye on your donkey’s condition. Donkeys can lose weight quickly, especially in winter months.
A bit of extra feed can help, according to Rachel Karneffel of Foghorn Farm Donkey Training:
“Another way to help keep your donkey warm is to make sure they can eat many small meals throughout the day and night, the stemmier the hay the better. The digestive process, especially digesting stemmier forage, creates heat in the gut and therefore warms the donkey. Chewing straw on cold nights can help as well. We go out and feed on nasty nights at around 2 am in addition to regular meals”.
Rachel also recommends using a water tank heater when it’s very cold. Donkeys are not keen on icy water but it’s important that they drink.
So, to rug or not to rug? All in all, this is definitely something to decide on a case by case basis. It’s good to have well-fitting rugs ready in case you ever need them. A sudden drop in temperature, severe weather or illness may mean you need to rug your donkey.
For suppliers of donkey rugs, visit my Donkey Equipment page.
The Big Blanket Debate Fogorn Farm Donkey Training
Care of Your Donkeys Through the Winter The Donkey Sanctuary
How to Stop Donkeys Chewing Fences
Are your donkeys chewing your barn to pieces? Is their shelter about to collapse because they’ve eaten right through the supports? Are they unstoppable wood monsters? Here are some things you can try…
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that donkeys are naturally inclined to enjoy chewing on trees, logs, branches and roots and will derive nutrition from them. Aside from this, there are other reasons why your donkeys might be chewing the fence posts.
Your donkeys may be deficient in certain nutrients. Make sure they always have access to a salt block / mineral lick or loose minerals, or both (some donkeys find granules easier). They will eat as much as they need. Just make sure you get equine specific licks or granules (those meant for other livestock can be harmful to donkeys).
They may be feeling worried. A donkey may start chewing on fencing after losing a close companion. Cribbing, where a donkey takes a door or post between his teeth and sucks in air, is not the same as chewing and is more commonly associated with stress. However, stress or grief may cause your donkey to chew more.
Boredom can be a big factor in donkeys chewing. Provide them with plenty of environmental enrichment. Toys are an effective and simple way of keeping them entertained. Rubber hoses with the metal removed, big dog ropes, traffic cones, jolly balls, basket balls and plastic barrels all make great toys. Put treats inside an equine treat dispenser ball, an old tyre, wellington boot or even milk bottles hung from a line. Vary their toys regularly to keep life interesting.
You can also give your donkeys logs to chew on (it’s one way to use up branches left over from trimming trees or storm damage). It’s best to remove logs once the bark is all gone. They will probably lose interest after that anyway but there is a danger that the wood chips can become lodged in the digestive tract.
Slow feed hay nets or hay pillows will keep them feeding for longer, leaving less time to munch on fencing.
You can try treating the wood with something that your donkeys won’t like. Laundry soap, Irish Spring Soap, hoof oil, vinegar and cayenne pepper have all been known to work.
“My donkeys had decided to start chewing the barn….I was given a tip…..rub the wood with Irish Spring Bar soap…..I did, and now they WILL NOT even look at the wood on the walls. It really does work, and you don’t need a lot of it.” Corrie Wilkinson, Canada.
Or you can get serious with paint-on products such as wood preservatives, paint or motor oil but some of these contain toxic substances that will be harmful if consumed by your donkeys. There are various anti-chew products for equines on the market, such as EQyss McNasty Anti-Chewing Spray.
Sometimes, whatever you do, nothing prevents donkeys chewing. If this is the case, you may need to resort to drastic measures. Trees and posts can be wrapped in chicken wire or mesh, although depending on how determined your donkeys are, it might not last long. Wooden boards can be covered in metal sheeting, although you need to be careful that you don’t end up with any sharp edges.
It could be that building a metal barn is the only solution. Wooden kick boards are still a good idea, with metal along the top.
You can find suppliers of stable, fencing, enrichment, slow feed and anti-chew products on my Donkey Equipment page.
Donkey Saddles and Riding
Donkeys should not carry more than 20% of their own body weight. For a standard donkey, the recommended weight limit is 8 stone. Donkeys should not be ridden until they are at least four years old, even by children.
Finding the Right Saddle
An ideal saddle for a standard donkey will be around 15″ but this will vary depending on the type of saddle. There are Western, English, leather and synthetic saddles available. The trick is finding one that fits your donkey’s back. A saddle with good padding on either side is ideal as this will keep pressure off the spine. The girth should be nice and wide and made of soft material so as not to cut into the donkey’s skin. Donkey’s backs and withers are very flat, so a crupper is recommended to stop the saddle moving or sliding forward during riding.
Fitting the Saddle
“The saddle should be placed on the withers and gently slid back into position so that the hair on the donkey’s back lies flat. The saddle should sit level on the donkey’s back with spine clearance and be wide enough so as not to pinch at the shoulders. Take care that the saddle is not too large as this will pivot the rider’s weight onto the loins (the weakest part of the back). A numnah or saddle pad can be used to keep the underside of the saddle clean. Ensure that it is pulled up into the gullet of the saddle when on the donkey and removed and washed regularly.” Elisabeth D Svendsen MBE, The Complete Book of the Donkey.
To be safely ridden, a donkey needs to be in good health and not easily startled. Ideally, your donkey will have been ridden before and be happy wearing a saddle. If not, it is important to get your donkey used to wearing the saddle before riding is attempted. Once the saddle is on, lead your donkey on a short walk, giving them lots of praise. Repeat this over a few sessions. Once you are sure that your donkey is happy wearing a saddle you can begin riding.
When starting a child riding, it’s best to start in the donkey’s normal field. A parent or guardian should walk alongside with their hand on the child’s back and be ready to whip the child off if anything goes wrong. Stirrups are not recommended as if the child falls, their feet can get caught in them. The child should always wear a well-fitting safety helmet that conforms to industry safety standards.
Encourage the child to sit in a relaxed, upright position, holding onto the handle at the front of the saddle. Start with short amounts of time and build up slowly as the child gains confidence and as long as the donkey is happy.
Saddle Fit calkinsart.net
Donkey Saddle esel-online.de
Saddle Fit for Donkeys Alberta Donkey and Mule Club
The Complete Book of the Donkey Elisabeth D Svendsen MBE (Kenilworth Press, 2009)
The Donkey Companion Sue Weaver (Storey Publishing, 2008)
Horse Rider Safety Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents
Donkey Equipment (lists of suppliers of saddles and tack for donkeys)
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 equine veterinarian.
Copyright 2016 Amy Swift