Donkey Care

Donkey body condition check
Wendy Osborn, Donkey Guardian


Health & Welfare

DONKEY SANCTUARY MASTER LOGO CMYK_v2 redThe 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.

Back to the top

The Five Freedoms 

The Five Freedoms outline five aspects of animal welfare under human control. They were developed in response to a 1965 UK Government report on livestock husbandry, and were formalized in 1979 press statement by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council. The Five Freedoms have been adopted by professional groups including veterinarians, and organizations including the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The five freedoms as currently expressed are:

  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area 
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

Back to the top

Donkey Enrichment

Enrichment Ideas for Donkeys
Donkeys with willow log and treat bucket, RSPCA Lockwood

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Carve little wells in willow logs and fill with treats or scented oils.
  10. 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.

Back to the top

Donkey Hoof Care

Donkey Hoof Checks
Mark Kerr, Donkey Welfare Adviser, carrying out hoof checks

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:

Correctly Trimmed Donkey Hooves
Photos: Rachel Karneffel, Donkey Trainer, Foghorn Farm Donkey Training, USA
Donkey Hooves Well Trimmed
Photo: Lauren Lesko Paytes, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, USA

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 article, published by

Back to the top

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
Donkey Dental Check

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. 

Back to the top

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.

Back to the top

Feeding Donkeys

Feeding Donkeys
Donkey tea time at Lockwood Centre for Donkeys and Horses

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.

Barley Straw
Barley Straw


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 with good teeth.

Linseed straw is not suitable as the seed is poisonous to donkeys.

Hay Bales


Hay is 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.

Levels of nutrients, protein, sugar, non-structural carbohydrates, mycotoxins and nitrate levels in hay can vary a lot so testing is advised. You can either send a sample to a lab or carry out your own tests using a hay probe.

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 high in energy so may need to be mixed with straw.

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 three 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 taken from early cut semi-wilted grass and is more nutritious than hay, so should be fed more sparingly.


What Should I Feed My Donkeys? Donkey Care Q&A

What Treats Can I Give My Donkeys? Donkey Care Q&A

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 

Back to the top

Toxicity in Plants:

Annual Ryegrass Toxicity is caused by the bacterium Rathayibacter toxicus. Symptoms include tremors, weakness and drooling. Infected grass can be identified by a orange-yellow secretion on the seed heads. Good pasture management and buying from a reputable distributor will help prevent toxicity. In you need to carry out your own tests, your local agricultural agent will have a list of laboratories.

Bran is high in phosphorus levels and can lead to the depletion of calcium levels.

Clover along with Alfalfa, Lespedezia, Soybean and Lupins have been known to be infected with the Rhizoctonia leguminicola fungus, which can cause Slarframine poisoning if consumed in large quantities. Symptoms 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.

Ergot Alkaloid Toxicity affects blood flow and is caused by endophytic fungi from the Clavicipitaceae family. Symptoms include tremors and loss of coordination. In rare cases it can be fatal. It is particularly detrimental to pregnant mares.

Ergot Alkaloid Toxicity is most common in Perennial Rye Grass and Triticale but can affect Brome Grass, Feather Grass, Foxtail Grass, Couch Grass, Orchard Grass, Crested Wheatgrass, Red Top, Fescue, Timothy, Wheat, Barley, Oat and wild grasses.

Grass infected with ergot can be identified by the presence of long black or purple structures where the seeds should be. Good pasture management will help prevent infestations. Perennial Rye Grass seed for pasture should be certified endophyte-free.

Fescue Toxicosis is caused by ingesting Tall Fescue infected with the Ergoline alkaloid, produced by the Tall Fescue endophyte. The endophyte helps the grass perform well in the hot climate of southern USA but can be dangerous for pregnant or lactating mares and foals. Mixing fescue with other grasses helps reduce the risk of toxicity. It is not possible to visually identify fescue toxicosis so testing is advised.

The Ergoline Alkaloid is more likely to be a problem if Tall Fescue is grazed or harvested under high soil nitrogen or drought conditions and if it makes up more than half of the diet. Tall Fescue performs well without endophytes in the cooler climates of northern USA and Europe, where varieties are generally endophyte-free. 

Indole-diterpene Alkaloids when present in endophyte-infected Perennial Ryegrass, consumed in large quantities, can cause the neurotoxic condition known as ‘Ryegrass Staggers’. This is most likely if soil nitrogen levels are high and in drought conditions. Lolitrem B testing is advised.

Grain Legumes and Pulses such as Broad Beans, Chickpeas, Lima Beans and Red Kidney Beans can contain lectins and other harmful substances. They should not be fed raw. Crushing and soaking in boiling water for 2 hours is advised.

Oxolate Grasses contain chemicals that can lead to the depletion of calcium levels in the body. Oxolate grasses include Brachiaria (Signal grass), Buffel, Guinea, Pangola, Panic, Papa, Kikuyu and Setaria grasses. If your pasture is dominated by these grasses, it is important to provide calcium supplements. Symptoms of chronic oxolate-related poisoning include colic, diarrhoea, lameness and swelling of the head (Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism or Big Head syndrome).

Yellow Ragwort
Yellow Ragwort Photo:

Poisonous Plants

Poisonous plants often do not 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.

The level of risk also depends on the type of toxin(s) present in the plant, plant growth stage, the amount and part of the plant eaten, the season, environmental factors and the age and health of the donkey.

Ragwort is responsible for a large proportion of poisoning cases in the UK. It is highly toxic and needs to be completely removed. Click here for guidance on identifying and controlling Ragwort.

For a list of plants that are poisonous to donkeys, see Safe Plants for Donkeys.

Veterinary care should be sought immediately if you suspect poisoning of any kind.

Back to the top

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 

Back to the top

Monitoring Your Donkey’s Weight

Donkey Body Condition Check


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.

Donkey Heart Girth Measurement
Mark Kerr carrying out a Heart Girth Measurement

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

Back to the top

Donkey Passports

Donkey Passport
Donkey Breed Society Equine Passport



“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


Donkey Breed Society Passport Information

British Horse Society Passport Information

Government Passport Information



Every equine in France must hold a valid passport issued or overstamped by the HARAS NATIONAUX.


Equine Rescue France Passport Information

Back to the top

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 2016 Amy Swift