Although donkeys share ancestral origins with horses, they have evolved differently over many millennia, something of real relevance to owners and to vets.

Readers are familiar with the range of signs presented by truly sick horses. Thoroughbreds may behave violently when affected by even moderate abdominal pain (colic); horses might appear at death’s door only to respond rapidly to treatment. Donkeys show disease in a more modest way; they have evolved to mask weakness from would-be predators. Instead of fighting millions of years of evolution, we need to develop better skills, be more observant, and read the signs better. The dull donkey is often a genuine veterinary emergency.

Treatment programme

Donkeys are often accused of ‘hiding’ disease, slipping below the radar and overlooked in any vaccination or treatment programme. For instance, lungworm. Donkeys are less likely to cough when infested; horses grazing alongside have the same disease, they just show it more obviously. It’s not so much donkeys’ fault as ours; the signs are subtle; we need to be more ready to have the lab analyse samples as an aid to diagnosis (always using a reference range for donkeys).

Conversely, donkeys are very susceptible to stress and commonly suffer severely from its effects. They often pair-bond strongly, resenting and mourning any separation. If one of a pair needs to be euthanised, leave the remains with the surviving companion for a few hours. Don’t be alarmed if this adjustment phase is noisy and the survivor seemingly intent on ‘awakening’ the fallen companion. And watch carefully if donkeys, especially fat ones, lose their appetite – failure to feed leads to potentially life-threatening disease.

Arid lands

When feeding donkeys, think of them as an efficient indoor wood-burning stove; the TB is an open air bonfire! Adult donkeys have evolved to live on sparse, arid lands, not on lush Irish pastures.

They are adapted to walk long distance wearing down hooves, seeking and then extracting nutrients from high fibre, low quality foods. If not working but instead gorging, their feet grow dramatically long and they lay down body fat. They have a gut unsuited to high carbohydrate diets; are browsers as much as grazers; and are relatively thirst-resistant. Thus, life-threatening hyperlipaemia and gut impactions are relatively common.

Donkey owners should be aware of particular needs, e.g.

  • For shelter from inclement, especially wet, weather – donkeys’ coats are not dense and oily like native ponies’ coats.
  • For routine dental care – donkeys often suffer painful dental abnormalities; this is a major underlying cause of gut impactions.
  • for regular farriery - especially if underfoot condition are wet - donkey hooves have a more sponge-like elastic nature and curl rather than crack and break.
  • For fibre – donkeys have a more efficient metabolism extracting, utilising and storing maximum energy from seemingly indigestive materials. Barley straw (with ad lib water) is a great feed for non-working donkeys in good dental health.
  • Donkeys are different – they are not small horses with big ears! We should aim to keep and feed; prevent, detect and treat disease in donkeys – as donkeys.