Tuesdays with Tony
While my Springhill docs are out and about taking care of horses, they also see plenty of their long-eared cousins, the donkeys! Quite a few of our clients have donkeys. Sometimes they’re kept as pets, or companions to a horse, and sometimes they are used as guardians to keep other animals safe against predators. Whatever their role, donkeys need good care just like the rest of the herd. But their requirements are often misunderstood, even by well-intentioned owners.
Despite their similarities, donkeys are definitely not just small, long-eared horses. There are differences in their behavior, nutritional needs, and physiology that require owners to treat them differently from the horses they may be more familiar with. So, here’s some invaluable feline wisdom about the care that donkeys need, as well as some specific requirements that even experienced horse owners might not be aware of!
Routine Veterinary Care
My docs see many donkeys that aren’t vaccinated or dewormed. Sometimes their owners have no idea that their donkey needs it, even if they know their horses do. So let me tell you right now: yes, your donkey needs vaccines! Even if he never leaves the farm. Even if he has always seemed healthy. Mosquitoes and wildlife travel to your farm, and donkeys are susceptible to the same diseases as horses, so he’ll need a rabies vaccine once a year and a combo vaccine including Eastern and Western encephalitis, West Nile Virus, and tetanus twice a year.
Like horses, donkeys are susceptible to internal parasites, and if not dewormed, can build up large parasite loads. This can cause diarrhea, weight loss, poor hair coat, colic, or severe anemia. A fecal egg count will tell us what parasites are present, so we can recommend a deworming schedule for your donkey. Remember, we don’t do the old-fashioned method of rotating dewormers every 6 weeks anymore. For why not, see my extensive blogs on deworming.
Donkeys need yearly dental care, too. Dental disease is the second most common health problem in donkeys, after foot problems. Since donkeys are stoic and don’t like to show pain, don’t wait for them to show you signs of a problem, since by then there might be a BIG problem. Donkeys, like horses, have teeth that wear down constantly throughout their lives due to their continual grazing. They can develop sharp edges and uneven or overgrown teeth, that can cause pain and prevent them from being able to eat normally. So put your donkey on the same once-a-year dental schedule as your horse.
Donkeys evolved in the semi-arid parts of the world, where the ground is dry and stony. When they are kept on grassy, moist pasture (ahem, Florida) a donkey’s feet absorb much more water than what they are adapted for. As a result, their feet can soften and become prone to diseases such as thrush, hoof abscesses, or white line disease. These are very common issues for donkeys in our climate, and proper care is needed to avoid foot problems. Keep your donkey’s paddock clean and remove manure regularly. You may need to give him a break from wet or muddy pasture during wetter times of the year. Providing a clean, dry, bedded stall where he can stand for part of the day can help to dry out his feet. Pick out his hooves frequently to remove dirt and manure and keep an eye out for changes in his hoof structure.
Yes, donkeys need their hooves trimmed on a regular schedule, too! My docs have met owners that don’t know this is necessary. Donkey hooves grow continually and don’t wear down on the type of ground we house them on. However, donkey hooves are quite different from horse hooves, so you’ll want to find a farrier who is familiar with the differences. A donkey’s hoof is approximately 5-10 degrees more upright than a horse’s hoof, and the shape of the hoof and sole is different.
For routine farrier care, a 6-8 week schedule is sufficient. If your donkey has foot problems, more frequent visits might be necessary until the feet are back in good condition. It’s very, very important to train your donkey to have his feet handled and trimmed. If your donkey only has his feet touched during farrier visits, he may be scared and stressed by the process. Donkeys can kick hard and accurately, and a good farrier is hard to find, so make sure you work with your donkey beforehand so that it’s a positive experience for everyone.
Obesity is one of the most common problems my docs see in donkeys (and me, if I’m being honest). Donkeys evolved to live in dry landscapes with sparse vegetation. They are very efficient at digesting fibrous, poor quality plant material that horses couldn’t survive on. In their natural habitat, donkeys often walk considerable distances throughout the day to find small amounts of forage. This is a very different lifestyle than the rich grassy pastures of many Florida farms, where barely any walking is needed to find the next bite. It’s the donkey equivalent of sitting on the couch and eating Bon-Bons all day.
It can be a challenge to control a donkey’s weight in our area. Many people want to turn their donkeys out on the same lush pastures as their horses, which is an immediate recipe for donkey obesity and health problems. Over-feeding of hay and grain is also common. Horse owners may be used to feeding the products their horses thrive on and want to treat their donkey just as well. We’re glad you love your donkey! But no, he doesn’t need the alfalfa hay and pelleted feed that your horse eats, no matter what he tells you! It’s a lot easier and safer to prevent obesity in donkeys than to put him on a diet if he’s already in an unhealthy state, so be really careful with this.
A well-balanced, high fiber diet is best for your donkey. Give him limited grass to graze and a fibrous hay such as coastal or Teff. Donkeys can also be fed barley straw. Legume hays such as alfalfa or peanut are too rich. Your donkey definitely doesn’t need lots of grain. A small amount of ration balancer to provide vitamins and minerals will suffice. Provide a salt lick and free choice clean water. Only sick, underweight, or old donkeys need any additional feeding, so talk to my doc if you think that’s the case.
The tricky part is feeding an appropriate amount of calories while also satisfying his need to graze continuously for most of the day and move around. If your donkey can’t find some forage to chew, he may resort to chewing your fences or barn, or develop stomach ulcers. You may need to use slow feeders or hay nets with small holes to keep him entertained without increasing food intake. This may take some creativity!
Spend time with your donkey to get him used to being handled. Train him to wear a halter and be led. Make sure you can catch him when you need to. Pick up his feet and get him used to having them handled for hoof trims. When handled regularly and kindly, donkeys can be easy to work with and fun companions. But if they are never touched, they will be wary of humans, and farrier and vet visits will be difficult. Do your homework ahead of time and it will be much easier!
More Differences Between Donkey and Horse Care
In the wild, donkeys evolved the behavior of wanting to appear strong and healthy to reduce the chance of attracting a predator’s attention. They use this stoic behavior as a defense mechanism, but this doesn’t mean they don’t experience pain or get sick like a horse would. They just don’t show it, which means if your donkey isn’t acting right, he’s probably sicker than he looks. If your donkey is unusually quiet or not eating well, he requires immediate veterinary care. A donkey’s cough reflex is also more insensitive that a horse’s, so respiratory disease may be severe before it is noticed. Donkeys are at particular risk of a problem called hepatic lipidosis, which can occur due to other illnesses, stress, or decreased food intake. Hepatic lipidosis is very dangerous and can be fatal, so if your donkey isn’t eating for any reason, he should be checked for it. Yes, this includes during weight-loss programs, so remember it’s easier to prevent obesity than to treat it!
Our Springhill Wellness Plans include all the routine care your donkey needs, and as always, my docs are happy to give you personalized advice for your herd. Tell ‘em I sent you.
Until next week,
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Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at SpringhillEquine.com, or follow us on Facebook!