Owning any animal can be both challenging and rewarding. Although they have a reputation for being stubborn, donkeys can make great additions to an animal herd. But owners should first understand what it takes to keep them healthy before buying one.
Dr. Isabelle Louge, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says donkeys flourish in dry climates because they are native to the desert environments of Northeast Africa.
“In wet conditions without shelter, donkeys can easily develop rain rot, a bacterial skin infection that leads to scabs and hairless spots; scratches, an inflammatory skin condition that leads to skin breaks on their legs and is caused by a mix of bacteria, fungi, and parasites; and thrush, a bacterial and fungal infection that can cause damage to hooves,” Louge explained.
Because of this, owners should provide donkeys with access to fenced, dry areas without mud that are sheltered from the rain. These areas should also not have grass.
“Fresh grass and high-quality hay often have sugar levels that exceed the donkey’s natural ability to process it,” Louge said. “Because the donkey is meant to live in conditions with very little fresh greenery to eat, they are not prepared to take on that much sugar.”
Excessive sugar causes the release of insulin — a hormone that determines the amount of sugar in the blood — which can increase the risk of metabolic issues. Such issues, according to Louge, include equine metabolic syndrome, a disorder characterized by inappropriate insulin levels that can lead to laminitis, a severe and sometimes irreversible lameness.
“Excess sugar also leads to obesity, which can further increase the risk of equine metabolic syndrome and lameness,” Louge said. “The majority of health issues that I see in donkeys are metabolic issues and lameness from inappropriate diets, but fibrous diets can help prevent these health issues in donkeys by reducing their sugar intake.”
In addition to having a dry habitat and high-fiber, low-sugar diet, donkeys need fresh, clean water — to prevent dehydration and the risk of heat stress — and mineral supplements. Louge said lactating, pregnant, or working donkeys may also need supplemental nutrition depending on their veterinarian’s recommendations.
“Mineral supplements for horses are appropriate for donkeys as long as they do not contain extra sugar, yet it is always good to check with your local veterinarian about the specific mineral deficiencies common in your geographic area, as these can vary widely,” Louge explained.
Nevertheless, Louge strongly encourages all owners to form a relationship with a veterinarian and a farrier early on so that their donkeys can receive routine health checkups, vaccinations, dental work, and hoof trims.
Donkeys also benefit from exercise, regular turnout (or the ability to run and play in their paddock), and training for tricks, riding, and packing; however, donkeys can be stubborn, which can make these activities difficult. Louge said this is because donkeys tend to be cautious and will stand their ground if they think moving will put them in danger.
In this case, Louge encourages owners to use positive reinforcement since punishing donkeys will make them fearful rather than compliant.
“If a donkey is hesitating to complete a task, try incentivizing them with a few treats or a favorite activity,” Louge said. “While hay and grass can be dangerous when used as the main component of a donkey’s diet, it can be fed as treats in very small portions. Other safe treats that can be given in moderation during training include carrots, fresh mint leaves, or apples, but try not to give them more than a small handful-sized portion of these treats per day.”
Owners can also break down tasks into smaller sections while still rewarding any progress, as this can help the donkey better understand the task and allow them to relax and perform.
“If a donkey has behavioral issues such as aggression, consulting with a professional trainer or a veterinarian with interests in behavioral management can help you develop strategies for reducing negative behaviors,” Louge said.
Lastly, Louge recommends owners refer to information about donkey ownership provided by their veterinarian should they have any questions or concerns.
Before bringing home donkeys, owners should carefully consider a donkey’s physical and behavioral needs in order to help them stay happy and healthy. Then you can be confident in knowing how to appropriately care for your new farm animal.
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