The Donkey…..Not Just a Horse with Big Ears

Donkeys are notoriously undervalued in the United States

Last week I was at the Equine Science Society meetings, staying educated on the newest research done in the equine industry. One seminar particularly sparked my interest, called “Donkeys are Different”, and spurred me to write an article for donkey-lovers and to help people understand similarities and differences between donkeys and horses. Donkeys are notoriously undervalued in the United States to the typical horse person. Famed for their longevity and grit, donkeys’ physical traits and behavior are markedly different than the horse.

Donkeys are descendants of African Wild Asses. They are hardy animals that are built to naturally live in semi-arid, mountainous environments. In these environments, donkeys adapted to living in small groups or solitary. Rocky and rough terrain made it so they developed more of a fight instinct compared to the flight instinct that horses exhibit. Donkeys will establish a territory, and are often used as guardians for sheep and goats. When given the choice, they prefer to socialize with other donkeys rather than horses or ponies. Donkeys will develop a strong, lifelong bond with another single donkey. If separated from their companion, donkeys can become stressed and refuse food and water.

Often misunderstood for being stubborn or stupid, donkeys are actually extremely smart. When cognitive and perseveration assessments were performed on horses, donkeys, and mules, the donkeys and mules outperformed horses.  They were more accurate and faster problem solvers than horses. In addition, donkeys are less inclined to panic. Although they have a natural tendency to freeze when threatened, their quick learning ability make their easy to teach.

Everyone notices the large ears that donkeys possess. They are useful for hearing as well as heat dissipation. The jaw is more powerful than a horse’s so donkeys can grind shrubs and plants high in lignin. Their hooves are more upright, to better handle rough terrain than running at high rates of speed. Evolving in semi-arid environments, donkeys’ hooves have more open tubules than horses, to draw available moisture into the hoof.  For this reason, in temperate or wet climates, donkeys may have many hoof issues, such as white line disease and abscess formation.

When it comes to nutrition, donkeys are hindgut fermenters like the horse. Like the horse, they have evolved as grazers. However, donkeys are browsers as well. By evolving into browsers, donkeys were able to survive in harsh environments on fibrous, low energy feeds that are high in lignin. They are highly efficient in digesting low quality forages, shrubs, and leaves. Therefore, donkeys have considerably lower (25-50% less) maintenance energy requirements than horses. On average, donkeys consumed 1.3-1.8% of their bodyweight. However, vitamin and mineral requirements for donkeys are the same as horses.

Being so efficient with feeds makes donkeys very susceptible to health problems associated with excess energy consumption, such as obesity, insulin resistance, and laminitis. Donkeys’ diets should consist of mostly of low energy, high fibrous feedstuffs and a vitamin/mineral supplement. High quality hays such as alfalfa should be fed only when body condition is not optimal or workload is heavy. Very rarely, if ever, should donkeys be fed high energy grains or concentrates. Donkeys have very low tolerance for these and many health issues such as colic, ulcers, or laminitis, are associated with those feedstuffs.

General maintenance on donkeys is sometimes overlooked. It important that donkeys receive the same level of care in dentistry and parasites control as horses. Many parasites lifecycles are the same in donkeys as horses. However, in addition, donkeys are susceptible to liver flukes and Parascaris equorum throughout their life. Focus on prevention, rather than treatment, should be practiced with nutrition, dentistry, and parasite control in donkeys.

Donkeys are very unique animals. They parallel the horse in many ways, but are different in many ways as well. Donkeys are very useful in many different societies, and daily life could not function in these cultures without them. We here at Horse Guard salute the humble donkey and its very important role it has played in the history of the world.  We encourage all donkey owners to consider the wonderful similarities and differences the horse and the donkeys have, so all our animals can benefits from a healthy and happy life!

About Horse Guard

Ty is the Marketing Director for Horse Guard. A Cal Poly graduate, Ty has been handling and competing with horses her whole life. Ty values her horses health and truly believes she is feeding and marketing the best equine supplements on the market. View all posts by Horse Guard

14 Responses to “The Donkey…..Not Just a Horse with Big Ears”

  1. Patty says:

    Looking for a supplement for mini donkeys 300 lbs .. for their hoofs that are splitting & cracked…they get zero grain & 1/2 flake a day & do have some grass to nibble on …

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:

      Thank you for the question. I would recommend Hoof Guard. It is typically very palatable, so it doesn’t need to be fed with any grain. For 300 lb donkey, I would recommend 1/3 of a scoop.

      Let me know if I can answer anymore questions.

  2. Billie says:


    Sorry if this has been asked. I just (yesterday) rescued two mini donkeys that could possibly be pregnant. they are underweight. what benefit would horse guard do for them. I believe I read that it is ok to feed to a jennie in foal?

    thank you

  3. Jo Walton says:

    Hi I am new to the donkey world and just brought a baby Mediterranean donkey to go with my pony I have try ed reading up loads but there’s not really much out there about donkeys more for horses I am just wondering what wormers I can use and what field blocks to use as a lot r saying they need mineral blocks I have salt blocks already is this enough also she has brought some pets of her own along (lice) I have bathed her in horse lice shampoo and think got rid of most donkey sanctuary say they clip there donkeys can I clip a 6 month old foal x

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:


      Thank you for the question. You can use any horse dewormer on your donkey, just adjust dosage to the approximate weight of your donkey. As far as minerals and salt blocks, I recommend a plain salt block and supplementing with a vitamin-mineral supplement to meet you donkey’s needs. If the weather is a moderate temperature where you live you can clip your 6 month old, but make sure she can get under cover when it rains. Hope this helps. Let me know if I can answer any more questions.

  4. Nancy says:

    We have a male donkey who had his feet neglected when younger and is frequently walking very cautiously. Our Ferrier is great with him but we use a turmeric additive in which we add mobility plus and give it daily which seems to help some but we are wondering if MSM or Glocosamine would be helpful. He is not overweight

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:


      MSM and Glucosamine can help add fluidity to his joints and the MSM also helps build stronger hoof wall.

  5. My friends have recently rescued 13 donkeys in a bad state. All the mares are pregnant as the irresponsible owner left the ungeldedmales in the same field without food and fresh water. We are slowly building up to their health and hope to get the boys gelded once the fly season is over as we have been told that donkeys are not good healers. One male donkeys hair is falling out and has a lot of bald patches. We have been told to use alo Vera on him. Which the ladies have started a day or so ago We have also one donkey (rescued from a different place) which has severe fly allergies on his legs which they are washing with sea water drying the legs and applying sudocream plus fly spray repellant. All there hooves are on a bad way but it is difficult to get a farrier and they are still difficult to handle despite hands on every day. The mares are much easier. Two have already had there goals. Sorry this is so long but wondered if Devils Claw supplement plusLinseed oil might help. I help out three days a week and have adopted one of the pregnant mares. I am still learning about donkeys and would appreciate any advice you can give me

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:

      Thank you for the question. Unfortunately, Devils Claw isn’t safe for pregnant animals. I would consider MSM, HA, and Glucosamine along with the linseed oil to help with the pain. Linseed oil and MSM will also help the the skin and allergy issues. Hope this helps.

  6. Tanya says:

    Can I feed Horse Guard Supplement to my miniature donkeys? If so, how much do I use?

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:

      Horse Guard would be great for your miniature donkeys. The dose is adjust by weight. So, if they weigh around 250 lb you will feed them a 1/2 ounce or 1/4 of the scoop provided in the bag.

  7. Tim Oliver says:

    We give our horse supplements to reduce her attraction to flies. Do you know of a similar supplement for our donkeys?

    • mm Dr. Kelsey J. Nonella Ph.D., P.A.S. says:


      I don’t know of any supplements specially formulated for donkey to deter flies. However, I would recommend trying your horse supplement on them, as long as there isn’t a lot of carbohydrates in it. I know people who have had success feeding diatomaceous earth to help discourage insect breeding in manure. Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.