Donkeys are different

Equine vet Rhiannah discusses how donkeys are different from horses. Many people think they are similar, but perhaps not!

Share this post

Many people think of donkeys as small horses, but in reality donkeys are different physically, mentally and emotionally. Equine vet Rhiannah explains;

Donkeys are naturally a “prey-species”, and typically very stoic, as appearing strong and healthy reduces the likelihood of being attacked by a predator. This does not reduce the donkeys ability to feel pain – but can easily lead to problems interpreting the severity of painful conditions, as they often show much more subtle signs compared to a horse or pony. They are also very sociable animals and form strong emotional attachments with other animals, which is why it’s not advisable to keep them on their own.


Donkeys are designed to exist in regions where their environment is hot, dry and sparse of vegetation. Therefore most UK pasture is much more lush and calorie dense than the donkey needs. Combine this with being natural browsers, grazing for up to 16 hours a day, and being very efficient at metabolising their food, it makes them prone to conditions such as obesity, laminitis and hyperlipidaemia.

Their energy requirements are lower than that of a similar sized pony so donkeys should be fed 1.5% of their body weight in dry matter for maintenance, and will likely need grazing restriction in spring and summer. If they are not kept on pasture, a diet of 75% barley straw and 25% hay is adequate for most of the year, combined with a mineral lick, free access to clean water, and a vitamin supplement in the winter.

Management and routine healthcare

Sadly many donkeys do not receive the same level of preventative veterinary care/treatment as horses and ponies, such as vaccinations, dentistry, farriery and worming. This could be due to a lack of client education, subtlety of pain/distress signs, and their status as a companion animal that may not go to shows or be ridden/bitted.

In reality donkeys require just the same if not more dentistry than horses, due in part to their diet often not consisting of the levels of forage they are designed to eat. They are also very susceptible to weather conditions such as heavy rain and wind, due to their coats not containing as much grease as horses, so require shelter and/or rugging in winter.

Illness and disease

Donkeys and horses are biologically similar, and thus they are susceptible to many of the same diseases. However detecting signs of illness can be made more difficult by their stoical natures. Often the only presenting signs are non-specific dullness, depression or inappetence, which can mean that the donkey is in the advanced or critical stages of illness before it is noticed or treated. This is why your vet will always classify a dull, quiet or inappetant donkey as an emergency until proven otherwise.

Donkeys are particularly prone to a condition called hyperlipidaemia. It can occur when the donkey enters a negative energy balance (ie they stop eating) and instead they mobilise their fat reserves for energy. Even with prompt treatment it can quickly lead to a very sick donkey, and ultimately organ failure, and sadly the prognosis is very guarded. Overweight or obese donkeys are particularly at risk, as clearly it is much easier to mobilise fat reserves when you have a lot of it!

Another difference between donkeys and other equines is that they can cope with dehydration much better, as they are much better adapted to dry environments. This has to be taken into consideration during clinical examination for conditions such as colic and diarrhoea.

Foot Problems and Foot Care

Donkeys’ hooves are quite different to horses, being tougher and more upright with a much thicker sole, and hoof problems are common. They should be trimmed regularly, as well as checked for conditions such as hoof abscesses, seedy toe, and thrush, which can occur due to exposure to wet UK weather.

As with horses and ponies, donkeys are very prone to laminitis if their weight is not controlled. As obesity is very common in UK donkeys, this results in a high risk of laminitis, particularly in spring and summer months. Successful year-round weight control is therefore vital to reduce the risk of developing this painful and debilitating disease.

Respiratory problems

Donkeys are at risk of many of the same conditions/diseases as horses, such as infections (e.g. strangles), allergies, and parasites. They are also asymptomatic carriers of equine lungworm, which can cause respiratory illness in co-grazing horses and ponies. Therefore it is vital to treat all donkeys and in-contact horses for lungworm on a regular basis.


Many of the same worms affecting horses also occur in donkeys, however there are 10 species of small stronglye that occur exclusively in donkeys, and although adult horses develop immunity to the roundworm Parascaris equorum, donkeys fail to do so and thus require worming for this in adult life. Therefore an appropriate worming program is very important, and should be discussed with your vet.


Donkeys of any age should undergo a “closed” castration under general anaesthesia. This is because the blood supply to their testicles, combined with a larger inguinal ring than equivalent horses mean that the surgical risks are much higher than for a horse or pony colt that could undergo castration by the “open” technique.

Out of hours emergency

Save money with thePet Health Club

Join the Pet Health Club and get great discounts on your pet’s routine preventative healthcare in easy monthly payments

Find out more about the Pet Health Club