Maintaining Your Donkey’s Health

Experienced donkey owners know that the way to keep their animal fit and healthy is simple. Give lots of TLC in the form of good shelter, a high fibre diet with restricted grazing, regular health checks and above all lots of love and mental stimulation.

Read on for our tips and advice on all matters relating to donkey health.

Routine Health Care

Horses, ponies and donkeys are all subject to the same kind of health and welfare problems including tetanus and equine influenza so it’s essential to vaccinate against these. Another thing they have in common is the susceptibility towards picking up intestinal parasites and if your donkey shares a field with horses it is advisable to speak to your vet about a worming routine. Donkeys can be carriers of the lungworm Dictyocaulus Arnfieldi without exhibiting signs and this parasite can cause respiratory disease in horses.

Choosing a wormer for your donkey can be a complicated matter especially as different rules apply to pregnant and lactating mares and donkeys that are ill. It may be necessary to conduct a faecal egg count to accurately monitor the donkey’s worm level so that your vet can advise on whether a wormer is necessary and if so which one is best.

Daily handling and grooming are not only essential for your donkey’s psychological well-being it can also give you the chance to check on his coat condition and check for any external parasites or skin conditions. At the same time, you can check the condition of his teeth and feet. Donkeys are famously very stoical creatures and give little away so these daily checks are a great way to spot any health issues before they become problematic.

Dental Care

Donkeys evolved to graze on sparse, coarse grasses and fibrous plants and as a result, they developed teeth that are designed to wear down constantly. In addition, if a donkey has not shed all his milk teeth by the age of five this could cause infection and pain. For these reasons alone it is important that regular professional checks are carried out on a donkey’s teeth from soon after birth and then twice a year.

Foot Care

Because of the donkey’s evolution in dry, arid lands, their hooves are very different in structure to those of horses in that a donkey’s more upright feet are very good at absorbing water. Problems arise when a donkey is kept on wet pasture as their feet can become soft and prone to disease so it is advisable to give your donkey access to the dry ground. An adult donkey’s feet must be trimmed every 6-10 weeks to avoid becoming overgrown, preferably by a farrier who has specific knowledge and experience of working with donkey’s feet. The most common donkey foot problems are:

  • Seedy Toe. Otherwise known as white line disease where the white line area becomes weak and crumbly. This can be painful if stones and dirt enter under the horny part of the hoof. It can be treated by cutting out the affected part of the hoof wall and this should only be done by a vet and/or experienced farrier.
  • Thrush can appear as a result of keeping a donkey in wet conditions.
  • Laminitis is a very painful condition which always requires immediate veterinary attention.
  • Foot abscess. Another painful condition requiring veterinary treatment, a foot abscess can lead to tetanus if left untreated for too long.

How to Spot When Your Donkey is Ill

Because donkeys rarely give any obvious signs that they aren’t feeling well or they are in pain you have to be able to monitor and take note of any changes in their behaviour. Sometimes the only sign of illness is a loss of appetite and a general air of depression although he can exhibit these symptoms if he is separated from a companion. Donkeys are extremely sociable and will not be entirely happy on their own. If you are in any doubt at all about the state of your donkeys’ health it is always best to let your vet take a look.

Common Illnesses That Affect Donkeys


This is a condition which can initially present simply as a dull or depressed appearance in your donkey but which can ultimately lead to organ failure. The condition occurs through a negative energy balance which means the donkey is expending more energy than it can take in. The body will send fat molecules to the liver where they are converted to glucose. If this continues after the initial problem has receded the result can be an excess of fat molecules in the blood leading to potentially fatal kidney and liver damage. If you see any signs of the aforementioned dull, depressed demeanour in your animal then waste no time in calling the vet and have him examine blood samples.

There are certain risk factors which could mean your donkey is susceptible to Hyperlipaemia and these include:

  • Increased fat reserves have been linked to an increased risk of Hyperlipaemia
  • Age and gender means that older females have the highest risk
  • Pregnancy and lactation, where a negative energy balance can result from increased energy requirements
  • Stress or illness such as problems with the teeth, worms, colic or emotional stress all bring increased the risk

A donkey with Hyperlipaemia will have to undergo some intensive treatment of underlying causes and added nutritional support and even then the outlook can be less than promising.


Most people think of colic as being a standalone disease however it is actually a symptom, usually presenting as abdominal pain, of several different issues some of which are listed here:

  • Gas colic
  • Blockages of undigested food or obstructions in the gut
  • Muscle cramps
  • Twisted gut known as a torsion
  • Abdominal tumours particularly in older donkeys
  • Worms
  • Pancreatitis

Some of these are more painful than others but any instance of abdominal pain should be checked by a vet immediately. Once again the stoic nature of the donkey can make a colic difficult to spot initially because unlike a horse he will not be rolling around or pawing at the ground; he may just be exhibiting those dull, depressed signs. He will still be in pain however so if you see other signs such as a refusal to eat, fast breathing, excessive sweating, reduced or no droppings or a very red colour inside the eyelids or gums – call the vet immediately to start treatment.

The donkey’s heart rate may be elevated above the normal range of 31-53 beats per minute and his breathing rate may be above the normal 13-31 breaths per minute; this will be what the vet checks initially. He/she will also listen to the abdomen and will ask you about the animal’s diet. If colic is diagnosed it can be treated with pain relief and fluid therapy, possibly intravenously.

One of the causes of a colic can be related to a sudden change of diet, too much grass or poor quality feed. If you change his diet do so gradually over 4-6 weeks. Always soak sugar beet and avoid feeding anything that looks at all mouldy. Avoid access to rich feeds like grain and rich spring grass and feed your donkey little and often for the best way to avoid colic. Above all, make sure he has access to plenty of water at all times.

Donkeys can live into their 40s so if you keep donkeys or are thinking of acquiring a donkey remember to gain as much knowledge about these wonderful creatures as you can so as to ensure a long, healthy and happy life for him or her. Contact your vet for help and advice whenever it is needed.

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