Updated March 18, 2021
If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special donkey residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of donkeys at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided.
When it comes to feeding the individual donkeys in your care, you may be overwhelmed initially by the number of choices and amount of information out there. By first understanding what a donkey’s essential needs are, you can make informed decisions about how to feed and supplement your resident donkeys, and have the knowledge to back up your choices.
Understanding The Basics Of A Donkey’s Digestive System
If you’ve read our Daily Diet, Treats, & Supplements For Horses resource, you learned about the workings of a horse’s digestive system. Donkeys and horses share a similar digestive system but there are a few important dissimilarities between the two. These differences are important to know as they impact how you will feed your donkey residents!
A donkey’s “gut” is broken up into two areas: the stomach and small intestine, followed by the large intestine or “hindgut”. The hindgut includes the cecum and the colon. A donkey’s digestive tract evolved to adapt to dry areas that didn’t contain a bevy of nutritious plant options for consumption. Horses are generally thought of as grazers (though they can and do browse a bit), donkeys are more likely to browse as well to graze. Their digestive system adapted to pull nutrients from brush and other plants usually too fibrous for a good diet for a horse. A donkey will require fewer calories than a pony of similar size, in order to maintain weight, due to this adaptation.
This means care must be taken to limit and monitor the consumption of lush pasture grasses as they have a high nutrient content and high digestibility, as we know a donkey’s body already excels in pulling nutrients from fibrous plants and grasses. Feeding these diets can cause laminitis and other health issues. To be clear, care must be taken with horse residents too. It, of course, will vary between individuals but is particularly important to keep an eye on donkeys and miniature horses.
Here are just a few things that caregivers should know:
- Donkeys should trickle feed on a highly fibrous diet. A diet low in forage is sure to cause a host of health problems. Donkeys need access to forage throughout the entire day. This promotes the health of the hindgut, providing nutrients for the healthy bacteria that live there. 24 hour access to barley straw is ideal.
- Access to lush pasture grasses and legume hays and others with high sugar or protein content should be limited and monitored.
- While they are designed to continuously digest a lot of fiber, the smaller capacity of a donkey’s stomach and small intestines is not conducive to breaking down singular large meals at a single time. If given concentrates, meals should be split into smaller portions, given throughout the day to prevent colic.
- Concentrates should only be used to supplement a donkey’s diet in certain cases involving health conditions, pregnancy and lactation status, dental health, underweight residents or senior donkeys struggling to keep weight on, or growing donkeys.
- Avoid anything that contains molasses or cereals or grains. A diet high in concentrates can lead to a number of health issues, most notably laminitis and colic. These decisions should be made with the help of an equine nutritionist or experienced veterinarian.
- If donkeys aren’t provided with large amounts of forage throughout the day, it can have psychological effects in addition to physical ones. Without the ability to perform this natural behavior, donkeys can become bored and frustrated, greatly affecting their well-being.
So now that you have an idea of how a donkey’s digestive system functions and a brief glimpse into their dietary needs, let’s look at the specific nutrients that a donkey needs to be healthy.
What Does A Donkey Need?
It probably doesn’t surprise you that carbohydrates are generally the biggest part of a donkey resident’s diet. While carbohydrates can be broken down into fiber, starches, and sugars, fiber (straw, hay, and grass) is definitely the carbohydrate donkeys need in a greater quantity. Sugars and starches can cause health issues if consumed in higher quantities, so it’s important to be sure their diet doesn’t contain high levels of these carbohydrates.
Beneficial microorganisms in a donkey’s hindgut are able to break down all that structural fiber and turn it into an excellent source of energy. If you recall, donkeys are able to pull more nutrients from their food, meaning that hays with higher protein and energy and lush grasses full of sugar aren’t the best for donkey residents. This, of course, will vary between individuals and should be discussed with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian. We will discuss straw, hay, and grass more thoroughly later in this resource.
Concentrated feeds (called so for the concentrated energy they provide) generally should not be a regular part of a healthy adult donkey’s diet. These consist of grains, cereals, and pelleted feeds, and are not generally suitable as part of a donkey’s diet (particularly grains, cereals, and anything with molasses or high protein, energy, or sugar content). This can lead to a number of health problems. Different populations, such as seniors, growing donkeys, underweight donkeys, pregnant or lactating donkeys, those with poor dental health, or those with certain health conditions may require some supplementation of high fiber, low sugar concentrated feeds. High fiber pellets can be a good option for adding or maintaining weight when needed and can be easier to consume for some populations when thoroughly soaked. However, be sure to look for high fiber pellets designed for laminitic individuals (low in sugar) or other feed that your veterinarian or equine nutritionist may recommend for certain health issues. It is vital they are soaked thoroughly to prevent issues with colic or other issues, and it has been recommended by some to add low sugar chaff (chopped up mixes of straw and/or hay -do not use products with added sugar- and ask about those with added oils before feeding) to the mix for the first few days. However, every individual is different, so it’s vital you always talk with your veterinarian before putting a donkey resident on any concentrated feeds.
It may sound strange, but beet pulp is actually a byproduct of the sugar industry! Despite this, it can provide a nutritious, fibrous supplement to tempt sick residents to eat. It can also be used to help maintain a good weight on residents who struggle to keep weight on. Beet pulp can come in concentrated cubes and shreds, and must be thoroughly soaked before being given to residents. It should never be fed to residents as a replacement for straw and hay. After it has been soaked, it needs to be used within 24 hours.
Donkeys (healthy adult donkeys, specifically) require only 3.8-7.4% percent protein, depending on their activity levels. Donkeys have an impressive ability to internally recycle nitrogen, which is part of amino acids consumed in protein sources. This results in a lower need for protein in their diet. However, proteins are still important as they provide both essential and nonessential amino acids that donkeys need. How much of these amino acids an individual donkey needs depends largely on their age and whether they are pregnant or lactating.
Hays and grasses contain protein, so careful attention must be paid to the protein (and sugar) content of hays and grasses. Legume hays, such as clover and alfalfa, are significantly higher in protein and could cause health issues in resident donkeys if they consume too much. We don’t recommend legume hays as part of a diet for donkeys, though an equine nutritionist or veterinarian may recommend some for certain individuals for health-related reasons. Otherwise, a small handful as a treat now and then may be okay. Straw is low in protein and can be a good source of forage for donkeys as they are able to digest it and pull more nutrients from it than is generally possible.
With hay (and straw), the quality and growth stage at harvest determines how digestible the hay is, in addition to its sugar and protein content. Remember, high levels of sugar are likely to cause a number of potential health issues in donkeys! Forage from pasture is also a potential source of protein. However, the nutrient makeup will depend on a number of factors including season and soil quality. Lush grasses can contain high amounts of sugar that can seriously harm your donkey residents if access isn’t limited.
All in all, a mixed or total straw-based diet is better suited for many donkeys as their energy and protein requirements are lower than horses.
Healthy adult donkeys don’t require much fat in their diet, though a lactating, underweight, or senior donkey may have higher requirements. Donkeys with certain health conditions may also require more (or less) fat in their diet. In general, 3-4 percent fat in food is a good amount of fat for healthy adult horse residents. Donkeys require less than that. Too much more can lead to unnecessary weight gain and potentially cause health issues. Talk with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist about what is best for your donkey residents.
Vitamins And Minerals
While donkeys produce some of the vitamins they need during the digestive process, most others are accessible in forage. However, as the nutritional content of grass, hay, and straw can vary, a donkey resident would generally do well with a forage balancer to ensure they get what they need for a healthy body. As always, It’s best to discuss whether a resident would benefit from any vitamin supplementation with your equine veterinarian.
Vitamins For Donkeys
As long as residents have access to the outdoors where they can soak up the sun, their Vitamin D needs are usually met. Forage also contains some amounts of Vitamin D. Donkeys get Vitamin A from eating fresh grass and some hay. Any that is not used immediately is stored in the donkey’s liver, and this supply is drawn upon during the winter months when pastures are dormant. Donkeys synthesize B and K(2) vitamins. As for Vitamin C, donkeys can produce this in their liver from glucose. Vitamin E is also found in grass and fresher hay, though there are also Vitamin E supplements available. In addition to fresh forage, hay that isn’t stored for more than a few months can retain and provide many of the vitamins donkeys need. A lot of concentrated grain products provide these necessary vitamins as well, but can be a potential health hazard for aforementioned reasons. As mentioned above, there are also forage balancer supplements available, which have these vitamins and minerals but with a lower calorie content. These are most often recommended by veterinarians to ensure a healthy donkey.
Minerals For Donkeys
There are many minerals that can be beneficial for a donkey, namely Copper, Manganese, Iron, Selenium, Zinc, Cobalt, and Iodine. Other populations (growing or pregnant residents) may need more Phosphorus and Calcium to maintain good health. Like vitamins, many minerals can be found in grass and hay, though the content can vary, resulting in residents with mineral deficiencies. It’s always a good idea to have your soil and grass and hay tested so you can plan resident diets accordingly. Based on those findings, you can discuss with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist whether you should consider using an aforementioned forage balancer to meet the needs of your residents.
If providing mineral licks, be sure that they don’t contain molasses and know that it can be difficult to determine if everyone is getting enough. Absolutely DO NOT give donkey residents mineral blocks intended for other species as they may contain toxic levels of certain minerals. If not using mineral blocks, salt licks can be provided for them to seek out as they see fit. The amount and ratio of minerals consumed is also important. A 1:1 ratio is recommended for healthy adult donkeys. Special populations may require more or less of certain minerals. This should be discussed with your veterinarian.
Water For Donkeys
Water is an important part of keeping resident donkeys healthy. It is vital to their digestive health to drink lots of fluids, and serious complications can arise when their needs for water aren’t met. However, unlike horses, healthy donkeys can go longer without water than their equine cousins before ill effects may be seen. When faced with little access to water, (something their ancestors adapted to in the drier, arid regions in which they originated) their resting metabolic rate actually decreases, which means they don’t need as much water for thermoregulation. However, donkey residents should have continuous access to clean water sources. It is advisable to have water heaters during freezing temperatures, as it allows continuous access to water and also encourages them to drink more. Donkeys may refuse to drink if the water is very cold. This can cause a number of health issues, in spite of their evolutionary adaptation to manage periods of dehydration better than horses.
Let’s Talk Forage
Donkeys are trickle feeders and should ideally have access to forage throughout the day. Straw can generally be provided throughout the day. Additionally, it helps meet a donkey resident’s behavioral need to forage, and can help prevent boredom and harmful redirected behaviors. For these reasons, donkey residents should always have access to ample forage.
It is generally recommended that a donkey consume around 1.5 percent of their own body weight in dry forage daily. Of course, forage varies in quality, so it’s important to have pasture and other forage tested to ensure it provides all the necessary nutrients for residents, not too few or too many. Forage that is lacking in certain nutrients can be supplemented with a good forage balancer recommended by your veterinarian.
Most healthy adult donkeys only really need to eat straw plus a little hay/haylage or grass and a vitamin and mineral supplement (forage balancer). Forage provides nutrients all donkeys require, making it the recommendation foundation of any donkey’s diet. When referring to forage, we are including both plant material a resident may search for and consume on pasture, in addition to hay and straw offered by care staff. A healthy adult donkey’s diet should generally be composed of about 75% straw and 25% of hay/haylage or grass during the summer and changes to 50% straw and 50% hay/ haylage in the winter. Forage promotes a healthy digestive tract and a good gut flora balance.
Straw For Donkeys
There are many types of straw out there, depending on where you live in the world. Straw should be available 24 hours a day so donkey residents can trickle feed, which is best for their physical and psychological health. Ensure you don’t feed straw that retains many seeds, as this changes the nutrients they are receiving.
Barley straw is generally considered the best straw to offer to donkey residents. It makes good bedding too!
Wheat straw is generally only acceptable forage for younger donkeys with good teeth due to its more fibrous nature. It can be difficult to chew, which could cause poor intake for donkeys with dental issues. It also doesn’t make good bedding like barley straw does.
Oat straw can be fed to donkeys, but its use needs to be more carefully monitored and is not ideal due to the expense and higher calories.
You may find yourself in an area or time without straw, and while this would be unfortunate, you can talk to a nutritionist or vet about the best hay to feed them that would allow them to trickle feed as much as possible without causing levels of protein and sugar that are unhealthy to your residents. It isn’t the ideal, but it is an option when hay is all you have to work with.
While barley straw is the best for the bulk of their diet, pasture grass and plants and hay or haylage should make up around 25% of their diet in summer months and up to 50% in the winter (assuming you are in an area with changing seasons). Since donkeys are so efficient at pulling nutrients from even dry, coarse plants, it is a good to limit lush grass intake to the mornings or at dusk when the sugar content is lower in the grass. You may need to prevent access entirely, depending on the health and advice of your veterinarian.
Haylage is chopped forage that has been cut, chopped, baled, and wrapped in plastic while the moisture content is higher. While hay is allowed to dry 85%, haylage only dries 55-65% or so before being wrapped in plastic. Sometimes this can result in high energy content and may not be suitable for residents. You can have locally-available products analyzed. Otherwise, commercial haylage also comes in packages labeled “laminitic safe”- these should be purchased as opposed to others that may cause health issues for donkeys. Once a package of haylage is open, you must use it within a few days, as it will mold fairly quickly.
There are two types of hay: Grass Hay and Legume Hay.
There are different categories of grass hay depending on where you live. You may have access to some but not others. And they can vary in terms of nutritional value, making some less ideal than others for donkey residents. This is why it is useful to have hay tested to obtain an analysis of the nutritional content, as it can affect your diet plan for residents.
Legume hays, such as alfalfa and clover, are too high in protein to feed to healthy adult donkeys, though you may be able to offer as a treat or mix a small amount with grass hay, if recommended by a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.
Overall, if you feed your donkey residents on just grass and hay, you’ll likely end up with with residents eating too many calories, though donkeys can certainly eat grass instead of hay/haylage during times of the year when the pastures aren’t too lush. If vegetation isn’t growing, then 25% of their diet can consist solely of hay/haylage, with straw making up the rest.
Chaff is just pre-chopped up straw and/or hay, and is often a good option for senior residents or others with poor dental health. Sometimes this is fed in place of long-stemmed hay and straw. Products can come with added oils and molasses- these should be avoided. Chaff products can also contain varying types of hays, so it is important look for products suitable for equines with laminitis.
Donkeys are browsers as well as grazers. Providing donkey-safe browse in the form of leafy branches and shrubs and hanging them or placing them around their living space can encourage those natural browsing behaviors. Your residents will appreciate it!
Developing Diet Plans For Donkey Residents
This resource has a lot of information to take in, and it can be difficult to know how to apply it in a practical way. In this section, we have compiled some important guidelines that will help get you started.
Every donkey is different, and a variety of factors can influence how much forage is consumed, how much additional hay should be given, and how much, if any, concentrates should be a part of an individual’s diet.
Factors to consider include:
- Activity level
- Pregnancy status
- Health conditions
- Are they a Hard/Average/Easy keeper?
- Nutritional value of forage
- Lushness of pasture grasses
- Daily time spent in pasture (assuming there is forage in the pasture)
Get Your Resident’s Teeth Checked
As we mentioned, dental health can have a big impact on the diet of a donkey. They should receive a dental exam at least once a year. Those with poor dentition should be provided with a diet that allows them to adequately and easily consume the necessary nutrients for optimal health.
Estimate A Donkey’s Weight
Most sanctuaries don’t have easy access to a scale, so obtaining an accurate weight can be a challenge. Weight tapes are easiest but the least accurate way to measure a resident’s weight. Some may use a different way to measure weight that they have found successful. (Note: this measure utilizes centimeters and kilograms but this can be easily converted to inches and pounds.) Assessing BCS (body condition score) can also give you a generalized idea as to whether a resident is underweight, overweight, or within a healthy range. There is a body condition scoring chart attached in the linked source just above.
Forage testing is important as it allows you to determine the nutritional value and deficiencies in the forage being offered to residents. You can then determine (with the help of an equine veterinarian or nutritionist) what supplements and how much of these should be added to a resident’s diet. We will go further into this in another resource, but your equine vet will be able to help you get the tools you need to test pasture and hay. Always ask if the supplier has had the hay tested and what the nutrient levels are before purchasing.
Feed Concentrates By Weight, Not Volume
If a resident requires concentrates as part of their diet, it is important to initially weigh the amount of different concentrates in the scoop that will be assigned for feeding donkey residents. To ensure you are getting an accurate amount of concentrates to feed, fill the designated scoop and weigh it, then subtract the weight of the empty scoop from the total weight (or tare the scale with an empty scoop on it). This is critical because different concentrates take up more or less space depending on their bulk. For example, one pound of half-inch pellets fills a quart scoop, but beet pulp fills a quart scoop while weighing less than half a pound. That’s a big difference! You can see how measuring by volume could cause issues and affect the amount of specific food a resident receives.
Keep An Eye On Weight And Any Changes in Behavior Or Physical Health
Be sure to regularly check the body condition and weight of your donkey residents so you will be able to notice changes and adjust their diet accordingly. Be on the lookout for a change in behavior or other signs of a health issue, as their diet may be a contributing factor.
Make Changes Gradually
Sudden changes in diet can lead to serious health issues, such as colic and laminitis. Care should be taken to make changes as gradually as possible to ensure a healthy gut and a happy donkey.
Appropriate Treats For Donkeys
Treats can be an enriching (and yummy) experience for residents. Below is a list of safe treats and another list of foods to avoid. Remember: These are treats, and should be given sparingly! Too much of a new food at once can lead to an unbalanced digestive tract and cause health issues like colic. The more sugar a treat contains, the more sparingly it should be given. Additionally, some donkeys are more likely to chew and savor the flavors, while others will inhale treats, making them a potential choking hazard. To avoid this, you can cut treats up into small pieces before offering them.
We would recommend feeding only one handful-sized portion maximum per day.
Safe Treats For Donkeys (in SMALL amounts):
- Apples (best to remove the core)
- Snow peas
- Green beans
- Mint leaves
Do NOT Feed Donkeys The Following:
- Anything with animal products
- Brussels sprouts
- Grass cuttings
- Any food that tends to make them gassy
- Any food from the nightshade family
- Lick-It hanging treats due to the high amount of sugar
- Other resident species food
For a bigger list of things toxic to donkeys, check out our resource here.
Suggestions For Donkey Food Storage
In addition to feeding a high quality food, you must be sure to store the food properly to ensure your residents reap all the nutritional benefits. Food will keep best if kept in a cool, dry, dark place. All food, including unopened bags, should be stored in tightly sealed metal cans or thick plastic bins to prevent rodents from getting into food. You can contact the supplier to determine their food’s recommended shelf life, but in general, properly stored bagged food will last about 3 months. Storing food too long or in undesirable conditions can not only lead to rancid or moldy food, but can also cause food to become depleted of vitamins and minerals. Be aware that you should never feed rancid or moldy food to donkeys, as it can make them very sick.
Summary Points For Feeding Donkey Residents
- Donkeys should consume about 1.5% of their body weight in forage (mostly dry) every day.
- Forage high in protein and/or sugar should be avoided as it causes health issues.
- Test forage for nutritional analysis. This can alter diet plans for residents.
- Donkeys ideally should have a diet consisting of 75% straw and 25% grass, hay or haylage in summer months. This changes to 50% straw and 25% hay or haylage in winter. Certain populations may need haylage or chop as the main part of their diet.
- Barley straw is best and should be offered around the clock to allow trickle feeding
- Concentrated foods should not make up a large portion (or any portion at all) for an adult, healthy donkey. However, other populations may require some sort of concentrate in their diet.
- When feeding hay cubes, beet pulp, and high fiber, laminitic safe pellets or other concentrate, thoroughly soak them before feeding to prevent colic or choking.
- Generally speaking, providing a low calorie forage balancer can ensure residents get all the vitamins and minerals they need.
- Clean, fresh water should be available at all times
- Regularly monitor weight, behavioral, and physical changes.
- Ensure residents have their teeth checked at least once a year.
- Provide only small amounts of treats such as certain fruits and veggies. The higher the sugar content, the smaller the amount.
- As always, develop diet plans or make diet changes under the counsel of your veterinarian or equine nutritionist.
As you can see, there are many considerations when it comes to the daily needs and preferences of donkeys. Don’t get too stressed though! Stick with these basics, converse with your veterinarian or nutritionist, and get to know the individual residents within your care. These steps will start you on the path to healthy, happy residents.
Feeding Donkeys | Canadian Horse Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)
Donkeys’ Unique Nutritional Needs | Cornell Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Donkey: Nutrition | XL Equine Vets (Non-Compassionate Source)