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Special Care Recommendations For Older Donkeys

A senior donkey photographed in black and white.
Older residents like Babs may need special care and attention to keep them happy and healthy. Photo: Isa Leshko, from Allowed To Grow Old

Updated June 23, 2020

Donkeys can live very long lives, with some domestically-kept donkeys reportedly living into their late forties or even older! Due to the relatively larger size of their bodies and possible lingering health challenges in donkeys rescued from abusive situations, there are a number of areas where a sanctuary may have to make changes to help their older donkey friends thrive at their forever home.

Defining 'Elderly'

It’s difficult to define when a donkey should be considered a senior, as they tend to age at very individual rates, though any donkey older than 20 years old should be given a close look to see if they need any care adjustments. Generally, if they don’t seem to be thriving on the diet that they used to be fine eating, you can consider the donkey to be more of an elderly friend.

As a donkey ages, they may face more health challenges, so it’s especially important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through regular health and dental checkups, fecal examinations, and weigh-ins (or body condition assessments, if weighing is not possible) to effectively treat issues early on. Infections, parasites, and common ailments can be much harder to treat in senior donkeys, so it’s critical to be as proactive as you can be with their health! These challenges are compounded by the stoic, non-vocal personalities of many donkeys that will avoid alerting you that they are suffering from aches and pains.

Special Food Recommendations For Older Donkeys

It’s important to monitor an older donkey’s weight as they age to ensure that they aren’t under-eating. Older donkeys can often lose, break, or wear down some or many of their permanent teeth through the course of their long lives. As a result of this, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and absorbing a healthy mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older donkey with worn teeth to eat. If you are concerned about a donkey’s food intake, have a veterinarian evaluate them, especially checking their oral health once a year (or twice a year if they have had teeth trouble in the past). Bad-smelling breath can be an especially strong indicator that something needs to be addressed!

If necessary, and suggested by a veterinarian, you can adjust their food with something softer or supplemented with additional nutrients, or you can make your own special food by mashing soaked hay, or beet pulps, or soaking complete food before serving to give them an easier time absorbing the nutrients. For more detailed solutions, check out The Donkey Sanctuary’s suggestions for feeding elderly donkeys here.

You may also want to consider having problematic teeth removed or filed down by a veterinarian if they seem to have a lot of discomfort chewing.

Grass Clippings Are Unsuitable For Donkeys!

Grass clippings should not be fed to donkeys. Once fresh grass is cut, it begins fermenting quickly. Because they don’t have to chew the clippings due to their smaller size, clippings are swallowed without mixing with their saliva that typically aids in an equine digestive process. Once in the gut, the grass clippings will give off gas that can cause colic and ruptures.

Too Little Weight

If a donkey is losing weight and their teeth don’t seem to be causing them problems, it can just be a natural decline in their digestive system’s effectiveness. If an older donkey is not doing well on the same amount of food as they used to eat, it’s important to not just give them more of the same hay, which can lead to insulin resistance and dangerous health consequences like Cushing’s Disease. Rather, you should feed them food that is higher in protein and well-supplemented.

If it seems like an older donkey isn’t thriving in general, it could also be a vitamin or mineral imbalance rather than strictly a caloric issue. In addition to ensuring that the whole herd has ample access to appropriate minerals, you can supplement an older donkey friends’ vitamins and minerals. It also can sometimes be helpful for older donkeys to get more fat in their diet, as well as an an omega-3 source like flax or algae. Probiotics can help a senior donkey maintain healthy digestion. Always discuss potential food and supplement adjustments with your veterinarian prior to adding them to a donkey’s diet.

Too Much Weight

While under-eating and low weight can be a challenge in older donkeys, it’s also important to ensure that donkeys do not become overweight, which can occur if donkeys continue to eat at the same pace as when they were younger but with reduced mobility. If necessary, you may have to regulate an older donkey’s food if they’re gaining too much weight, as overeating and obesity can lead to a number of health challenges and should not be ignored. Laminitis and Cushing’s Disease are both high risks in elderly donkeys, and both of these can be caused and exacerbated by too much food.

Eye Care Recommendations For Older Donkeys

Donkeys can be prone to vision loss and blindness as they get older. You should keep track of the general condition and coloring of their eyes. If they change color or become cloudy, they might be suffering from vision loss. If a donkey in your care is going or has gone blind, they can still maintain a high quality of life and comfort, as long as they are given an easy-to-navigate environment and consistency.

Some eye issues are a result of injury or illness and can be reversible with treatment, so always talk to your vet if you suspect something going on with their eyes!

Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Donkeys

It’s especially important to monitor older donkeys’ living spaces to make sure they offer enough traction. Be on the lookout for places where they could trip, as a fall could be devastating to an older resident. Older donkeys may need to have special bedding in order to make it easier for them to sleep and relax in their sleeping areas, especially to prevent pressure sores in donkeys who lay down more often than they used to or are bonier than they used to be. Some older donkeys might also benefit from a barn-safe heating source in colder seasons as well as slightly warmed up water to encourage hydration. You should use shorter fibered straw or wood shavings for older donkeys who drag their legs and get stuck in longer straw. If this isn’t feasible in the donkey’s living space, you can also give them a regularly cleaned, (naturally-sourced only) sand-covered pen to sleep on rather than straw. If using sand, care should be taken to prevent residents from ingesting sand. Hay should be placed up off the ground, and ideally food should be placed in non-sandy areas of the living space. Regardless of the specifics of the indoor space, always make sure that their food and water sources are close by!

Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Donkeys

If an older donkey is having a harder time thriving on your pasture due to decreased mobility, it might be time to give them (and their closest companion) their own smaller-sized and flat pasture to graze on. A smaller pasture with close access to food, minerals, and water, can give them the opportunity to get around easier and not have to compete with younger donkeys for resources like food and water. If you do provide the older donkey with their own pasture, make sure they still have access to some type of shelter in case it’s necessary for your location’s climate. Older donkeys still need plenty of space to roam throughout the day, so if you do decide to give them their own space, make sure they can still stretch their legs if they feel the need!

If you do give an older donkey a more gentle place to live, be sure to continue to provide them with a diverse set of enrichment opportunities and social time, as they can get easily bored and depressed if they have little to do.

Summer Considerations

Due to their age, donkeys in the summertime might require extra care to help shed their wintertime coats to prevent them from overheating if they aren’t shedding as quickly as they used to. In addition, due to their slower speed, you may need to provide more protection from flies in the hot season!

Winter Considerations

Donkeys tolerate cold weather much worse than horses, and older donkeys are even more sensitive to weather shifts. You may want to provide a blanket that stays securely on older donkey residents (ensure it does not cause painful rubbing or accidentally cause urine accumulation near their bodies), as well as a cap to keep their ears warm. Take care to change blankets as soon as they become wet, and never put a damp blanket on a donkey resident. When changing blankets, be sure to brush out their coat and check their skin for any irritation (especially from the straps) before replacing. If the weather allows, it can be a good idea to give the donkey an hour or so to be blanket-free before putting a new blanket on, but this should be based on the individual’s overall health and comfort. You must be especially vigilant about keeping any elderly donkey outdoor living space ice-free in the snowy seasons, as a slip or fall could be especially devastating to their bodies.

Social Recommendations For Older Donkeys

Donkeys tend to form strong bonds with fellow donkeys if given the opportunity, especially bonding in pairs. It can be damaging, or even fatal to separate them from their close companions, so you must find a way to accommodate their social needs! If you decide that it’s best to give an older donkey their own special indoor or outdoor space, make sure to house them with their friends! If their close friend is much younger and competing for food, you should find a way to keep them together while still accommodating both of their nutritional needs, perhaps by offering separate feeding areas.

Managing Arthritis In Older Donkeys

All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!

Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for assistance in managing arthritis in donkeys. However, ANY time you wish to explore arthritis management options in donkeys, you MUST have a conversation with your veterinarian! Arthritis can be a complex issue, and individual donkey health may complicate any one treatment, or certain treatments could cause significant health complications!

Arthritis is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, especially donkeys due to their frequent wandering. A donkey might develop arthritis in any of their hooves, legs, or joints. Untreated, this could eventually manifest as debilitating chronic pain or could contribute to the development of laminitis. You might have to treat the older donkey with donkey joint supplements, glucosamine, and regular anti-inflammatory treatments or donkey-approved NSAID pain relievers such as Phenylbutazone or Meloxicam. For a more long-term solution for arthritis, you can administer a Chondroprotective agent such as Adequan to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pains with more natural remedies, in conjunction with medication. These include Botswella (also known as Indian Frankincense) to successfully lower inflammation, as well as Turmeric and anecdotally, CBD oil. Make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water if you can! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a treatment plan for arthritis.

If a donkey is suffering from advanced arthritis, they may have a harder time reaching their food and water comfortably, so you may need to adjust the height of their food and water containers to make it easier on them.

Hoof Care

Donkey hooves can become more challenging to manage as they get older, due to less effective nutrient absorption and changes in exercise patterns. Make sure that you are vigilant in monitoring a senior donkey’s hooves and maintaining a high standard of hoof care as to not exacerbate any arthritis or reluctance to move! You may want to keep their feet closer to the ground when picking debris out of their hooves to prevent discomfort if they are afflicted by joint pain.

SOURCES:

Care Of The Older Donkey | The Donkey Sanctuary

Feeding Elderly Donkeys | The Donkey Sanctuary

The Benefits And Side Effects Of Adequan For Pet Arthritis

Indian Frankincense | Arthritis Foundation

Caring for Mules and Donkeys as They Age | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on December 23, 2020

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