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    Donkeys Are Different: Addressing Their Unique Needs

    A donkey nuzzling a horse outside.

    Updated October 27th, 2020

    A Donkey’s Needs Can Differ From A Horse’s Needs

    While donkeys share many similarities with horses, it may surprise you to learn that there are a number of dissimilarities between the two species! These differences are important to know when caring for donkey residents, as they can have a big impact on their well-being. While there are many differences, here are several distinctions that are of particular importance when considering the needs of donkeys under your care:

    Physical Differences

    You may have noticed that donkeys have longer ears and may have stiff, wiry hair along their backs, as well as shorter, thinner tails. While these features are immediately noticeable, perhaps of greater importance is the fact that they have a lower tolerance for wet and cold weather conditions. The hair in many donkeys’ coats does not significantly differ between seasons the way a horse’s coat does. Their coats are usually quite thinner and lighter in the winter than a horse’s coat. For this reason, donkeys require open access to shelter from the wind and rain during weather that many horses could tolerate without any issues. That being said, providing shelter for both horse and donkey residents is always important.

    Another example that highlights the differences between donkeys and horses is how donkeys often require significantly higher sedative/anesthetic drug doses compared to similar-sized horses.

    An especially important difference is that while all equines can develop hyperlipaemia, donkeys (and ponies and miniature horses) are more prone to developing it, particularly in regards to the extreme stress of losing or being separated from a companion. It is vital that staff are aware of how to navigate this particular need with donkeys.

    Last but certainly not least, donkeys hooves differ from horses in several ways. The hooves of donkeys are more upright (their hoof walls and hoof pastern axis, to be specific) and their frogs are wider. Because they are more adapted to dry climates than horses, their hooves are more elastic, containing more water. These are just a couple examples of the differences that affect the care needs of a donkey’s hoof health from a horse. Be sure to work with a farrier with donkey experience to avoid potentially (and seriously) harmful injuries and health issues.

    Behavioral Differences

    Donkeys are often misjudged and referred to as stubborn or hard-headed when, in fact, what you are seeing is a careful consideration of the situation in front of them. They may be unwilling to do something if they believe it to be painful, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Donkeys are thoughtful, with a strong sense of self-preservation. It is important to consider what elements in a given situation may be making the donkey unwilling to carry out the desired action and make the necessary changes to ensure they feel safe and comfortable. Setting aside time for positive learning experiences can make a huge difference and build trust between residents and caregivers.

    Another difference you may observe between horse and donkey residents includes their response to frightening stimuli, such as strange noises, leaves or debris blowing past, the sudden appearance of a visitor, or other surprises. While horses tend towards more flighty behavior, donkeys may stand their ground or even display confrontational behaviors in a similar situation. This isn’t to say that there aren’t individual differences-you may very well observe the reverse! Always remember that every sanctuary resident is an individual with their own history, preferences, and personalities!

    Horses have evolved with a flight response that has served them well in their natural environments, where they lived in larger bands. The wild donkeys from which domesticated donkeys descend often lived in smaller bands where running away may not have been as effective. This doesn’t mean they aren’t fearful in a situation, just that they may have a different response to fearful stimuli.

    Additionally, unlike many horses, donkeys may only exhibit minor signs of discomfort or slight changes in behavior when they are experiencing a serious medical issue. Being aware of their subtle cues of distress can help you respond quickly to medical issues that may otherwise go unnoticed.

    Social Bonds

    While both donkeys and horses are herd animals, donkeys often form a strong bond with a single individual (preferably another donkey, though they can form bonds with other animals as well). Of course, you can certainly see equally close bonds between two horses, and you may find yourself caring for a donkey who prefers to be alone. Past experiences can influence their desire for social bonding. Donkeys can form such strong bonds that they can become ill when separated from their friend! This social preference should be carefully considered when separating residents for treatment, for adoption, or to create a new, more harmonious herd dynamic. As always, approaching each animal as an individual with their own preferences is important and may differ from generalized understandings of them as a species.

    Nutritional Needs

    While donkeys, horses, and zebras share a common ancestor, the species Equus divided long ago. This eventually lead to the modern horses, donkeys, and zebras we know and admire today. Donkeys evolved in arid, inhospitable regions, resulting in their ability to thrive on diets a horse simply could not. They have an efficient digestive system, allowing them to digest rough, fibrous plant matter and eat more shrubs and tree matter with low nutritional value. They digest food more slowly than horses, allowing them to absorb more nutrients from this poorer-quality plant matter. A pasture where a horse would thrive is a pasture where a donkey might need special attention to ensure their nutritional requirements are met and not exceeded. Remember, donkeys can do more with less!

    As you can see, there are some important differences between donkeys and horses to consider when planning their care. In addition to these species-specific differences, individuals will have their own unique preferences and bodily needs. Considering both the species and the individual when preparing a care plan will help you successfully meet each resident donkey’s needs and provide a comfortable home for them.


    Want a fun and easily shareable way to learn about the differences between donkeys and horses? Check out the infographic below!

    Donkeys Are Different by Amber D Barnes


    Understanding Donkey Characteristics | The Donkey Sanctuary

    The Donkey Factsheet | Easter Bush Veterinary Centre 

    Donkey Foot Care – Notes For Farriers | The Donkey Sanctuary (Trigger warning: there are real anatomical examples in this source which could be upsetting to readers.)

    Pharmacological And Pharmacokinetic Differences Between Donkeys And Horses | Equine Veterinary Education (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Hair Coat Properties Of Donkeys, Mules, And Horses In A Temperate Climate | Equine Veterinary Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Social Relations In A Mixed Group Of Mules, Ponies And Donkeys Reflect Differences In Equid Type | Behavioural Processes (Non-Compassionate Source)

    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.

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