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    How To Conduct A Donkey Health Check

    A donkey in a grassy field close to the camera.

    Updated April 10, 2020

    Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly evaluate the health of donkeys with a routine health check rather than waiting until a donkey is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy donkey looks and feels like, but familiarizing a donkey with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health checks are important, check out our resource here.

    *A Health Check Every Six To Eight Weeks Means Daily Observations

    Our recommendation to conduct routine health checks every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations.  Caregivers should be trained to observe animals both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species and their warning signs.  Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations.

    Residents With Challenging Backgrounds

    Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health check is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

    New Resident? Conduct An Intake Evaluation!

    If you are conducting an initial health evaluation on a new resident, check out our intake evaluation resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

    Problem Signals

    By paying regular attention to the herd, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. Donkeys tend to be more stoic than horses, and therefore require a much closer look to determine if something is amiss. A sick, injured, or otherwise distressed donkey may:

    • Avoid contact or appear nervous more often than they used to
    • Change their daily schedule or general behavior
    • Have labored breathing, coughing, choking, sneezing or a constantly open mouth
    • Be immobile, inactive or unresponsive to your approach
    • Be stretched out or frequently sitting and standing in order to relieve colic
    • Frequently tremor or lack coordination
    • Be sitting far more often than usual
    • Avoid or be rejected by the rest of the herd
    • Stamp their feet
    • Grind their teeth frequently
    • Have a limp in their step
    • Have unusual or abnormal droppings including diarrhea, blood in stool, or worms
    • Be less hungry or thirsty than usual, or drink water excessively
    • Have an odd posture like hunching over or avoiding putting weight on one of their legs
    • Have a bulge or non-uniform abdomen or belly (this could indicate a serious parasite infection)
    • Have an abnormally strong odor
    • Sweat more than usual
    • Have an internal body temperature not in the range of 97-100 degrees Fahrenheit
    • Have a heart rate outside of 36-68 resting beats per minute
    • Have pale skin or mucous membranes
    • Have unusual abscesses on their body or in their mouths (potentially signifying a serious infectious condition called Pigeon Fever)
    • Be reluctant or averse to urinating or urinating frequently

    In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health check on the donkey. Generally, the health check should begin at their head, working your way back and down. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case your veterinarian needs the donkey’s history.

    Safety First!

    Donkeys can potentially become ill with disease that is transmissible to humans. It’s very important to wear gloves when conducting health checks!

    Conducting The Health Check

    Ask An Expert

    Prior to regularly conducting donkey health checks, you should have a veterinarian or a compassionate care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best donkey health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish abnormalities from normal anatomy and healthy conditions can be crucial in early health problem detection, and the sooner you are able to bring concerns to your veterinarian, the sooner they’ll be able to work towards making a diagnosis and recommending any necessary interventions!

    Before stepping into a donkey’s living space, you should take note of the donkey’s behavior, as subtle as it may sometimes be. Are they acting differently than they usually do? How are they getting along with fellow herdmates? These clues can say a lot about a donkey’s health.

    If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health check or help safely restrain the donkey with a halter. Once you have the donkey calm and ready, conduct the following observations:

    When In Doubt...

    Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any health concerns you find during the course of a health check to your veterinarian or a care expert. Unless they’re in a life-threatening situation, you should be your resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

    Check their weight and body condition

    It’s important to keep regular measurements or estimates of a donkey’s weight. If a donkey has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or other parasites. If a donkey is mature and has gained a large amount of weight in a short time, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with alfalfa, treats, and snacks. Obesity-related complications can regularly lead to dangerous conditions in donkeys. You can estimate a donkey’s weight by taking consistent measurements of their body.

    Check their head

    How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, or tucking their head, this can be a sign of illness or injury. Check their head for abscesses, which could be a symptom of Pigeon Fever, which is highly contagious and requires quarantine and intervention.

    Check their eyes

    A donkey should have bright, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear, and not appear sunken. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, constantly blinking, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness, injury, or potentially the gradual development of blindness in older donkeys. The above symptoms could also be signs of pink eye, which is highly contagious. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal). Take note of the skin around their eyes- if it’s much paler than usual, it could be a sign of anemia or another disease.

    Check their ears

    Their ears can have a modest amount of earwax or debris in them, but should be clear of any ear mites. Excessively sticky, yellow, or odorous earwax needs addressing. You can use a gauze pad to clear out excess earwax or to sample potential ear mites. If you are in a particularly cold area, you should ensure that their ears are not excessively cold or even potentially frostbitten, and consider offering some sort of cold weather ear protection.

    Check their nose

    A donkey’s nose should be free of any discharge, fluid, crustiness, or blood. Their nose should be soft and moist, and not cracked. You shouldn’t typically see much movement in their nose or hear much as they breathe; consistently flared nostrils or any noisy breathing from their nose could indicate breathing or respiratory system trouble. An excessively runny or blocked nose could be a symptom of allergies, dust irritation, or an upper respiratory infection.

    Check their mouth

    You shouldn’t be able to hear a donkey breathe in ideal circumstances. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Generally, a mature donkey should have between 12-20 breaths per minute. A breathing-impaired donkey might have a particularly serious respiratory system infection. They should not have a dry cough; donkeys rarely cough, and if they do, it’s likely a serious issue! Many of these symptoms could also be a result of pneumonia which donkeys can be highly susceptible to. Abnormalities should be immediately reported to your veterinarian. If they’re reluctant to eat, they might have a problem with one or more of their teeth that needs to be managed, or problems with their throat. Now take a look in their mouth. Their gums should not be red, very dark, or muddy looking, and there should not be any sores, abscesses, or scabs in their mouth, which could be caused by parasites, flies, or by grazing on poisonous plants. If the membranes around their lips and gums are dry, this indicates dehydration. If their mucous membranes are a notably paler complexion compared to their usual appearance, it could be a sign of anemia or other concerns. If a donkey has particularly bad breath, it could be symptomatic of an infection and require deeper examination.

    Check their digestive system

    You should get to know what your donkey’s digestive system typically sounds like; donkeys make diverse sounds in typical daily digestion, and being aware of what sounds “wrong” can go a long way in catching serious health problems early. You can check their digestive system by listening in the space between their final rib and their back leg, though you must take care because if there’s a chance they’re in pain, the donkey may kick at you for trying to get so close!

    It’s critical to check a donkey for symptoms of colic. If a donkey appears to be in pain, is looking at their flank frequently, is drooping their ears, has an absence of gut sounds or is making abnormal ones, is sweating excessively, has a high pulse, is lying down or attempting to roll frequently, appears dehydrated, is grinding their teeth, urinating frequently, not defecating, isn’t eating at all, is stamping their feet, has difficulty breathing, has anxiety or depression, has an impacted colon, is very gassy, or are stretching themselves out, this is a sign of colic. If you are at all concerned that a donkey might have colic, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. In cases like these, it’s crucial to keep the donkey moving while waiting for veterinary intervention.

    Check their skin

    Check around a donkey’s entire body to ensure healthy skin. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just those included in this list.  This thorough section of the health check is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed.  Their skin should not have lice, mange, itchiness, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae, maggots, dry patches, blisters, or pressure sores. Abscesses on their body could be a symptom of Pigeon Fever. Their hair should be clean and flat against their body, not standing on end. Ensure they do not have any patchy hair loss or an unusually dull coat, which could be a sign of parasites or a mineral deficiency. Check their tail for hair loss and parasites as well. As a donkey ages, they may not shed their wintertime coats as effectively as it gets warm, and they might need some extra grooming assistance.

    Check their joints

    It’s important to check a donkey’s joints in their legs and shoulders for swelling or tenderness. They should not be much warmer than the rest of their body. Ensure that the donkey doesn’t have pain when they move their joints. There should be no cracking or crunching sounds when they move, and they shouldn’t be avoiding putting weight on any of their joints in particular. Joint inflammation could be a sign of arthritis, which is prevalent in donkeys as they get older.

    Check their hooves and feet

    Carefully check each of a donkey’s hooves. Make sure they are a reasonable length and free of cracks, heat, swelling, debris, or abscesses. Any of these symptoms can cause lameness, discomfort, and could possibly contribute to infections and further damage. They should be able to put their full weight on their feet and they shouldn’t limp. If they are limping, check their hoof bottoms for uncomfortable debris. If their hooves are overgrown, schedule a trimming with a farrier as soon as you can. Generally, donkeys should have their hooves trimmed about once every six to ten weeks depending on the pasture terrain and the individual. If a donkey has any of the above issues with their feet, or if you smell a foul, sulfurous odor coming from their hooves, it could be a sign of thrush, requiring immediate treatment.

    Check their rear end

    A donkey’s rear end under their tail should be relatively clean. Their rear end shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty or bloody. Ensure that they don’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Make sure that the rear end isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you must consult with a veterinarian. Check their udders and ensure that they are not hot, swollen, painful, or tough, which can be a symptom of Mastitis and requires treatment. If a donkey is struggling to urinate, it can be a sign of bladder stones or another urinary tract issue and require veterinary intervention.

    Check their poop

    It’s important to monitor a donkey’s poop to recognize what healthy donkey droppings look like, which can be quite diverse between donkeys, and even different days. Healthy donkey poop is greenish to brown, moist, formed in balls with no recognizable piece of food in them that can be easily broken up. Donkey droppings shouldn’t be runny, nor should they be too hard, nor should they look like a “cow pie”. If they’re poorly formed, watery, strong smelling, yellow, or bloody, it could be a sign of dehydration, diarrhea, parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for analysis, though you should consider fecal testing healthy-seeming donkeys at a regular interval to check for internal parasites. Conversely, ensure that the donkey has regular bowel movements, as a struggle to poop could signify early signs of Colic. Their urine should not be very dark and concentrated, or contain blood in it.

    Isolate if necessary

    If you notice that a donkey is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the donkey in order to protect the rest of the herd from a potentially infectious disease.  However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a donkey is showing symptoms, the other residents in the herd have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick donkey who is isolated from their herd may become more stressed, which could delay recovery.  Depending on the health concern, separating the donkey with a calm companion might be a good compromise.

    Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know an individual donkey and what good donkey health looks like, you’ll be an excellent donkey health ally in no time!

    Writing It All Down

    As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your donkey health checks, we’ve developed a free printable donkey health check form for sanctuaries and rescues!


    The Truth About Donkeys, Horses, And Lungworm | The Donkey Sanctuary

    Equid Respiratory Systems | The Brooke

    A Guide To Donkey Care | American Mule Association (Non-Compassionate Source)

    The Scoop On Poop | Horse & Rider (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Signs Of Horse Illness | Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Knowing When To Call The Vet For Your Horse | Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Know Your Healthy Horse | Equisearch (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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