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The Donkey Low Down

Updated on February 22, 2020
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Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Donkeys number 44 million in a global census. There are 51,000 miniature donkeys registered with the American Miniature Donkey Registry and about 11,000 standard size donkeys registered with the American Donkey and Mule Society. The Bureau of Land Management reports 3,613 wild donkeys, also known as burros, in the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Oregon. The USDA reports that donkeys make up 12.2 percent of the equid types used in the country's equine operations.

It is thought the first domesticated donkeys descended from the Nubian wild ass, while others suspect they came from the Somali wild ass of Africa because they have leg stripes, which are also common to many donkeys. Egyptians first domesticated donkeys around 4000 BCE. The use of donkeys for transportation and beasts of burden spread from Egypt to southwestern Asia about 1000 BCE. Since that time they have been a major way of transporting goods and people all over the world.

Small donkeys in the western states are called burros, which is a Spanish word for donkey. Most of those are descended from donkeys brought to America by Spanish explorers and colonists hundreds of years ago. Donkeys come in a variety of sizes and colors. The mini, standard and mammoth can be shades of gray, brown, chestnut, rarely bay or black and sometimes spotted. Most have a dorsal stripe and shoulder cross.

Donkeys are cousins of the horse with some definite differences. While horses have 64 genes the donkey has 62. What we can see on the outside are longer ears, coarser hair with the mane and tail hair being shorter and stiffer than that of a horse. The donkey's hooves are smaller and the pastern has more angle. Donkeys do not have chestnuts on their rear legs like horses do, but they have more prominent ergots. Some larger donkeys' ergots are two inches in diameter and look more like a digital pad.

Donkeys have a straight, rather than arched, neck that ties into a witherless shoulder. The mane is short and stands up along the crest, and they do not have a forelock. The tail resembles that of a cow, with short hair until the end, where it finishes off in a tassel. Donkeys sound different, too. Their larynx is made slightly different than the horse, which accounts for their distinctively different sounding voice. The donkey's nasal passages are smaller than the horse's. Most donkeys are very vocal, braying to greet you or let you know its time to eat, or when they perceive danger.

Known to be hardy animals they live an average of 30 years, but have been known to live until forty years old. Donkeys do not need rich pasture or very much grain. In fact, one of the most common management problems is over feeding, which can lead to digestive, metabolic and foot problems.

Donkeys have a high pain threshold and this is a problem because conditions such as colic and founder can go into advanced stages before they are noticed. Owners are warned that mild signs of pain in a donkey should warn of serious trouble.

Feeding your donkey is much different that feeding horses. Donkeys have a unique metabolism, developed from their natural desert habitat, in that they need less energy and protein in their diet than horses. Be careful not to over feed your donkey. Donkeys thrive on forages high in fiber. For donkeys kept in a paddock, quality grass hay diluted with straw can provide adequate food with the straw satisfying their grazing instinct while limiting calories. Hay should be free of mold, weeds, or any foreign objects. Donkeys kept in a pasture will not need additional feed in the summer. In fact they may need their access restricted in the spring and summer months. This can be accomplished by dividing the pasture and rotating the donkeys on smaller tracts or by using a grazing muzzle. Supplement pasture with hay and straw in winter. Donkeys seldom need concentrated feeds or grains.

In addition to packing, pulling and riding donkeys are used as herd guards. Miniature horse owners and sheepherders like to keep a large standard or a mammoth donkey with their herds because donkeys will chase away dogs or other predators that venture into the pasture. He will also tattle; braying to let the world know his herd has been invaded. Miniature donkeys are particularly popular as pets. One reason donkeys make good pets is because they do not like to be alone, and are happy for companionship with their human friends, especially if there is not another donkey around.

Mammoth donkey and standard donkey

Most donkeys are of mixed breeds. In the US they are categorized according to size: miniature, standard and mammoth.
Most donkeys are of mixed breeds. In the US they are categorized according to size: miniature, standard and mammoth. | Source

Find out More About Donkeys

You can learn more about donkeys by reading The Book of Donkeys.

A good website to learn more is Love Its always a good idea to learn as much as you can before you become a donkey owner. Check with your cooperative extension service's livestock agent to find donkey owners in your area. Make an appointment to visit some of the donkey owners and their donkeys. Most will be happy to answer your questions.

 French Poitou Type Donkey
French Poitou Type Donkey | Source

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Donna Campbell Smith


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