Feeding Donkeys

In the equine world we certainly do see variation. From Quarter Horses to Arabians, from miniature horses to draft horses – we all know that our equine friends come in all shapes, sizes and colors. But with horses we can usually apply certain rules for feeding across a large variety of breeds with minimal adjustments.

Donkeys are something all together different. While they are related to horses and considered an equid, the way their digestive system functions is much different – donkeys have actually been compared to small ruminants in their capabilities to digest and utilize fiber. While under a visual inspection the digestive tract of a donkey and horse is the same, the way donkeys ferment and use fiber is unique. Donkeys (descendants of the wild ass)  originated as desert animals and are adapted to foraging on coarse plants and grasses. Due to their typical desert diet, their digestive system is much more efficient than that of a horse, and therefore donkeys require a different feeding strategy.

Donkeys do well on high fiber diets that are not rich in protein or carbohydrates

In many parts of the world, donkeys face the issue of malnutrition and starvation. In industrialized countries, just the opposite is true – the main problem among donkeys is obesity. In countries like the United States we present donkeys with energy rich food and usually don’t require them to work very hard for it. People tend to feed these animals just like horses – but a diet that may be perfectly fine for a maintenance horse could cause the average donkey to become grossly overweight. Here are some good tips to follow when feeding donkeys:

  • DO NOT overfeed!
  • Consider age, work requirement, environment and body weight of the animal
  • Monitor body condition continuously using the Donkey Sanctuary Scale
  • Carefully watch levels of carbohydrates and protein
  • High fiber diets are preferred
While you should always provide plenty of fresh, clean water to your donkeys, it is true that they have a lower requirement for water than horses. In fact, donkeys have one of the lowest requirements for water among domesticated animals with the exception of the camel. 
To correctly care for your donkey, remember that it is not just a “horse with longer ears”. Donkeys are unique in their nutritional and care requirements, but they will give you endless enjoyment if you manage them properly. 

 

Feeding Foals

Similar to human babies, the nutrition and care a foal receives in the “baby” stage can have an effect on its whole life – including soundness and development issues that may not become obvious until years down the road. Starting your foal on the right path to nutritional health will pay off not only in the immediate future but in the long term as well.

Within a few hours of being born your foal will take in the mare’s first milk. This milk is known as colostrum and it provides valuable antibodies that help prevent diseases. In the first several weeks of life your foal focuses on nursing to get all of his nutrition. Your foal should consume 15-25% of his bodyweight daily in milk and will be gaining from 2-3 lbs. per day. If you notice your foal nursing longer than 30 minutes at a time, you may need to investigate and make sure that the mare is producing enough milk to the foal.

Foal scratching face

Ferris with mom Rosie - foals exhibit the most entertaining behaviors....

As early as one week of age your foal may start taking some interest in feed by nibbling at hay or grain. This initial interest may be just a way of imitating mom, but the foal soon learns to use these other sources of nutrition and his digestive tract quickly adjusts to solid food. One of the things your foal may eat might not look all that appetizing to you, but coprophagy (eating manure) is now recognized as being normal in foal behavior. It is thought to be a way that the foal’s hindgut gets prepared ferment forages later on.

Between weeks 13 – 24 your foal’s source of nutrition from his dam is starting to dwindle as the lactating mare produces less and less milk. At this point we want to make sure that the foal has a good and balanced supplemental source of nutrition; you may want to start a creep feeding program to make sure your foal has good access to this supplemental diet. 

Foal feed needs to be focused on providing balance to the diet.  Metabolic bone disease is something almost all foal owners fear. Foals who grow too rapidly, gain weight too quickly or who have an imbalance in essential parts of the diet (minerals, protein, calories, etc.) can end up with these serious health issues, which can include DOD (Developmental Orthopedic Disease), physitis, contracted tendons and others. Make sure that you are providing  a good, digestible source of protein (tip: look for guaranteed levels of amino acids), correct amounts  of vitamins and minerals (particularly important are calcium & phosphorus,  copper & zinc and selenium & vitamin E)  and the right amount of calories for sound growth.

Check out our Equine Growth Chart to chart your foal’s progress!