Some people think because donkeys and horses look somewhat alike, they can eat the same things. But they are separate species and have different needs.
Donkeys are desert animals, and their bodies are not designed for rich pasture or grains.
Donkeys ideally should be kept on a dry lot. This is a lot with minimal or no grass growing on it. The southwest desert, such as in Arizona or Nevada, is an example of their natural habitat.
But when you put a donkey in the northwest USA, where it’s quite rainy, they may now be exposed to grass and feed that is too nutrient-dense to eat.
Are you feeding your donkey the same as your horse? Or maybe your donkey is getting a bit overweight. Read on to find out what your donkey should not eat and how you can keep your donkey healthy.
What Food is Harmful to a Donkey’s Health?
The donkey’s digestion system extracts nutrients from rough plants such as brushes and shrubs.
Food goes through the donkey’s digestive system more slowly than a horse’s. This means more nutrients are absorbed as they pass through.
Because of this, a diet that is too high in protein, starch, or sugar can cause a donkey to gain excess weight.
It’s easy to overfeed donkeys, and obesity is a significant concern for them, especially in miniature donkeys. It is essential to learn what and how much to feed a donkey.
Feed That is Too Rich for Donkeys
The following list is three things that horses may consume but are not suitable for donkeys.
- Grain: Corn, oats, wheat, and barley are examples of unsuitable grains for donkeys. They contain too much starch and sugar.
- Alfalfa: Alfalfa is a legume. It is much higher in protein than grasses and therefore unsuitable for donkeys. They will quickly become overweight if their only hay is alfalfa.
- Horse feed: Horse feed can contain grains. Also, horse feed is meant to make up most of the entire diet of a horse. Donkeys do not require a feed, especially sweet feed, which is a mix of grains with added molasses. This is too rich for donkeys.
Although some older donkeys can be fed a small amount of horse feed with high fiber content, healthy donkeys do not need the addition of a pelleted feed.
Unlimited Access to Pasture
Donkeys will very happily eat grass in a pasture or field, but this must be limited, especially in spring, when the grass is young and very green. The protein and sugar levels are too high.
Grass should be thought of as a supplement, not most of the diet.
Rather than allowing their donkeys to graze as much as they want, some people let their donkeys out in a pasture for a limited time per day, perhaps an hour or two.
This way, the donkeys don’t get too much fresh grass.
Other Harmful Foods or Poisonous Items
In addition to what has been listed above, some things are harmful or even poisonous to donkeys:
- Anything containing molasses or sugar, such as cookies, bread, and doughnuts.
- Animal or dairy products.
- Certain trees, shrubs, plants:
- The leaves of cherry, peach, plum, and red maple trees are especially dangerous.
- Other trees: Oak, black locust, black walnut, horse chestnut, and elderberry trees.
- Shrubs: Japanese yew and oleander.
- Plants: Foxglove, clover, and milkweed.
- Acorns and beans from mesquite trees.
- Certain fruit and vegetables:
- Cruciferous: Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, and bok choy.
- Nightshades: White and red potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant.
- Others: Leeks, garlic, avocado, and rhubarb.
The Wrong Treats for a Donkey
There are many treats that people and other pets can consume but are harmful to donkeys.
Treats that are not appropriate for donkeys include:
- Stone fruits: Peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, cherries, mangoes, and dates. These are all also high in sugar. Stone fruits are drupes. Even raspberries, blackberries, and mulberries are stone fruits; they are clusters of mini drupes.
- Chocolate: The chemical theobromine makes chocolate dangerous for horses and dogs.
- Cookies: It is the sugar in cookies that can cause problems.
- Sugar cubes: These are pure sugar; therefore, not recommended.
- Candy: These are also just about pure sugar.
What Can Happen if I Feed My Donkey the Wrong Thing?
If donkeys are allowed too much access to pasture, are fed grains, or the foods listed above, they can develop severe health conditions such as obesity and laminitis.
Donkeys are prone to obesity, especially miniature donkeys. This is why a proper diet is so important. When a donkey becomes obese, they develop fat pads on their body: The hips, neck, and back.
On the neck, the fat deposits can cause the crest of the neck to fall over. This condition can never be reversed, even if the donkey loses weight. A fallen crest doesn’t cause the donkey pain, however.
Laminitis is an inflammation of the tissue inside the hoof which causes lameness. If severe enough, it can be fatal.
If a donkey has this condition, he must be dealt with immediately. It can be treated, but he will likely have a recurrence.
Signs of laminitis are:
- Shifting weight from one hoof to another when standing
- Taking short steps when walking
- Lying down more often than is usual
- Hooves are hot
Your veterinarian may take x-rays of the hoof and recommend bedding of straw or shavings to help support the hoof, manage the diet, and restrict exercise.
He may also prescribe pain medication and possibly a sole support for the hoof.
Special Case: Elderly Donkeys
If your old donkey (generally, age 20 or more) is missing or has very worn teeth, he may need a modified or an alternative feed to receive the required nutrition.
Watch your donkey eat to make sure he is chewing and swallowing his hay. If he’s having trouble chewing or doesn’t swallow the chewed hay, he may need pre-chopped hay.
If that is still too much to chew, you can soak high-fiber pellets into a mash. Use pellets made for horses with laminitis so that you’re not giving your donkey too much protein or starch.
You can also add soaked beet pulp to the mash.
If your donkey needs more calories, you can add a small amount of vegetable oil to his feed. As with any donkey, provide plenty of clean water that is easily accessible.
What Should I Feed My Donkey?
Now that you know what not to feed your donkey, here is what you can and should feed him.
The Main Diet
In the UK, the Donkey Sanctuary recommends feeding barley straw. However, here in the United States, straws for feed can be hard to find. You can find straw for bedding, but it might not be clean enough for feed.
Most American donkeys eat grass hay, such as Bermuda or Timothy hay. The hay should amount to 1.5 – 1.8% of your donkey’s weight per day.
Fresh, clean water needs to be always available. In the winter, if it freezes, you can either use a water heater made for animal troughs or add hot water to it to warm it so your donkeys will drink enough.
You can give your donkeys supplements to add vitamins and minerals to their diet. You can purchase a forage balancer, which contains vitamins and minerals.
Salt should be in addition to a balancer. You can buy a salt block, but make sure it’s not for cattle and get one without molasses in it.
You can also purchase loose salt in a package. Many prefer this because the donkey’s tongue is not as rough as a horse’s to easily lick enough salt off the block.
The following can be given as a treat. Remember that a treat should not be a large part of your donkey’s diet.
- Fruits: Apples, bananas (including the peel), pears, watermelon, oranges, and strawberries.
- Vegetables: Carrots, parsnips, and celery. Cut into sticks to reduce the risk of your donkey choking.
- Trees/Shrubs – Pine, ash, beech, and mesquite (leaves only, not the beans) trees. Donkeys love branches. They will eat the leaves and chew off the bark. They will also use them to scratch against and drag them around.
- Other: Mint leaves and horse treats (especially low sugar/low carb ones).
- For use during training: Crimped oats and timothy hay cubes.
Even though cookies and candy (such as peppermints) are on the list of harmful treats, lower sugar animal cracker cookies and peppermints (the red and white striped discs) can be given very sparingly to your donkey.
The other items mentioned in the list above are lower risk than cookies and candy.
You have learned a lot about what not to feed and what is proper to provide your donkey. Following these guidelines will help to keep your donkey healthy.
Always consult your equine veterinarian for advice and any questions about your individual donkey.
If your donkey is showing pain symptoms, not feeling well, or not eating, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately.
Donkeys are stoic and don’t show pain, so early intervention is critical to helping your donkey through any health issue.
Now that you know what not to feed your donkey, as well as what you can feed him, you are on your way to having a healthy and happy donkey.