One of the roles of the Vet Projects Department is to provide feeding advice to donkey owners and keepers. We have had a busy few weeks with lots of calls coming through from owners of donkeys wanting to know how to feed their donkeys appropriately at this time of year. It is often during these months that elderly donkeys may struggle to maintain weight and need supplementary feeding. In general feeding donkeys that are fit and healthy with good teeth is extremely easy. Donkeys are amazing at obtaining as much from their food as possible, they have evolved to live in semi arid environments where the quality of food available is very poor and subsequently are masters at eating and digesting tough, fibrous plants.
In the UK the most common problems that we come across are donkeys that are overweight or elderly donkeys that are struggling to eat hay and straw and need these 'long fibres' replacing with something more manageable. So first of all what should you feed a healthy donkey with good teeth? (remember that your donkey's teeth should be checked by a qualified professional at least once per year). Healthy donkeys thrive on a basic diet of good quality feeding straw (barley is best) with a little hay and very restricted grazing. This diet allows the donkey to satisfy his natural appetite without putting on weight. In my experience the addition of supplements is unnecessary unless specifically recommended by a vet. Overweight donkeys are more prone to life threatening diseases such as hyperlipaemia and laminitis so it is important to prevent your donkey becoming overweight before it happens – you can diet donkeys but it is very difficult and must be done with care, seek advice if unsure!
This week I spoke to the owner of Fudge an elderly donkey with very poor teeth. The equine dentist had been out to see him and made him as comfortable as possible but unfortunately old age was catching up with him and he had lost a number of teeth. After chatting to his owner we decided that Fudge was no longer able to manage his straw and hay. We decided we would have to provide Fudge with what we call a 'Haynet in a Bucket'. This involves providing Fudge with a chopped fibre product that he doesn't have to chew too much and that will not cause problems such as impaction colic. In the short term I also advised that Fudge should be fed some high fibre nuts and unmolassed sugar beet to help him put a little bit of weight on safely. All of the feed types that we recommend for donkeys are safe for laminitics (if you're not sure look on the bag, if it's safe it will say) and are high in fibre. We do not advise that donkey owners feed cereal based products (cubes or mixes) as these can increase the risk of the donkey developing laminitis and gastric ulcers unless fed very carefully. Donkeys do very well on these natural fibre feeds, here at the Donkey Sanctuary we feed all of our animals on this basis.