The recent sunny weather has been very welcome after a particularly cold winter. Here at the Sanctuary some of our animals are enjoying the opportunity to stretch their legs and have a bite of sweet grass. I have really enjoyed watching the first spring flowers appear, the foals that are frolicking in their paddocks and the oldies sunbathing quietly in their favourite spots. For me the joy of spring is a mixed blessing; my department is responsible for overseeing nutrition at the Sanctuary and also offers advice to donkey owners and vets around the world about managing problems that may be related to how the donkey or mule is fed. Spring is the time when we receive numerous phone calls and emails about donkeys and mules that have got laminitis, sometimes it is the first time they have suffered from this awful disease or in many cases this is a recurrent problem that causes severe pain for the donkey and untold worry for the owner and vet.
Laminitis is a complex disease that can cause severe pain and damage to the donkey’s feet. There are many suggested causes, in the UK and other developed countries the most likely cause is inappropriate feeding, this may include access to lush grass and feeding cereals and is frequently linked to the animal being obese. Unfortunately there is no ‘cure’ apart from good veterinary care and management; if a donkey has a serious episode or recurrent problems sadly it may need to be put to sleep. Thankfully good nutritional management can help to prevent laminitis and should be an important consideration for the owner of any donkey or mule.
The key factor at this time of year is the growth of spring grass, this rapidly growing grass is very rich and can contain high levels of sugar; there is a reason that donkeys go crazy for spring grass, it’s like suddenly being allowed to eat all the cream cakes! Allowing donkeys access to large areas of this sugary treat can mean that their digestive system becomes overwhelmed and the vital bacteria in their gut become damaged, research shows that they then release toxins. It is amazing to think that the knock on effect of eating too much grass and upsetting the donkey’s ‘good bacteria’ can lead to serious issues in their feet.
Donkeys appear to be particularly susceptible to laminitis which we think may be due to the fact that they evolved to live in the desert so their ‘good bacteria’ are even more sensitive to sugar overload than those of ponies and horses, there certainly is no lush grass in the desert!
So what can you do to prevent this worrying disease?
Well it really is simple, to keep your donkeys and mules safe and healthy you need to follow the simple mantra of keeping your donkey in a healthy body condition, restricting grazing, giving lots of exercise and having lots of fun! Donkeys should have their access to grazing limited by restricting the total amount of land they have available to them, restricting donkeys by shutting them off grass for a period of time really doesn’t achieve much. Donkeys will eat as much if given 8 hours of access to grass than if they were given 24 hours access, indeed too much time restriction can lead to boredom, stress and the donkey becoming so obsessed with stuffing the grass in that they may not even play, move and interact with those around them.
Restriction normally requires the use of electric fencing, carefully moving the fence a little every day (twice a day is ideal) will enable you to monitor how much your animals can access but don’t forget that everything they have already grazed will continue to grow so you may have to re-fence this area - think how quickly your lawn is growing but the donkey paddock doesn’t?!
Access to food sources other than grass is essential
For donkeys with good teeth straw is perfect and should be freely available; it is the donkey equivalent of fruit and veg - not as exciting as sugary green grass but welcome to snack on throughout the day and good to keep the body in trim shape. If grazing is in very short supply then some hay or haylage may also be welcome but try not to feed too much otherwise you may end up with a rotund long eared friend. We all know donkeys like to eat and they will happily consume vast quantities of treats and supplementary food, if your donkey is overweight then treats and supplementary feeds are unnecessary and in some cases may be harmful.
Exercise is the secret
And the fun part! Exercise is important for your donkey, walks are a welcome change (although make sure you’ve trained for all eventualities before heading out on the open roads) as are training sessions and learning new skills like riding and driving. Secretly they’re also great for getting us owners back in shape after a cosy winter in front of the fire.
Prevention is better than cure
Laminitis is an awful disease and prevention is better than cure. Simple steps to keep your donkey in a trim body condition will help to lower the risk of laminitis. Make yourself aware of the signs and symptoms that your donkey may exhibit - increased digital pulses, increased periods lying down, a ‘pottery’ gait and reluctance to move quickly. If you spot any of these signs or are at all worried you must seek veterinary attention immediately, laminitis can be a life threatening disease and one which should be assessed and treated quickly.
On a final note, I often hear the saying ‘my donkey has never had laminitis and is not prone to it’ or ‘I don’t strip graze because my donkey doesn’t get laminitis’, my response is EVERY donkey is a laminitic in the making and good management is the best chance you have to prevent it becoming your donkey that has laminitis!