Believe it or not spring is around the corner! After a particularly wet winter we are all looking forward to the grass starting to grow and daylight hours getting longer. Spring is a wonderful time of year and our donkeys and mules enjoy it as much as we do. However, there are hidden dangers in spring and the dreaded words obesity and laminitis often rear their ugly heads at this time of year. It is time to start adjusting feeding regimes, dusting off the electric fencing, condition scoring your donkeys and paying attention to your land.
The increased temperatures and daylight hours bring with them increased grass growth which can lead to laminitis and obesity in all equines, but particularly in donkeys. Donkeys have evolved to be hardy desert animals able to survive on the poorest quality plant material and in the hottest climates; unfortunately lush spring grass may seem like heaven to our donkeys and mules but they really are not able to cope with it very well. Laminitis is a very painful condition which can lead to the structures of the foot being permanently damaged and in some cases animals may need to be euthanased. There are many causes of laminitis but by far the most common in the UK and other temperate climates is inappropriate feeding. Allowing donkeys to have free access to lush, spring grazing or feeding cereal based feeds are common reasons for donkeys suffering from laminitis. You may ask why these seemingly pleasurable and enjoyable feeds for donkeys can cause such harm? Spring grass and cereals contain high amounts of sugar and starch which are strongly implicated in the development of laminitis in donkeys, mules, horses and ponies. In spring when grass is growing rapidly the amounts of sugar in even small quantities of grazing can be enough to trigger a laminitic attack at worst, and at best may pile on the pounds. A way to look at your grazing is to imagine every square metre of the grass being covered in Mars bars – you wouldn’t let your donkey out to have free access to an acre or more of Mars bars would you?!
Thankfully most donkeys can be allowed some access to the grass that they love so much, but as with anything it should be enjoyed in moderation and should be ‘part of a calorie controlled diet’ with exercise being an important part of a donkey’s daily life – sound familiar? We can control the amount of lush grass our donkeys have access to by using electric fencing and strip grazing paddocks. Strict care needs to be taken to move the fence a small amount every day, or every other day, but also to keep the area of grazing small (grass will continue to grow even where it looks like it has been totally eaten by the donkeys). As donkeys will not be able to satisfy their appetite with restricted grazing it is important to continue to supply them with straw to munch on at all times and if you can give them safe logs to chew on they will really appreciate this too! I am always asked by owners how much grazing, hay, straw or feed to give their donkeys – although there are scientific formulas the answer is very simple – be guided by your donkey’s condition score and weight. The Donkey Sanctuary has a nomogram and body condition scoring charts available so that you can keep an eye on your donkey’s weight. It is a great habit to get in to a weekly or monthly programme of weigh taping and condition scoring at this time of year so that you can notice if your donkey or mule starts to lose or gain condition. If your donkey is on the fat side (condition 3.5 or above) then you need to reduce access to energy rich feeds such as grass, hay and any concentrate feeds but perhaps increase access to more fibrous forage such as straw. Exercise is also an important part of weight control so take advantage of those longer spring and summer evenings and take your donkeys and mules out for a walk! If your donkey is underweight then increasing hay a little or providing a laminitic safe, high fibre concentrate feed may be the answer – do not be tempted to give free access to grazing in the Spring as this may lead to problems.
Finally our donkeys and mules will be spending much more time out in their paddocks so it is important to check fencing is adequate and has no sharp edges and that the field does not contain any poisonous plants such as ragwort. Parasite control is also an important consideration and to help prevent donkeys becoming infected with worms it is good practice to remove dung from grazing at least twice per week or if possible daily. I hope you all enjoy the extra daylight hours and warmer temperatures and get to spend that extra bit of quality time with your donks and mules!