Any owner enquiries regarding feeding are dealt with by our small team working in the Research Department which falls under the guidance of our Head of Research, Dr Faith Burden. Faith has, over the years, pioneered the development of several donkey-specific feed products, working successfully with several of the major horse feed manufacturers to make a range of donkey feeds commercially available in the UK. Advising owners on general feeding and dietary management of specific diseases has also fallen under the remit of the Research Department.
We have put together a few typical enquiries that come our way in the hope that they may answer some of the more common feeding issues that donkey owners and carers come across. Please feel free to contact us via our feeding and nutritional advice form if you haven’t found an answer to your query here, or contained within one of our donkey health and welfare fact sheets.
Ideal weight, healthy adults
Query details: Cedric, a castrated male aged 4 has recently been acquired as a companion to Millie aged 5. Both are a healthy condition score 3. They are at grass during the day and have been fed hay and a handful of pony nuts when they come in to the barn at night. The owners’ main concern is whether they are getting enough vitamins and minerals.
Answer: Cedric and Millie are both healthy, fully grown adults, in an ideal body condition with no health or dental complications. These two represent most adult donkeys who only need to be fed for maintenance. The owners need to gradually introduce straw to the diet, and consider whether it is really necessary to feed a handful of pony nuts. Cedric and Millie don’t need the extra calories and feeding only a handful the nuts will not be providing adequate vitamins and minerals.
- Introduce good quality, clean feeding straw. The ideal straw for these two would be barley straw, although if this is hard to find then wheat straw would be a good second choice.
- Check any new straw supply to make sure it is not mouldy or dusty. Shake a sample of the bale out over a tarp or blanket on the ground to make sure there is no retained grain within the bale. Any cereal grain that is baled with the straw should be removed before feeding and/or an alternative supply sought.
- Fresh straw should be given every day, and whatever isn’t eaten can be added to the bedding the next day.
- Straw should make up 75% of the diet for the majority of the year (most of spring, summer and autumn) and 50% of the diet through the winter.
- The remainder of the diet should be made up of grazing or hay/haylage (not both) during fine weather, and if necessary grazing and hay/haylage in the winter.
- All donkeys should have access to fibre (in this case mainly straw) 24 hours a day. They should be allowed to eat to appetite and need not be restricted on the amount made available. There is no set amount of how many flakes or bales of straw should be fed, as it will vary according to your donkeys’ size, build and activity level, etc.
- Donkeys on a forage based diet should be given either an equine specific non-molassed vitamin and mineral lick, or a balancer such as Top Spec Donkey Forage Balancer to ensure that they are getting enough vitamins and minerals to remain healthy.
- Feeding a handful of nuts when coming in could be exchanged for the forage balancer as this will provide more vitamins and minerals and less calories. Forage balancers are designed to be fed in small amounts as they are nutrient dense and supplement an existing diet without adding quantity. Top Spec Donkey Forage Balancer is fed at 100g per 100kg of bodyweight and is tasty enough to be fed alone, or mixed with existing feeds such as nuts and chaff.
Elderly donkey, trouble chewing food, slightly underweight
Query details:Doris, aged 32 recently had some dental work and doesn’t have very many functional teeth left. Her owner has noticed her dropping partially chewed mouthfuls of food (quidding) and is concerned that she has been losing weight. Doris is a condition score 2.5, weighs approximately 150 kg and lives with a companion of a similar age and condition. Doris is currently fed on barley straw, hay and one 300 g meal of Donkey Diet per day. She is out at grass during the day and stabled at night.
Answer: Due to Doris not having very many teeth left, and not being able to chew very well we would recommend putting her onto a short chop chaff product instead of hay and straw. As Doris is elderly, underweight and having trouble chewing food she needs to up her calorie and nutrient intake to avoid losing further weight, and have enough food made available that she is able to chew and swallow without the risk of choking. We don’t recommend sudden changes in diet, or adding in lots of new ‘conditioning’ products as these often don’t help donkeys gain weight. In this case we would recommend increasing the existing feeds and sticking to a simple fibre based diet, providing extra nutrients through an appropriate balancer.
- Swap straw and hay for a short chop product such as Mollichaff Donkey or Spillers Happy Hoof - these products should be fed ad lib or provided several times per day to avoid periods of hunger.
- Monitor Doris’s ability to eat grass, some dental issue donkeys can grasp and chew mouthfuls of grass whereas others cannot. Extra chaff will need to be provided in the paddock if Doris is unable to graze
- If stabled on straw consider swapping to shavings.
- Gradually increase to two feeds of 300 g Donkey Diet per day.
- Dampen down the Donkey Diet prior to feeding to minimise the risk of choke.
- Supplement with TopSpec Comprehensive Balancer to provide more protein, vitamins and minerals. Fed at 100 g per 100 kg bodyweight, so 150 g per day for Doris’s weight.
- Record heart girth and condition score fortnightly to assess progress.
- Reassess programme in 8 weeks’ time after which further changes can be made to the diet if necessary.
Query details: Max and Milo, both 12 yearr old castrated males have been recently acquired by a couple who are new to donkeys. They have come from a previous home where they were fed hay twice a day and have arrived with a bag of pasture mix. They have 24 hour access to grazing as they live in a field with a shelter and an area of hard standing. Both are condition score 5 and weigh approximately 220 kg each, the new owners would like them to lose weight and are keen to ‘do everything right’.
Max and Milo have been fed inappropriately and as a result are overweight. We never recommend feeding cereals to donkeys and instead encourage a high fibre, low sugar diet for all types of donkeys. Grazing should be considered supplementary to the mainstay diet of good, clean straw. A steady programme of altering their dietary management and weight loss needs to be implemented.
- Slowly decrease the amount of pasture mix being fed, with a view to dropping it from the diet totally over the next 4-6 weeks.
- Introduce barley straw to be fed on an ad lib basis. Any straw not eaten on one day can be added to the bedding the following day.
- Donkeys not used to eating straw may take a while to come around to the idea, as would anyone swapping from cream cakes to bran flakes!
- Grazing needs to be restricted so that Max and Milo are eating grass as a top up to their straw. Strip grazing (using electric fencing to ration the paddock) is more effective than limiting time at grass as donkeys will gorge themselves when time rather than area is limited. Using a grazing muzzle isn’t recommended for donkeys as they tend to either sulk and get very depressed (and risk developing hyperlipaemia) or figure out how to get it off!
- Track grazing systems can be useful, where creative strip grazing is employed to encourage donkeys to move through corridors of grazing to get to and from shelter/water/feed, etc.
- Exercise will help to burn off extra weight and can take the form of in-hand walking, driving, riding and other ‘work’, provided Max and Milo lead well enough and are fully insured.
- To ensure that Max and Milo are getting enough vitamins and minerals they can be given an equine specific non-molassed vitamin and mineral block, or Top Spec Donkey Forage Balancer at the rate of 100 g per 100 kg of bodyweight per day so 220 g each once a day.
- Ensure that Max and Milo always have straw available to eat as this will keep them feeling full, but not put on any more weight.
- Donkeys should never be put on a ‘starvation paddock’ due to the risk of developing hyperlipaemia when food intake is seriously restricted.
- Condition score and take heart girth measurements fortnightly to keep a track of progress. Using height and heart girth measurements you can calculate an approximate weight using the weight estimator (link). We do not like to see donkeys lose more than about 5kg each month. This will be a long term project and results may take a while to be seen.
- Weight loss in donkeys is kinder and more effective when a holistic approach is taken. Recognising that giving time and attention can be just as enjoyable for the donkey as a handful of treats. Encouraging movement through environmental enrichment such as track grazing, woodchip rolling areas, strategically placed healthy treats such as a daily carrot in a pile of straw, safe logs and branches for chewing, cattle back scratchers and horse toys, etc.
- Finally, recognising when to stop the weight loss programme can difficult, as donkeys that have previously been overweight may always have fat deposits or pads leftover from their overweight days. These fat pads need to be disregarded when condition scoring a once fat donkey that is now lean over the rest of the body.