A new study from The Donkey Sanctuary shows that donkeys, and to a lesser extent mules, are less able than horses to adapt to colder, wetter climates and therefore require additional protection in the winter to meet their welfare needs.

Since 2015 The Donkey Sanctuary has been working in collaboration with Dr Britta Osthaus, Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and Dr Leanne Proops, Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, both specialists in animal behaviour and cognition.

The study, Protection from the Elements: A comparative study of shelter use, hair density and heat loss, aims to provide the first scientific assessment of the extent to which donkeys require protection from the elements across the range of environmental conditions typically experienced in the British Isles.

The findings from the first part of the project are now published in the Equine Veterinary Journal. It reports how measurements of the insulation properties of the hair samples (weight, length and thickness) indicate that donkeys’ coats do not change significantly across the seasons and that their coats were significantly lighter, shorter and thinner than that of horses and mules in winter. In contrast the coats of horses and ponies changed significantly between seasons, growing much thicker in winter.

Dr Faith Burden, director of research at The Donkey Sanctuary said: “For many years it has been the ‘common sense’ advice given by The Donkey Sanctuary to ensure that donkeys and mules are given the right protection from our cold winters. This study now provides us with scientific evidence to show why the welfare needs of donkeys and mules differ slightly to those of horses and ponies, and how we can act to give them better protection from the elements.”

Further publications from the project are planned, looking at heat loss and the behavioural responses of donkeys and horses to different weather conditions.

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The full article is published in the Equine Veterinary Journal.