The domestic donkey is a descendent of the African wild ass and was first domesticated in approximately 3000 BC (Rossel et al., 2008). Current estimates of the worldwide donkey population are approximately 44 million (Starkey and Starkey, 2004) with the majority of donkeys providing transport and draught power in developing countries. Donkeys are tractable animals that come in a variety of sizes, with breeds ranging from miniatures of less than 91cm to mammoth jacks and andalucian donkeys reaching over 1.6 meters (Svendsen, 2009). The donkey evolved in desert areas and has adapted to eating poor quality fibrous plant material (Izraely et al. 1989). The donkey and its hybrid offspring the mule and hinny are renowned for their stoic natures and ability to survive in tough environments on poor quality food making them the work animals of choice in inhospitable areas of the world (Svendsen, 2009, Starkey and Starkey 2004).
Donkeys and mules are also used for leisure and competition in developed countries and are popular as children’s ride and drive animals or as mounts for trail riding. Keeping donkeys and mules in temperate environments as leisure animals can, however, put them at risk of diseases associated with obesity or inappropriate management. They therefore require careful feeding to help to prevent conditions such as laminitis, hyperlipaemia and gastric ulceration.
Donkeys, for many reasons, should not be considered as if they were small horses, studies have shown physiological (Hill et al. 2001, Liberatore et al. 2001) as well as pharmacological and pharmacokinetic differences between donkeys and horses (Lizarraga et al. 2004). Unfortunately, however, little specific detailed information about the nutritional needs of donkeys and mules is available and although some fundamental research has been carried out it is still far behind the field of horse nutrition. Much of the information in this chapter draws on scientific research but also the extensive experience of the authors in managing herds of both working and non-working donkeys as well as mules.