Shelter seeking behaviour of healthy donkeys and mules in a hot climate

Exposure to environmental factors such as high temperatures and solar radiation levels present a welfare concern for many domestic equids. Understanding how these factors influence the shelter use of healthy equids can inform welfare guidelines. While there is research assessing horses’ responses to hot, dry climates, the use of shelter by healthy, semi-free ranging donkeys and mules has not been assessed. We observed the shelter seeking behaviour (SSB) of 109 donkeys and 21 mules, with free access to constructed shelters, across two locations during summer in Southern Spain. The location of each equid, either utilising a constructed shelter, outside unprotected or using natural protection, was observed. This was recorded alongside measures of environmental conditions including temperature, lux, wind speed and level of insect harassment. Equids were observed using some form of protection from the elements in 39% of observations. Increasing temperatures and lux levels predicted increased shelter use whereas temperature and wind speed were key predictors of outside protection use. Compared to donkeys, shelter seeking by mules was more sensitive to changes in a number of environmental factors including lux, temperature and level of insect harassment. Results indicate that rates of protection use are quite high in these conditions and that shelters are utilised under particular environmental conditions: high temperatures, high lux levels and increased wind speeds, indicating they are likely to confer a significant welfare advantage.

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Shelter seeking behaviour of donkeys and horses in a temperate climate

Domestic donkeys descended from wild asses, adapted to the semi-arid climates of Africa, whereas domestic horses originate from more temperate areas of Eurasia. Despite this difference in evolutionary history, modern domestic equids can be found throughout the world, in a wide range of conditions, many of which are very different from their natural environments. To explore the protection from the elements that different equid species may require in the temperate climate of the UK, the shelter seeking behaviour of 135 donkeys and 73 horses was assessed across a period of 16 months, providing a total of 13,513 observations. The location of each animal (inside a constructed shelter, outside unprotected or using natural shelter) was recorded alongside measures of environmental conditions including temperature, wind speed, lux, precipitation and level of insect challenge. Statistical models revealed clear differences in the constructed-shelter-seeking behaviour of donkeys and horses. Donkeys sought shelter significantly more often at lower temperatures whereas horses tended to move inside when the temperature rose above 20°C. Donkeys were more affected by precipitation, with the majority of them moving indoors when it rained. Donkeys also showed a higher rate of shelter use when wind speed increased to moderate, while horses remained outside. Horses appeared to be more affected by insect challenge, moving inside as insect harassment outside increased. There were also significant differences in the use of natural shelter by the two species, with donkeys using natural shelter relatively more often to shelter from rain and wind and horses seeking natural shelter relatively more frequently when sunny. These results reflect donkeys’ and horses’ adaptation to different climates and suggest that the shelter requirements of these two equid species differ, with donkeys seeking additional protection from the elements in temperate climates.

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  • We observed the shelter seeking behaviour of donkeys and horses in a temperate climate.
  • Overall donkeys sought shelter more frequently than horses, particularly when cold (<10˚C), rainy and windy.
  • Constructed shelter use by horses was low but they started to move inside as temperatures rose (>20˚C).
  • Horses sought natural shelter more than donkeys when sunny and appeared more affected by insects.
  • Differences in shelter seeking behaviour appear to reflect donkeys’ and horses’ adaptation to different climates.
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Shelter-seeking behaviour in domestic donkeys and horses in a temperate climate

Britta Osthaus
Leanne Proops
Sarah Long
Nikki Bell
Faith A. Burden
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Donkeys and horses differ substantially in their evolutionary history, physiology, behaviour and husbandry needs. Donkeys are often kept in climates that are colder and wetter than those they are adapted to and therefore may suffer impaired welfare unless sufficient protection from the elements is provided. We compared the shelter-seeking behaviours of donkeys and horses in relation to temperature, precipitation, wind speed and insect density. Our study collected 13,612 day-time data points (location of each animal, their activity such as feeding, resting, moving, etc., and insect-related behaviours) from 75 donkeys and 65 horses (unclipped and un-rugged) with free access to man-made and natural shelters between September 2015 and December 2016 in the South-West of the UK. Each animal was observed at least once a week, with an average of 65 observations per individual overall. Even though the UK climate is quite mild (1 to 33 degrees Celsius in our sample), the preliminary results showed clear differences in the shelter seeking behaviour between donkeys and horses. Overall donkeys were observed far more often inside their shelters than horses (χ2(1)=1,783.1, P<0.001). They particularly sought shelter when it was raining: there was a 54.4%-point increase (35 to 89.4%) in the proportions of donkeys sheltering in rainy conditions, in comparison to a 14.5%-point increase in horses (9.6 to 24.1%). Results of binary logistic regressions indicated that there was a significant association between species, precipitation and shelter-seeking behaviour (χ2(3)=2,750.5, P<0.001). Horses sought shelter more frequently when it got hotter, whereas donkeys sought shelter more often in colder weather (χ2(3)=2,667.3, P<0.001). The wind speed (range 0 to 8 m/s – calm to moderate breeze) had an effect on location choice, and this again differed significantly between donkeys and horses (χ2(3)=1,946.5, P<0.001). In a moderate breeze, donkeys tended to seek shelter whereas horses moved outside. The insect-related behaviours were closely related to temperature and wind speeds. The donkeys’ shelter-seeking behaviour strongly suggests that in temperate climates they should always have access to shelters that provide sufficient protection from the environment.

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Protection from the elements - part one: a comparative study of shelter use, hair density and heat loss in donkeys, horses and mules

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Observational data and quantitative measurements. Modelling using Generalised Linear Mixed Models (GLMM) to compare variables.


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.

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