In the UK, there are an estimated 10-15, 000 donkeys; most of these are kept as companion animals, while some are used for light riding/driving and as therapy animals.
Donkeys can be a long- lived equid with reported ages commonly into their late 20s and even 30s. As they are not required to perform as athletes, many donkeys enter old age with chronic geriatric problems that need diagnosing and managing.
The donkey is a species with pronounced pain masking behaviours (stoicism), and many serious, painful and even life-threatening illnesses may present only as a generally dull animal with reduced appetite.
There is a general lack of many preventative health measures provided to donkeys including regular dentistry, farriery, anthelmintic treatment, and even vaccination, microchipping and passporting. This means that donkeys not only are more likely to suffer disease themselves but also have the potential to act as sources of disease/infection to other equines.
The net results of all the above is that donkey welfare is frequently compromised and charities such as The Donkey Sanctuary are required to provide assistance or be involved in prosecutions against owners under the Animal Welfare Act.
There are many methods to assess welfare involving animal based and resource based indicators. The Animal Welfare Indicators (AWIN) for donkeys is founded on the principles of good feeding, good housing, good health and appropriate behaviour. Art the Donkey Sanctuary we are using this to monitor the herd health of our donkeys on a regular basis. A larger group of welfare indicators has been developed to assess welfare across the full spectrum of roles that donkeys play globally including in the meat, milk and skin trade. These type of assessments are particularly useful for providing information about groups of donkeys and how to prioritise resources to care for them.
For the individual donkey and owner we have developed a simple Quality of Life framework using eight objective easily identified criteria and one subjective criteria. These are charted on a regular basis with the owner and vet working together to agree on the scoring system.
The criteria that we have found to be of most value are:
- Body condition score - using donkey scales 1 (thin) to 5 (obese)
- Weight in kg - either weigh scales or heart /girth measurements and donkey normogram
- Feed - required to maintain weight or cope with condition
- Medication - for regular use e.g. to stabilise PPID cases, to manage lameness/stiffness
- Dental grade - using The Donkey Sanctuary grading system 1 (good) - 5 (poor)
- Appetite - monitor carefully to ensure no sham eating
- Movement - lameness grade 1 mild - 5 severe. Donkey normal values for radiological parameter of the feet should be used.
- Blood results - using donkey normal values
- Demeanour - general owner assessment of well being - this can be supplemented by a behavioural assessment form that is available to look at normal day to day activity patterns of the donkey.
The system developed uses donkey normal values and knowledge of the variations from the horse to interpret the findings and ensure correct dosing of medications.
When we use this system over a period of time there is a better understanding of the long term needs of the donkey by all parties – vets, owners, and paraprofessionals. Monitoring can result in changes to management that improve QoL and ensure a better life. Conversely monitoring can allow objective measurements to note decline in QoL so that all involved in the care of the donkey can make the decision that euthanasia may be the most humane option. Regular checks reduce the problem that is often seen when owners adapt to a poorer QoL as they fail to notice incremental changes in the animals’ well-being.
There are many ways as vets that we can help donkeys to live good lives; and by knowing their unique characteristics and differences from horses we can ensure that the welfare of donkeys we attend is as good as we can make it.