Training compassionate vets for calmer donkeys

Presentation date


Working donkeys and mules often require veterinary intervention for a variety of clinical problems. It is crucial that vets, animal health professionals and other equine professionals have a sound knowledge of donkey and mule behaviour to enable them to assess the animals and provide treatment in a species-accurate, humane and compassionate way.

Handling techniques affect equine welfare

The way in which donkeys and mules are handled can affect their welfare since quality of life is measured not only by physiological factors but also by emotional and affective states (1). Negative interactions can contribute to the development of fearful behavioural responses which can persist for a long time after the interaction takes place. Correct application of behaviour modification techniques can positively develop the human-animal bond and help the animal to remain calm during required veterinary procedures, often meaning that painful methods of restraint are not required. Simple techniques for approaching equines, taking rectal temperatures, using stethoscopes and appropriate restraint can, and should, be used to reduce stress for all aspects of a veterinary examination and treatment.

Human body language

Correct approach to an equine patient is vital to minimise stress and to prevent a flight response. Equines are sensitive animals who can detect very subtle body language signals. The body language and behaviour of the veterinary surgeon and animal handler can influence the animal’s behaviour; approach with calm, relaxed body language and allow the animal the opportunity to investigate you.

A relaxed, calm approach:

  • Rounded shoulders
  • Relaxed muscle tone, gentle movements
  • No direct eye contact
  • Indirect approach from the animal’s shoulder
  • Allowing time for the animal to investigate.

Practical application:

  • Using a stethoscope
  • Allow the animal the chance to have a look at your equipment
  • Introduce the stethoscope to the animal’s body gradually, starting in an area that is not too sensitive
  • Stroke or scratch the animal to provide reassurance as you work
  • Taking a rectal temperature
  • Help the animal to relax by approaching steadily from the side
  • Scratch the animal along his body and on either side of his tail to encourage relaxation
  • Do some gentle lifts of the tail before lifting to insert the thermometer.

Less is more

When considering methods of restraint for veterinary examination consider that often ‘less is more’. Distressed and fearful animals are more likely to display erratic behaviours and become more likely to cause injury to themselves or their handlers (2). If calm, consistent handling is not sufficient to keep an equine calm during examination, and restraint is required, the least invasive and minimally aversive restraint options, such as a head hold or the raising of one leg, should be attempted first.

Ear twitches should not be used on equines; a recent study (3) found a significant increase in sympathetic tone and salivary cortisol levels when an ear twitch is applied and it also led to the development of avoidance behaviour indicating the aversive-ness of this procedure. Equines can become sensitised to aversive events or procedures after very few exposures (4) therefore aversive procedures should be avoided wherever possible and stress experienced during veterinary procedures must be kept to an absolute minimum.