Perhaps the biggest welfare issue for donkeys and their owners in this country today is their tendency towards obesity when fed high energy diets by well meaning owners coupled with the fact that very few are worked. Health problems seen in UK donkeys are commonly caused by overfeeding of animals often through lack of information and a skewed vision of what a healthy body condition looks like. It is essential that owners are encouraged to keep their donkeys in a healthy body condition as unfortunately solving the problem of overweight donkeys is a very difficult task.
Dieting an overweight donkey
Dieting an overweight donkey is extremely difficult and is an issue that needs to be tackled from many angles. The diet of the animal is often only part of the problem with lack of exercise, companion issues and mental stimulation all needing to be addressed as well.
The diet of a fit healthy donkey should consist of good quality fibres such as barley straw with limited hay and grazing. In the case of obese animals the grazing must be very tightly restricted by strip grazing and owners need to be guided more by reducing the area of land the donkey has available than the grass (or lack of) that they can see. Simply reducing time at grass is not an effective measure as donkeys very quickly learn if they are on time-restricted grazing to stuff themselves in the short period of time available. Whereas reducing the area but having 24 hour access to grazing encourages more natural behaviour of grazing interspersed with other activities.
Feed ad lib barley straw with limited grazing
Obese donkeys need nothing more than ad lib barley straw with limited grazing in the summer and straw with limited hay in the winter. If there are concerns about vitamin and mineral deficiency then vitamin and mineral balancers may be fed to balance the diet (we always recommend balancers marketed as ‘laminitic safe’ – please contact us directly for further details). Don’t forget to check your feeding and bedding straw for retained grain as this will not help with weight loss and may pose a laminitis risk, you can check it by shaking it out over a tarpaulin.
Encourage your donkey to exercise
In order to help donkeys lose weight they must be exercised and encouraged to work for their food, obviously ridden or in hand exercise is ideal but in homes where this is inappropriate other methods can be employed. Donkeys can be encouraged to ‘work’ for their food by using sloping pastures, placing feedstuffs in different locations (i.e. spread in 4-5 different locations in the field), hiding non-calorific treats such as chopped carrots in the bedding, providing stable toys and employing long narrow strip grazing areas. Putting some thought into the paddock/shelter layout can be really beneficial sometimes it’s possible to fence around in a circle or to fence so that the donkeys have to walk a distance between the shelter and the water for example. Invariably the key to dieting donkeys is to encourage more activity and to stimulate their minds, all of the above methods of environmental enrichment can be used in tandem with dietary restriction to encourage weight loss.
Introduce any feed changes gradually
It is extremely important when dieting donkeys to make feed changes gradually and to monitor animals closely. Animals should be condition scored weekly and records kept of their heart girth measurements (a nomogram for weight estimation is available from the Donkey Sanctuary). Progress when dieting donkeys is slow and perseverance is very important, it often takes time for the first amounts of weight to be lost, however once this process begins weight loss should be gradual and not excessive. The owner and veterinarian should also know when is time to stop, donkeys lay down fat in very different areas to that seen in horses and invariably these fat pads (often seen on the crest, rump and flanks) do not disappear completely despite the animal being in an ideal condition. Although it is a difficult task dieting donkeys gradually to attain a healthy body condition will have health and mental benefits for the animal and will almost certainly lead to the donkey’s life expectancy being extended.