During the extremes of summer donkeys may require some changes to their management. Follow our advice to keep your donkeys healthy and comfortable in higher than normal temperatures.
Although donkeys evolved in semi-desert environments and their origins can be traced back to hotter climates of Africa and the Middle East this is a long way back in their history. Domesticated donkeys may still struggle with extremely hot environments as they are not adapted to the heat and often have thick hairy coats.
Access to Water
Ideally water should be freely available to donkeys at all times. For companion and pet donkeys a clean water source such as a trough, automatic drinker or buckets must be provided in the environment. Natural water sources such as streams, rivers and lakes need to be assessed to make sure that the water is not contaminated, and that access is safe and minimises the risk of getting stuck or drowning. A donkey's water requirement is the same as that of a similar sized horse or pony. Ensure all drinking troughs or vessels are kept clean and topped up.
For donkeys that are used for riding, driving or work that affects their access to water, water must be offered at regular intervals to avoid them becoming dehydrated. Offer water as frequently as possible, at least every four hours.
Some donkeys may refuse to drink very cold water, even in extreme heat. Allow the water to warm up in the sun, or add some hot water to try and encourage normal drinking behaviour.
Donkeys have a special adaptation and are physiologically more capable to deal with thirst than other equids, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t feel thirsty or become hot and tired, just that their bodies can function for longer in a state of water deprivation than a horse or pony would. However, this ability can lead to veterinary problems (such as impaction colic) if owners do not provide them with fresh water.
Access to shade
All donkeys should be provided with a shelter in their field environment, doubling up as a dry place in winter, this shelter provides shade from the sun in summer plus some relief from flies. The shelter needs to be of adequate size to allow all members of the herd to come in and lie down at the same time. There are various different types of shelters available, which design you choose may depend on your herd size, budget and type of localised weather. Bear in mind that some shelters may get hotter than others in extreme heat, especially if the roof is low or made out of tin or if the building is poorly ventilated.
For those donkeys traditionally stabled at night and turned out during the day you may want to alter the times at which they are turned out in order to minimise exposure to the sun during the hottest part of the day. Turning out at night or for the early morning and evening may be suitable options.
Protection from the sun
Donkeys with light coloured coats often have less pigment in their skin and may suffer from sunburn on any exposed skin (typically muzzle/nose/ears). Coloured donkeys, including skewbalds, piebalds and tri-colour donkeys, may also be at an increased risk of sunburn. These lighter donkeys would benefit from having a high factor sunscreen applied to any exposed skin (not the entire body) when the UV index is moderate to high. In addition, a full face fly mask (including nose guard) can be used to add extra UV protection (especially for donkeys who do not like sunscreen application), introduce it with care to your donkey.
Elderly donkeys or those suffering from PPID (an endocrine disorder which affects coat growth amongst other things) may have trouble shedding their coats in summer. During the hotter months it would be advisable to clip any donkeys that have a long coat to help keep their body temperature down and make them more comfortable. Depending on skin pigmentation and weather conditions a light rug may be required when the hair is standing on end in the initial period after clipping. If the weather quickly turns cold again consider providing a suitable rug for your donkey (see Donkey Care Handbook for more information). Clip with caution those with light skin as they are more at risk of sunburn, and those prone to fly bite irritation as the skin will be more vulnerable once clipped.
Dangerous effects of extreme heat
Heat stroke, heat stress and dehydration can affect all donkeys. Just like people, there are some donkeys which are going to be more sensitive to extremes of weather, they will be the very young and very old, pregnant, ill or overweight animals. These donkeys will need to be monitored very closely for any signs of heat stress (which some of which may or may not be present) including:
- Raised respiratory rate, heart rate or temperature
- Profuse sweating or no sweat at all
- Flared nostrils
- Disinterest in moving or eating
- Lying down more than normal
- Glazed/sunken eyes
- No urine or very dark in colour
- Dark red or purple mucous membranes (should be pink) or tacky to the touch (should be moist).
Remember that donkeys may not show overt behavioural signs of being ill or unwell like a horse or pony would. It is important to know your donkey's normal body temperature and resting respiratory and heart rate so that you may accurately observe a rise in either (see Donkey Care Handbook for normals).
During very hot conditions, especially if the air is humid, your donkey may have trouble controlling their body temperature through the normal methods of heat dissipation and sweating. This causes a build- up of heat in the body which can disrupt normal bodily functions, and if not treated may cause organ failure and ultimately death.
If overheating is suspected move your donkey out of the sun and start cold hosing your donkey straight away. Call your vet as soon as possible as a donkey suffering from heat stress will need to have electrolytes to replace the lost body fluids, water alone will not be enough to rehydrate the animal.
Donkeys in work
If your donkeys are ridden, driven, walked in hand or worked in any other way, try to minimise any unnecessary activity during the hottest parts of the day. Keep them cool by choosing shady areas over sunny areas and offer water regularly. Avoid travelling if possible as horse-boxes can become very hot if poorly ventilated or in slow moving/stationary traffic.
Be aware that sometimes donkeys travelling away from home will refuse to drink. Adding peppermint cordial or bringing water from home may counteract this.
Flies and other insects
Summer is also the height of fly season (although some species may actually peak in early autumn). Shelter provides relief from the sun and also from some insects. Unfortunately most insecticides available on the market have very little useful repellent effect. For those donkeys that are particularly susceptible or sensitive to insect bites we recommend contacting your vet for advice as well as looking into protective clothing such as fly rugs, hoods, masks, fringes and even socks.