Looking after older donkeys requires some special considerations and changes in routine management.
It is commonly believed that the natural life span of a donkey in the UK is over 40 years of age. Certainly, some individuals do live to 40 and beyond, but many donkeys are showing signs of old age in their early twenties. In fact, looking back over records at The Donkey Sanctuary, the average life expectancy is just over 30 years. With this in mind, we would suggest that any donkey over the age of 20 is cared for taking into consideration the following guidelines where appropriate.
Be on the lookout for small changes in your donkey's normal behaviour patterns, which can be the first sign of problems.
As donkeys age it is important to monitor their eye sight for discolouration. Changes to the eye or changes in behaviour can be early signs of failing sight. If you suspect your donkey is losing their sight talk to your vet. Generally donkeys cope well with blindness so if your donkey starts to lose their sight, a familiar environment to live in and a consistent routine that they can predict can help them adjust to becoming blind.
It is important that your older donkey maintains a good quality of life and any concerns over this should be discussed with your vet. The Donkey Sanctuary has developed an assessment tool called ‘monitoring your donkey’s quality of life’. This can be used by owners or donkey carers to record changes in a range of quality of life markers.
Providing suitable shelter for your older donkey allows them to get out of the rain or the heat as well as avoiding flies. Access to a sunny spot will allow your donkey to sunbathe and warm any stiff joints or aching muscles if they wish. If possible, provide a heat lamp in the colder months and allow your donkeys to choose if they need to use it.
A flat or gently sloping field is best for older donkeys as it will help keep them mobile. Access to hardstanding is good for all donkeys’ feet. To minimise the risk of slipping over ensure you have some road salt in stock for colder winter months to prevent ice forming on the yard.
Donkeys affected with arthritis may find eating and drinking easier if water and feed are offered at the most appropriate height. Raising or lowering feed and water buckets as required may make them more comfortable.
You may need to consider different bedding for an older donkey. If they have teeth problems, barley straw may increase the risk of colic, as they may not be able to chew the long fibre sufficiently.
Sufficient water intake is vital to health and digestion, especially for the older less active donkey. To ensure good water intake, provide several sources of clean fresh water at the appropriate height. In cooler weather older donkeys often reduce their intake of cold water, so offer your older donkey warmed water. It may take time for your donkey to realise warm water is available so persevere for a week or two and monitor your donkeys preferences.
Extra grooming and keeping feet low when being picked out will help keep your donkey comfortable. As donkeys age they may moult less effectively and due to conditions such as arthritis may be less able to roll or self-groom, so an older donkey will benefit from more regular grooming and general care. Bear in mind your older donkey with a thick coat may overheat during spring and summer and may need to have the hair removed from under their bellies to help regulate their temperature.
Flies can be a real problem for older donkeys as they lose skin sensitivity and are less active at removing flies. Applying of fly spray 2 or 3 times a day may help, along with providing your donkey with a fly rug and/or fly mask. In some cases leg protection in the form of leg guards/fly socks, fly cream or mesh fly guards may be required.
As donkeys age, they may benefit from a well-fitting donkey rug. This will allow them to maintain their body temperature while giving them the freedom to roam outside regardless of the weather. Check rugs daily to prevent rubbing and take off for short periods on dry, warm winter days.
If an older donkey has a younger companion, ensure that the needs of both are met and recognise that your older donkey may need some time away from a boisterous younger friend. Younger donkeys may need to be separated at feed times to ensure that older donkeys are able to eat any additional feeds that are required.
Feet and teeth
Older donkeys may need more regular visits from a farrier, equine vet or equine dental technician to help them stay comfortable as their teeth and feet continue to wear. One of the most common issues with feeding the elderly donkey is helping them maintain condition and preventing unnecessary weight loss. To help you find the right diet for your donkey, take a look at our factsheet on ‘feeding the elderly donkey’.
Use it or lose it, even older donkeys like to think: so provide for their mental wellbeing. Provide an environment that allows the older donkey to make choices about the source of water, food, and shelter. Whereas younger donkeys may well play with toys, older donkeys will benefit most from the mental stimulation provided by extra human contact in the form of grooming, massage, and going for short walks if they are physically able. If possible, an older donkey may enjoy being led to a hedge, so they can browse on different plants.