How To Feed Donkeys

Interest in keeping donkeys as horse companions is growing. While it's probably true that both species would prefer the company of their own, the fact is they do get along very well once the horse gets over the initial "What the heck is this??'' reaction.

As both are equines, routine care like vaccinations, dewormings, and hoof trimming are identical. However, there are nutritional considerations that can get you in trouble and an awful lot of misinformation or bad advice on the internet.

Optimally nourished donkeys do not look like the pot-bellied somewhat scruffy creatures you too often see. It's easy to keep your donkey looking as slick and attractive as your horse once you understand how.

How Donkeys are Different?

Feeding a donkey like a horse can result in obesity and laminitis. On average, the donkey requires only about 75% as many calories as a horse or pony of the same weight. This is due to a combination of much more efficient fermentation of fibrous feed components and possibly a somewhat lower metabolic rate. Unfortunately, this has led to some pretty drastic recommendations on feeding such as feeding nothing but straw. Donkeys can also survive on protein restrictions too low for a horse but survival is not the same thing as thriving. It's likewise true that donkeys can survive several days without water (ancestors were desert dwellers) but again do you think that means you should withhold water? The goal of nutrition should be to optimize, not push the limits. 

Speaking of protein and minerals, there are no formal studies on protein requirements of donkeys, but lots of guesstimates on how little you can get away with. Reference is often made to urea cycling in donkeys, urea back into their digestive tract. However, this only benefits the microorganisms in the gut, not the donkey directly because amino acids synthesized by the microorganisms are not absorbed in the hindgut. The only long-term study available showed good weight maintenance on 1.2 grams of crude protein/kg of body weight daily. This is almost identical to a horse.

There is zero formal information available on the mineral requirements of donkeys. Speculation is a poor substitute for facts so until differences are identified I advise applying horse/pony protein and mineral requirements to donkeys.

When you need a carrier for supplements, you can't beat beet pulp. It soaks up as much as 4X its dry weight in water to result in a very low-calorie carrier.

Enjoy your 'long ears' horse companion, and if you feed him right you can look forward to competition about which one of them is better looking.


- Eleanor Kellon, VMD

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