November 23, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Donkey Part 3


Beast of burden: Guards: Feeding: Feet: Coat: Reproduction

By Dr Clive Dalton

Beast of burden
  • The term "beast of burden" seems to have been claimed by the donkey for its own!
  • There are reputed to be about 44 million donkeys and mules in the world today, most of them contributing draft power for agriculture and transport.
  • Donkeys are reputed to be able to pull 3 times their own weight.
  • They are alert, intelligent and cautious animals and these are useful traits when used to carry loads. Panic is the last thing you want and if a donkey perceives danger it will generally stay rooted to the spot.
  • The classical image of the donkey in many parts of the world today is that of a small animal with a monstrous load, or an oversize person on its back, being goaded along with a stick from behind rather than being led.
  • It is recommended that 51-52kg should be the maximum weight a 10-11hh donkey can carry.
  • Donkeys are the classical pack animal for when the going gets tough, as apart from their strength, they are extremely sure footed.Their strong innate ability to follow each other is exploited when they are used as pack animals as no leads are needed as when packing with horses.
  • Donkeys are not built to gallop like the horse with their zebra-like trot. Even when bolting they will not go far.
  • With narrow shoulders they are not as comfortable a ride as a horse.
  • Some riders advocate sitting on the strongest part of the donkey's back on top of the rump at the hips.
  • Donkeys jump high with a "standing start" up against the obstacle or fence. In American and Canada they have special "Coon Jumping" competitions at their farm shows to demonstrate this skill.
 Donkey ambulance
TB (Barney) Muckle working as an agricultural engineer in Kenya invented a 'donkey ambulance' to rescue people had to be taken to hospital from places with rough terrain and in the bush where vehicles could not go. It is steered by a person guiding the single wheel of the litter.

  • It is said that donkeys and mules prefer to be hauled facing backwards.
  • They don't usually drink if hauled for 12-18 hours, and often won't drink for several hours after unloading in a strange place.
  • Experience of travel will improve these behavioural patterns.
Donkeys as guards
Where aggression is needed
  • The quiet docile donkey can become a fearsome aggressor - traits seen mostly in the male Jack. They use their loud bray as defence weapon.
  • Donkeys hate any small animals, especially dogs, and will chase them relentlessly in their paddock.
  • This trait is used in Canada where donkeys run with sheep to ward off coyotes and even mountain lions.
  • Donkey jacks are used in New Zealand to run with bulls to stop them fighting. The jack will bite the neck of a full-grown Friesian bull or bite his testicles, breaking up the fight. One donkey can control 20-30 bulls.
  • The jacks should be at least 2 years old and at least 10hh before they are put on bull riot duty. The Donkey Society of New Zealand and the RNZSPCA do not encourage this practice. Invariably the donkey's feet are neglected and they suffer founder from the high quality feed to fatten the bulls. This causes the animal great discomfort.

Where aggression is not needed
From MT Walton & CA Field (1989). Texas Department of Agriculture Publication.
The use of donkeys to guard sheep and goats.
  • Use Jennies or geldings. Do not use Jacks as they are too aggressive to other livestock and may kill sheep or goats.
  • Use only one Jenny and her foal per pasture.
  • Isolate guard donkeys from horses, mules and other donkeys.
  • Raise the donkey from birth, and at the latest at weaning with the sheep or goats.
  • Raise donkeys away from dogs and avoid using herding dogs around donkeys.
  • Monitor donkeys at lambing or kidding as they may be aggressive or overly possessive to newborns. Remove them temporarily if necessary.
  • It's best to use in small open pastures (less than 600 acres) with not more than 200 head of animals. Donkeys are less effective on large rough pastures.

Donkeys as teachers
  • Donkeys are sometimes used to teach other animals like calves or foals to lead.
  • The donkey is fitted with a strong soft leather collar 1.4m long and 700mm wide with a large ring on it to fasten the pupil. The donkey wears a plain headstall.
  • There must be a good chain 250mm long containing a swivel and a snap hook at each end to attach pupil to donkey. Over a period of days, with careful supervision, the pupil learns to follow the donkey as it is pulled along.

Feeding donkeys
  • Donkeys have a similar digestive system to the horse where fibre is digested in the very large colon.
  • The also graze pastures in the same way where part will be used for grazing and part for defaecating and urinating. These toilet areas will grow rank and unpalatable feed.
  • Donkeys browse more than horses, and love the flowering heads of broad-leaved weeds.
  • Roughage, e.g. barley straw should form a large part of their diet.
  • But donkeys must not be fed excess carbohydrate or protein or they are quick to develop founder of the foot and become lame.
  • Donkey owners are urged to avoid giving their animals bread, wheat, Weetbix, Puffed wheat, muffins, cake, pikelets, excess grains, and all refined and processed foods.
  • Add to this list too lush grass which is very rich in protein. Excess protein intake is a major cause of founder.
  • Donkeys are very efficient at ring-barking trees. They seem to enjoy the bark as feed and the stripping as entertainment.
  • Some donkey handlers stress that you should always feed donkeys in a bucket or trough and not with your fingers as they will learn to nip fingers with their teeth.
Feet care

  • Foot care is the most important feature in donkey husbandry.
  • Feet must be trimmed regularly and kept in shape so they can always walk properly and without discomfort.
  • Misshapen feet lead to all sorts of behaviour and welfare problems, and the animal will suffer discomfort and pain.
  • If feet problems are caused by nutritional imbalance - feet trimming alone will not cure the problem. Changes in diet are the first priority in preventing lameness.
  • Veterinarians claim that donkeys and mules can tolerate pain more than horses so they may not show lameness until the disease is more advanced. So more regular checking of feet is recommended.
Coat care
  • Donkeys select a site in the paddock that they will take turns to roll in. They will remember and return to it whenever they come back to the paddock. It's their natural way of dust bathing to control parasites.
  • If sheds or shelter trees are available, donkeys thrive better when no cover is avalable. After rain they will try to find some dry area and roll in any dust they can find. This forms a 25mm thick coat that helps the animal to retain heat naturally.
  • Donkeys are prone to external parasites below covers so they need to be checked regularly.
  • Donkeys love physical contact and grooming fulfills this need. They especially enjoy grooming when their winter coats are being shed for summer.
  • In wet climates donkeys need protection from rain. Wet coats are not good for donkeys as they are dry-climate animals.
Grazing behaviour
  • Rather than travel at random over their grazing area, donkeys develop paths, e.g. to the water trough and shade. They stick to these paths over time.
  • Like horses, they tend to graze one area of the paddock, and eliminate in a separate part.
  • Donkeys are prone to colic like horses but their apparent lower pain barrier means that early treatment is important as vets can be confused by few pain symptoms.
  • Donkeys and mules can go without water for longer periods than horses.
  • In the wild, donkeys frequently go without water for 24 hours, but lactating females will drink every 8-12 hours.
  • Foals have been observed to take their first drink of water at 2-3 months old.
  • They can dehydrate up to 30% loss of body weight, and then drink enough water to re-hydrate themselves in 2-5 minutes. This ability is similar to the other desert animal - the camel.
  • Taking donkeys away from their normal surroundings and water supply can contribute to them refusing to drink for 48-96 hours.

Male donkeys (Jacks)
  • Jack donkeys may look cute, but it's important for personal safety to remember they are stud sires and not pets.
  • Geldings that are castrated late may also show some Jack behaviour, especially near a Jenny on heat. But then some Jennies will ride other females in season, clearly stimulated by the smell.
  • The blood of gelded Jacks does not appear to clot as well as horses, so it is recommended the wounds are double stitched to prevent haemorrhage.
  • In breeding mules and hinnies, some donkey jacks will mate with a horse mare and some will not. Jacks that are required to breed mules are specially raised with horses to ensure they will take an interest in mares when on heat.
  • Jacks don't like sheep or goats and will harass and try to kill them if they get into their paddock. The Jack is clearly very territorial.
  • Donkeys have been reported to show grief at the death of a foal, braying continuously for the foal to move. Putting an older foal with the Jenny helps as they nuzzle each other and seem to share the grief.
  • Weaning can be a very stressful time for Jenny and foal, and some owners advise gradual weaning over a period of up to 3 months rather than abrupt separation.
  • If the foal is weaned between 6 and 8 months, any noise or distress can be eliminated if only a fence separates the pair so the foal can still see and smell his mother.
  • Other breeders advise abrupt weaning; otherwise the dam will take longer for her milk supply to dry up.
  • Breeders advise providing the weaned foal with an assortment of toys such as old tyres painted different colours, a soccer ball to push around, large drums to negotiate, hessian bags filled with tin cans, and ice cream containers that foals love to carry around.
Donkeys and mules
  • Some female mules have been found to be fertile. No female hinnies have.
  • No male mules or hinnies have been found fertile.
  • Female mules and hinnies can be used as recipients for horse embryos.
  • Female mules and hinnies show oestrus, but it's usually very erratic.
  • The male mule makes a good teaser, and can be useful to train horse mares to accept a jack when on free range. Normally mares don't like jacks, even when they are in heat.
Further reading
The Donkey Companion. Selecting, Training, Breeding, Enjoying & Caring for Donkeys
By Sue Weaver 2008. Story Publishing. ISBN 978-1-60342-038-9

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