November 23, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Donkey Part 2


Donkeys & horses: Senses: Social structure: Communication

By Dr Clive Dalton

A donkey is not a horse !
  • Never call a donkey a horse. It will never forgive you!
  • The donkey is more related to the zebra, which is obvious from its shape and the way it moves (its gait).
  • The donkey was bred from wild African asses making it the only domestic animal to come from Africa. The oldest donkey remains have been found 5000-6000 years ago in Egypt with later specimens found in Mesopotamia and Iran.
  • There is a wide range of about 300 breeds of donkeys today. The largest is the Catalonian donkey, which is 17 hands high, is found in Spain. The Poitou is about 16 hh.
  • The donkey has 62 chromosomes and the horse 64, so in theory they are genetically incompatible.
  • Donkeys have been crossed with zebras to produce a "Zeedonk". These are sterile hybrids.
  • Donkeys and horses can be crossed to produce the mule (male donkey Jack on mare) and the “hinny” (horse stallion on donkey Jenny). Both these are sterile hybrids and have 63 chromosomes. But there are exceptions as some female mules are fertile and will breed.
  • Most donkeys and many mules lack the obvious saddle holding withers of the horse.
  • The donkey's main and tail hair is stiff. It has no true forelock and the tail has short hair to switch more like a cow than a horse.
  • The croup muscles of the donkey are usually less developed than the horse.
  • Hooves of donkeys and mules are smaller than equal-sized horses and the pastern angle is greater.
  • Donkeys have no chestnuts on their rear legs.
  • Donkeys have slightly different larynx anatomy, and have smaller nostrils and nasal passages than equal sized horses.
Man and the donkey
  • The donkey was one of the first animals to be domesticated and has served mankind well throughout the ages. The donkey is still doing valiant service as the primary beast of burden in many cultures today.
  • Donkeys appear to have an innate trust of man, and very strong bonds build between donkeys and their owners because donkeys are a very social species.
  • Donkeys have been used in times of war for transport and food. Owners stress the very special bond that can be built between donkey and caregiver and is much different between man and horse.
  • Some breeders say that if you assume a donkey is a big dog, you'll go a long way to understanding their behaviour.
  • Donkeys have shown that they can solve maze problems a lot faster than horses.
  • Despite the donkey's role in man's civilisation, it still struggles to maintain a decent image among the human race. Our acceptance that the donkey is stupid, cunning and lazy is as alive and well today as it has been for the last two thousands years.
  • Donkeys are not stupid and lazy - this image is caused by man's practice of ridiculing them, overloading them, and treating them with disrespect.
  • Donkeys are smart and their owners need to recognise this. They will not move in situations they perceive as dangerous. This prevents a lot of accidents, eg in harness.
  • Donkeys evolved in grasslands and are an animal of the open grasslands in warm dry climates.
  • In the USA, donkeys and mules are becoming the fastest growing part of the recreational equine industry. Miniature donkeys are appealing to people who normally keep dogs and cats.
Donkey senses


  • Considered to be similar to the horse but the donkey's large ears have an added sound-gathering advantage.
  • It's often claimed that the donkey has much more acute hearing than a horse and certainly a human.
  • Like the horse, the donkey has the ability to move its ears to locate the source of the sound.
  • Donkeys DO NOT like their ears pulled - their ears are very personal!
  • Before a donkey will let you handle its ears freely, you need to build up a secure bond.
  • The feral donkey is a very alert animal, aided by its acute hearing.
  • The donkey's sense of smell is considered to be similar to the horse.
  • It's said that donkeys can smell water over a mile away.
  • Donkeys greet each other by smelling and blowing in each others nose. The smell of breath imparts important information to the donkey.
  • So greeting donkeys by blowing up their noses is an effective way to reassure them that you are friendly.
  • A donkey's sight is not as good as the horse, and like the horse donkeys have a blind spot immediately in front of the nose and behind the head.
  • They have good peripheral vision with head down when grazing, but poor ability to see high objects.
  • They have good binocular vision. Donkeys like the horse view any threats with their binocular vision.
  • It is thought they have the same colour vision as the horse. They can clearly differentiate between the major colours.
  • Donkeys don't seem to bother with direct eye contact. It seems to be less important than in horses.
  • As in the horse - donkeys have whiskers near their eyes and on their muzzle which carry nerves and act as touch receptors.
  • Donkeys have a very sweet tooth, and are very partial to fruit.
  • They love walnuts and will crack them and spit out the shells.
  • Like the horse they will not eat musty feed, and will not eat out of dirty containers so their ability to smell must be acute.
Donkey's gait
  • Donkeys are naturally slow movers, and impatient humans find this frustrating.
  • They do not show all the different gaits of the horse.
  • At speed they move like a zebra or a sheep in a bouncy gait and appear to have all four feet off the ground at the same time.
Social structure
  • Donkeys are very social animals. A lone donkey kept as a pet needs a friend of either another donkey, horse or other animal.
  • Feral donkeys live in small bands of females with their current and previous year's female offspring.
  • There is a strong bond between mother and offspring, established very soon after birth. Foals are weaned when the next foal is born.
  • These bands will contain some juvenile males, but mature males are generally solitary except at mating time when they form harems which they defend against competitors.
  • Fights among males for control of the harem can be very savage, with kicking and biting any part they can get hold of. The long ears are very vulnerable.
  • Whereas horsed flee from danger, donkeys do not and stand and face up to the threat or predator. They will bite and kick with both front and rear feet, and stand with heads high, nostrils flared and teeth bared. And they add their loud bray to their collection of defences.
  • Donkeys are natural followers. Often in a group grazing in a field, when called they'll form up in line to be led by the lead donkey, rather than making their own way to the caller.
  • Donkeys have very sensitive ears and love them ears scratched. If you rub the ears gently from the poll area, the donkey slowly lowers its head and appears to dose off in ecstasy.

  • The donkey's bray is unique and the sound travels for very long distances.
  • But they also communicate with a variety of snorts, grunts, wheezes and whuffles which seem to vary between individuals.
  • The variations in the bray that humans can detect must denote different information to other donkeys.
  • Jacks bray most frequently and loudest.
  • Grunts are antagonistic and usually accompanied by assertive body language like tail lashing, chin jerking or stomping.
  • Snorting shows excitement and wuffling is used by a Jenny to call her foal or when inviting another donkey for some mutual grooming.
  • Jennies use an additional low-pitched and gentle wuffle to communicate with their newborn foals.
  • Like the horse, donkeys use a wide range of body language to communicate.
  • Donkeys can indicate their mood with their head, angle of neck, body and tail.
  • The way they move too gives clear messages from the quiet amble of the Jenny and foal to the aggressive chase of the Jack after a predator or Jenny in heat.
  • Around the eyes and ears of a donkey is a very personal area - so avoid touching them on first greeting.
  • Donkeys mutual groom each other, standing together using their teeth along their necks, withers and shoulders scratching the hair gently and gently nibbling with their teeth.
  • Scratching a donkey under its chin is a very effective way to make friends with the animal.

Zoning out

  • When donkey foals have been frightened, they have been observed to 'zone out' by slipping into a catatonic state.
  • The advice is to 'back off' until the animal comes around again.
Donkey - human bond
There are frequent reports of donkeys showing great stress when losing a foal, a companion or when changing owners. When no donkeys are available they will form lasting bonds with horses, goats, sheep, camelids, dogs and cats and even fowls.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Informative well organized article, thanks.

  3. We have a donkey named Flapjack. He is so loving, loyal and protective. We can all learn from the animals if we would only open our hearts and minds. Thank you for your publication. It is very informative.

  4. Thanks for this. Have you ever observed donkeys "building" shelters in the periphery of fields? We have 9 donkeys visiting from a neighboring farm and they have hollowed out earthen mounds beneath trees with their hooves and cleaned out debris from a natural hollow between two hedges. We think they have created shelters for themselves. It's fascinating. They also created dirt patches free of grass where they go to roll, each taking their turn one at a time.