By Anita B. Stone – When you think of keeping donkeys, the first thing that comes to mind is big ears, a comical, rusty, door-hinge bray, and a short whiskbroom tail. When the donkey was designed, these adaptations allowed it to succeed and survive in a harsh desert environment. His mighty bray permitted widely spaced donkeys to keep in contact or define their territories. Those big funnel ears could catch distant calls and help dissipate hot desert heat.
“These days donkeys have become pets,” says Mike Luddy of South Hill, Virginia. “They still bray, grunt, and moan and create a ruckus, but they are such affectionate pets, I couldn’t ask for a more loving animal.” Luddy’s hobby farm is situated on six acres of pasture, “an acre for each donkey,” he says. According to Luddy, keeping donkeys requires very little maintenance. “They are durable, affordable and they don’t tend to overeat.”
Luddy communicates with the donkeys by reading their body language. “If their floppy ears move forward, they are curious about something.” He says. “But if their ears go flat towards the back of their heads, they are angry.”
Many of those who are homesteading today are keeping donkeys, and there are definite objectives to follow when if you’re interesting in keeping donkeys.
Keeping Donkeys: Feeding and Weight
Donkeys will get very heavy if you feed them too much, so you really have to be careful. Due to their historic origin as desert animals, donkeys are accustomed to sparse food supplies and should not be overfed. Donkeys have no hump on their backs, only a lean body mass that is fuel efficient, easily cooled, yet strong. If you spot a roll of fat across the back of the animal, you know he is overeating. It is just as unhealthy for a donkey to be overweight as it is for one to be malnourished. To ensure the proper weight of your donkey, you can purchase a “weigh band” at any grain feed store.
Donkeys eat pasture grass as a primary food all summer. If you’re keeping donkeys, they need to be provided with enough pasture to be able to run and play and get exercise. Pastures should always be inspected for poisonous plants, especially ragwort. And when grass is unavailable, a good quality hay is preferred as it provides the most nutrition. Luddy’s six donkeys can survive on one bale per week in the winter. They also eat grain and sweet feed-one scoop per donkey is considered a treat.
“They love to eat treats of peppermints, biscuits and bread,” Luddy states. “Sometimes we hand-feed them in the middle of winter. They ‘browse’ by eating shrubs which in turn helps maintain the woods. Grazing donkeys are lucky because they never have to watch their salt intake. Their systems require salt and if they don’t get enough, they will eat wood or bark from trees.” Luddy provides a trace mineral for the herd to insure ample salt intake.
An average donkey drinks up to eight gallons of water every day. It’s best to supply running water from a hose or pump or a stream running through the property. Donkeys hate water under their feet and they will always walk around puddles. Their desert coat seems to soak up moisture rather than repel it.
Keeping Donkeys: Socialization
As pets, donkeys offer the best therapy after a day’s hard work because they maintain a calm and patient disposition and are extremely manageable. They have a relaxing way about them, and all donkeys really want in life is love and attention. Although donkeys are the most gentle, loving, and people-friendly equine in existence, they can also be aggressive when necessary.
“Donkeys will stay and protect people, sheep, goats and cows,” Luddy says. “They will move slowly, then turn around and see what is challenging them. Their natural enemies are dogs and wolves. A donkey loves to roll in the dirt like a dog and can dribble a dog like a soccer ball.”
Donkeys are very sociable creatures that need the company of at least one other donkey. They buddy up in pairs, or even in groups of three and will go to the end of the earth to stay with their best friends. They get very upset if separated, so it’s best to keep them with their buddies at all times. A single, lone donkey is a lonely donkey, and should be avoided if at all possible.
Because a donkey’s average life expectancy is 30-40 years, many of those who are keeping donkeys have provided trust funds for their animals so that the pet will be financially sound if an owner dies.
Keeping Donkeys: Types of Donkeys
There are different kinds of donkeys. A “gelding” is a male donkey that has been castrated so that he cannot, will not, and does not want to reproduce. Geldings are easy to handle and make good companions. Two little geldings will give you a lifetime of happiness with their amusing behavior. And jennies (female donkeys) and geldings make excellent companions.
The most common color for a donkey is the mouse gray called gray dun. Other colors include various shades of brown, black, spotted, sorrel and frosted spotted white. Most have white muzzles, eye rings and light bellies. The average height of a mature donkey ranges from 48″ to 54″ high, depending on the type of donkey.
“My first donkey was a ‘standard,'” says Luddy. I purchased him for $500.” Standards grow up to 48″ tall. “The only female on the farm is a mammoth,” says Luddy. “We call her Madison. She is dark brown and 25 years old.” Some mammoths run $800 all the way up to $3,000 for a trained rider, “but a donkey cannot take on a rider until it is four years old and their bones are fully formed as well as their knees.”
Mammoths can get up to 54″ or higher and weigh up to 600 pounds. “But under all the sizes and hair colors is the same gentle, calm, slightly mischievous soul,” Luddy says.
Keeping Donkeys: General Health
Being swift and sure-footed, donkeys can travel as fast as 30 miles per hour, making it necessary to have their hooves trimmed properly. Unlike a horse, a donkey’s hooves have no shoes. If the hooves are allowed to grow without proper attention, their legs will experience extreme pain and may result in deformed and painful joints and tendons. It is a good idea to engage a farrier to trim the hooves on an 8-12 week trimming schedule.
Be prepared for a dust crater somewhere. “Donkeys love to take dust baths and will pick a spot in the pasture to dig out and ‘bathe’ themselves daily. They use dirt like we use daily showers, as a dry shampoo that soaks up hair oils and probably helps suffocate or repel insects and as an overall rolling back scratch and body wash.”
To protect his herd, Luddy administers an oral de-worming medication every two to three months. He also has them inoculated for West Nile virus. “Each one of my pets has blood drawn once a year to make sure every animal is in good health,” says Luddy, “and it will be given a health certificate if everything is in proper order.”
Weanlings are vaccinated yearly with a five-way vaccination and a separate selenium and vitamin E booster to ensure their good health and muscular development.
Donkeys should have their teeth examined by an equine dentist every two years, especially the back teeth which are used to grind food. Without them, the donkey will either starve to death or get colic, which could also lead to death.
Other than infestation of parasites, which can be taken care of every month, flies are a major problem for donkeys and seem to especially like biting them around the legs. The best fly repellent for donkeys is a roll-on equine fly repellent that can be used around this area.
Keeping Donkeys: Providing Safe and Secure Shelter for Donkeys
Shelter is an absolute must for donkeys. A three-sided run-in shed is ideal. Because of their desert beginnings, donkeys don’t handle extreme cold as well as most horses can. Donkeys need to be able to escape from harsh elements-cold as well as hot. They will buddy up and generally allow everyone a chance to get out of the weather.
The worst culprit is wind chill, so it is a good idea to face the shelter away from the prevailing wind, and also make sure the shelter is not in a low spot that would become impassable with mud during certain times of the year.
Wood shavings or a dirt floor is best for the comfort of the donkey and for easy management. Make sure the shavings do not contain toxic substances such as black walnut bark, which could be fatal. Brick or concrete floors are not suitable because they are so hard, and as most donkeys lie down when they are sick, a dirt floor is kinder and more comfortable for them. Urine will soak into a dirt floor without causing an odor and only the donkey’s droppings need to be removed. You can also use prepared stall “sweeteners” on urine spots to control the ammonia smell. Picking up manure means less odor, flies, and parasite contamination.
An average dimension of a shelter for two donkeys is 10′ wide, 10′ long and 10′ high. Donkeys sometimes lay down, but one is always standing up during the night.
Secure fencing is necessary to avoid escape. Either post and rail or pig netting are good forms of fencing with wooden gates. Post and rail fencing should have four bars; with the bottom rail less than 45 centimeters from the ground.
As pets, donkeys are strong, calm, intelligent workers that don’t tend to run away and have a natural inclination to like people. All this adds up to animals that are easy to take care of, easy to work with, very inexpensive and very easy to give your heart to.
Originally published in 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy