Donkeys are considered to be particularly undemanding animals, as they require significantly less food than horses. Nevertheless, or precisely because of this, donkey owners should be careful when feeding them, because donkeys need a diet that is precisely tailored to their needs. In our guide you will learn what donkeys should eat.
From the African desert to Europe
The donkey common in Europe today is descended from wild asses native to the mountainous landscape of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The donkey’s natural habitat is characterized by low rainfall and high temperatures, and thus sparse, nutrient-poor vegetation. The origin of the donkeys shows what kind of food the desert animal actually needs. The dry climate of East Africa provides donkeys with sparse, low-energy vegetation in which the wild animals travel up to 16 kilometers a day in search of food. Moving slowly, the donkeys search the terrain, eating a little grass here and there, individual leaves, herbs, bark and buds.
Donkeys need little food because their digestive system works efficiently and can process even very meager food well. In addition, the animals need to eat frequently because their stomachs are constantly producing stomach acid and prolonged pauses in feeding can lead to stomach ulcers. As a rule, a donkey should eat at least every four hours to prevent digestive problems and metabolic diseases.
Further caution is needed when keeping donkeys in Germany, as the vegetation here is too rich in nutrients and the weather too wet for the desert animals. In order to prevent the donkeys from becoming fat, you as a donkey owner must be especially attentive. Keeping donkeys as species-appropriate as possible requires that the feed be distributed over as many meals as possible and at widely spaced feeding stations.
In Germany, there are significantly more overfed donkeys than underfed ones. There is a great danger in feeding the animals too lavishly.
According to Section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act, the person who keeps, cares for or has to care for an animal must feed, care for and house the animal in a manner appropriate to its species and needs.
Which pasture is suitable for donkeys?
During the warm months, you should not let your donkeys graze any pasture. Unless you have a very lean pasture with grass that is low in energy and high in crude fiber, you should limit the grazing time for your donkeys accordingly. In Central Europe, pastures for donkeys are usually far too lush and high in energy and can lead to severe metabolic disease in donkeys.
Ideal donkey pastures are large areas of scrubby grassland where the animals can run free. Here, in addition to some grass, they have a wider variety of shrubs and trees whose leaves, bark and buds the animals can consume.
Donkeys like to eat medicinal herbs and fibrous grass, but they also selectively ingest so-called weeds such as nettles, ribwort plantain, broadleaf plantain and thistles. Poisonous herbs such as ragwort, on the other hand, are usually avoided by donkeys because they rely on their instincts in their feeding behavior. In addition, donkeys like to nibble on twigs and branches because they need wood to feed properly.
What kind of feed should donkeys be given?
The meadows in Germany and the hay obtained from them are mostly species-poor and contain only a fraction of the minerals and vital substances that donkeys would eat in their natural environment. Therefore, it is significant that you supplement the donkey’s basic diet with an organic mineral feed, especially during the winter months.
These feeds are especially important when feeding the donkey:
- Hay and straw
- Wild herbs
- Branches and bark
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- clean drinking water
The basic food of donkeys: Hay and straw
The basic diet of donkeys consists of high-fiber, low-energy, low-protein straw and hay. The hay your donkeys eat should be made up of a variety of grasses and herbs and should be as clover-free as possible. It is best to portion it according to need. As mentioned above, donkey feeding breaks should not exceed four hours.
With automatic hayracks (time-controlled), you ensure species-appropriate feeding and the natural rhythm of feed intake not only for horses, but also for donkeys.
Herbs also play an important role in donkey nutrition and are part of what donkeys should eat. Animals are picky when choosing herbs and unerringly look for plants that meet their current needs. Therefore, it is recommended to take the animal on occasional walks or hikes to give it the opportunity to independently seek out the herbs it needs. To supplement the feed, you can give the animals herbal mixtures.
Branches to nibble on
Branches are also indispensable for the health and well-being of donkeys. They not only satisfy the four-legged friend’s great need to chew, but also contain numerous important vitamins and minerals. For this reason nibbling branches should be missing in no donkey enclosure. Most domestic woods are suitable for this purpose – especially willow, ash, alder, birch and various fruit trees. In addition, you should provide the animals with many different types of wood if possible. However, one type of wood is highly toxic and even deadly to donkeys and horses: yew. Therefore, the animals should never come into contact with the leaves and wood of yew.
Fruit and vegetables in small quantities
You can also feed your donkeys leftover fruits and vegetables such as peels of apples, carrots or kohlrabi as well as stems of herbs. Occasionally, you can also feed your animals a piece of fruit or vegetable. The animals enjoy culinary variety and are especially happy when they receive the necessary nutrients from time to time in the form of various treats.
Salt is vital for donkeys. The animals need to be supplied with minerals on a daily basis. Therefore, your donkeys should always have access to a horse or cattle salt lick. Some donkeys seek out the lick after every meal, while others do so less frequently.
Drinking water at will
Of course, donkeys also need access to clean drinking water in their husbandry. The water must be constantly available to them in sufficient quantity and quality – even in the cold months. Suitable watering devices include large water containers with self-drinkers or pasture pumps that pump groundwater or river water into watering devices.
To ensure that animals do not go thirsty, you must check daily to make sure the waterer is working.
If the water quality is high enough and the animals are used to it, they can also drink directly from running water in the pasture. You must be careful that the access area to the water is not too wet.
What should donkeys not eat?
It’s best to learn about poisonous trees and other poisonous plants so you can ban them from donkey pastures. However, donkeys can usually rely on their instincts to choose their food. Poisonous trees such as laburnum and black locust are instinctively avoided by the animals. Since yew is not found in the donkeys’ regions of origin, the tree is unknown to them. As a donkey owner, you must therefore make sure that your animal does not come into contact with the poisonous tree.
In addition, donkeys should never eat too much fresh grass, as it contains too much protein and energy for the donkey’s digestive system. Fresh spring pastures with rich grass and clover are not suitable for donkeys.
Concentrated feed (grain) should only be fed to your donkey in very small amounts and only when the animal needs to work or a lactating donkey mare needs additional energy.
How do you assess the nutritional status of your donkey?
The following characteristics can help you assess the nutritional and health status of your donkey. It is important to palpate the animal so that the thick coat does not deceive you.
- Your donkey is too thin
- Clearly protruding ribs
- Protruding spine
- No palpable fat tissue
- Shoulder bones angular and easily palpable
- Your donkey has a healthy nutritional status
- Ribs slightly palpable
- Shiny coat
- Mane standing up
- Neck goes smoothly into shoulder
- Your donkey is too fat
- Spine and ribs not visible
- Mane tilting to the side
- Rounded withers
- Deep fold in the middle of the back with lateral fat bulges
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