What Do Donkeys Eat (Are They Different From Horses)?

Horses, donkeys, mules, ponies and zebras are all equines. They are related, but they are not identical in their needs. In fact, no matter what sort of equine you have, you are wise to research that animal’s specific needs carefully in order to provide just the right diet. In this article, we discuss the nutritional needs of donkeys, and by extension, mules. Read on to learn more on what do donkeys eat.

Donkeys Don’t Drink Much

Donkeys are naturally desert animals, so they are capable of conserving internal stores of water for an impressive period of time. Even so, you should always provide your donkey with ample amounts of cool, fresh water.

Keep your donkey’s water trough in a shady place and fill it daily. Your donkey will drink the amount he needs.

How Do Donkeys’ Nutritional Requirements Vary From Horses‘?

Donkeys’ Nutritional Requirements

Donkeys are very adaptable feeders, and they can adjust to eating a wide variety of shrubs, bushes, grasses and weeds to get the nutrients they need. In open pasture, donkeys may eat grass, weeds, bushes, berries and a wide variety of other vegetation.

Horses are considerably more picky, and they tend more to colic when eating unusual foods than do donkeys.

A donkey’s diet can consist of a great deal of roughage because donkeys are able better able to make good use of fibrous, fairly indigestible plant material. Horses need more nourishment.

Additionally, donkeys can generally get by with less food than horses because they have very efficient metabolic processes. This means they are easy keepers, but on the downside they are also easy to overfeed. Donkeys put on weight in alarming manner, and can easily founder when overfed.

Good Forage Is Essential

Donkeys are not ruminants (like goats, deer and cattle) but they are able to digest lower quality forage than horses. For this reason, it is not a good idea to feed your donkey highly fertilized, luxurious hay or legume hay, such as alfalfa.

Donkeys do well on mixed grass pasture and natural mixed grass hay. Very often hay that is sold as “cattle quality” is fine for donkeys. Just be sure that is not being sold as cattle quality because it is moldy or because it contains a high concentration of Johnson grass. Donkeys cannot tolerate moldy hay any more than horses can, and large amounts of Johnson grass can be toxic to equines.

Because mules are half donkey, many of the same feeding guidelines apply to mules. Just remember that a mule is also half-horse and therefore may have slightly higher protein requirements and the need for somewhat more luxurious hay.

Like horses, donkeys are intended to be grazers. They like to be able to eat a little bit at a time all day long. For this reason, use of a hay net is a good idea. Hay nets slow down consumption and keep donkeys active and busy.

If you’re experiencing a hay shortage in your area, you may substitute packaged forage such as Timothy grass pellets and/or beet pulp for part of your donkey’s hay and grass requirements. Up to 50% is safe.

Choose your hay or packaged forage carefully. Look for a product that is low in protein and high in fiber. Donkeys and some mules are quite prone to being overweight. Too much rich pasture, hay that is too rich or alfalfa hay can easily cause laminitis.

How Can You Tell Your Donkey Is Too Fat?

How Can You Tell Your Donkey Is Too Fat

Use the horse condition scoring charts as a guideline when evaluating your donkey’s condition. An obese donkey will put on a roll of fat on the crest of the neck. Additionally, the buttocks and the sides of the chest are typical spots where donkeys store excess weight.

This kind of lumpy obesity is not just unsightly. Donkeys who have excessive weight on the neck and around the chest tend to have a higher risk of developing laminitis, insulin resistance and other metabolic challenges.

If your donkey has a large crest and or fat pads on his sides or rump, these are all signs that your donkey is overweight. Reduce feed gradually, increase activity and limit turnout time if pasture is lush.

What About Grain?

Generally speaking, donkeys can get by on 20% less digestible energy than horses. This is because they process protein very efficiently.

For this reason, your donkey may not need grain in his ration at all. Free access to pasture and a decent quality of hay may even be more than your donkey needs. When pasture is extremely lush, you may wish to limit your donkey’s access.

Generally speaking, a donkey can do quite well on a half-and-half mixture of soaked beet pulp, crimped oats and free feed good quality hay.

When Is Grain Or Feed Recommended For Donkeys?

Working donkeys naturally need more feed and hay than backyard pets. Likewise, pregnant or lactating jennies will need more nutrition and growing youngsters and seniors will need more.

As donkeys and mules grow older, they naturally develop a need for more supplementation. Talk with your vet about the type of concentrated feed that may be desirable for your donkey or mule.

Feeding And Care Of Mules And Donkeys

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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