Stress in Donkeys

Whilst donkeys in many ways are similar to horses, with regard to their behaviour and how they exhibit certain traits they can be quite different. They are highly intelligent and capable of learning but also extremely stoic which has likely derived from the need for self-preservation as a prey species. They are unlikely to show the same dramatic signs of pain and distress as you would see in the horse and pony even though it may be experiencing the same degree of pain. A dull donkey should be regarded as a veterinary emergency.

Donkeys have both ‘flight’ and ‘fight’ instincts. As they live in pairs or small groups often fleeing is not the best mechanism and so fight behaviours tend to be more strongly established. This is often why donkeys tend to get labelled as ‘stubborn’, but signs of fear and stress are often subtle. Both the fight and flight response will increase stress levels and thus the risk of hyperlipaemia. Flight responses include turning the head away from the handler, stepping sideways to avoid being caught and freezing in a fearful situation. Fights responses include stamping, pawing, striking out, head tossing, biting, kicking out (beware an effective forward/cow kick!) or leaning or pushing into the handler. It is possible to recognise certain facial expressions in donkeys that will also indicate fear. These include tightly shut/clamped nostrils, tension around the mouth causing wrinkles to form around the nostril or lips, uneven nostrils due to facial tension, semi closed eyes or visible sclera (whites of the eyes).

Donkeys are generally best kept with a companion and tend to form strong bonds. These companions tend to be other donkeys but can include other animals such as horses, ponies, mules or other species. Removal, death or euthanasia of a companion can cause considerable stress to a donkey which can lead to inappetence and stress induced hyperlipaemia. Once a companion dies then the donkey should be allowed to see and spend time with the dead body for as long as it takes for the companion to become disinterested in the body. Once removed the donkey should be monitored very carefully with particular attention to their appetite and feeding. Some donkeys will cope on their own whilst others will require a new companion almost immediately. If euthanasia of a companion is planned then it may be worth considering introducing another quiet donkey in an adjacent field that can then gradually be introduced after the companion has been euthanised.

One of the biggest concerns regarding stress in donkeys is stress induced hyperlipaemia. If a donkey stops eating or has a reduced appetite because of stress or concurrent disease the body starts to mobilise fat as an energy source. If too much of this fat is mobilised it can then result in an excess of fat (triglycerides) in the blood and fatty infiltration of organs including the liver and kidneys which if left untreated can cause multiple organ failure and death. Donkeys also tend to be insulin resistant (which is also a feature in obese donkeys) and stress results in the release of stress hormones both of which also promote this mobilisation of fat. Clinical signs of hyperlipaemia include dullness, anorexia/reduced appetite, reduced faecal output and halitosis. If your donkey shows any of these symptoms your vet should be called immediately for an assessment and blood test. Treatment depends on severity but includes tubing with warm water, rehydration salts, glucose powder and ‘Ready Brek’, intravenous fluids and electrolytes, anti-inflammatories and if severe may require hospitalisation for intensive nursing. Stimulating the appetite can help maintain voluntary food intake and this can be done offering treats such as chopped apples, grated carrots, bananas (including skins), mints, peppermint cordial, dried or fresh mint, ginger and fruit juices such as cherry, apple and carrot.

For more information on anything donkey related and tips on how to best manage your donkey please visit The Donkey Sanctuary website at or contact your local vet.

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