The Importance of a Donkey’s Diet to their Overall Health and Wellbeing

The Importance of a Donkey’s Diet to their Overall Health and Wellbeing

March 2024

Donkeys, often referred to as the "forgotten equine," are hard-working, gentle animals that have been a part of human history for thousands of years. Originating in Africa, their contribution to various tasks, such as carrying heavy loads and providing companionship, makes them invaluable. As with any animal, ensuring the health and well-being of donkeys is crucial, and a significant part of that care revolves around their dietary needs.

Donkeys are natural foragers with a digestive system adapted to extract nutrients from high-fiber forage. In their natural environment, particularly in regions such as the desert southwest, donkeys have adapted to survive on sparse, arid landscapes. Their diet in these regions primarily consists of browsing on woody shrubs, dried grasses, and other hardy, low-moisture vegetation. The desert-adapted donkey has evolved to extract essential nutrients from these harsh, fibrous plants, allowing them to thrive in challenging conditions.

It’s important to note that donkeys' dietary needs are different from other equines, including horses.

Translating Natural Dietary Preferences to Domestic Care

Understanding the natural dietary preferences of donkeys can offer crucial insights for their care in a domestic setting. Although domesticated donkeys have access to more varied forage and feeding options than their wild counterparts, it's important for caretakers to acknowledge and respect the evolutionary adaptations of these animals.

  • Emphasizing Fibrous Forage: In a domestic environment, providing access to high-fiber forage mirrors the natural browsing habits of desert-adapted donkeys. Quality grass hay and fibrous forage play a significant role in maintaining their gut health and digestive function, much like the hardy vegetation they consume in the wild.
  • Understanding Nutrient Extraction: Recognizing the donkey's ability to extract nutrients from low-moisture plants underscores the importance of a well-balanced diet that prioritizes fibrous forage. It also emphasizes the need for regular dental care to ensure proper mastication of tough plant material.  See our article on dental care for more information.
  • Water and Hydration Management: Donkeys need to have regular access to fresh, clean water. Maintaining proper hydration is critical for their overall health and well-being.

Exploring the dietary preferences of donkeys in their natural environment, sheds light on the resilience and adaptability of these animals. By acknowledging their evolutionary adaptations and incorporating this knowledge into their domestic care, donkey owners can ensure that their dietary needs are met effectively. Understanding the natural dietary behaviors of donkeys not only enriches our appreciation of these remarkable animals but also guides us in providing the best possible care for their overall health and welfare.


Managing Your Donkey’s Dietary Needs

In a domestic setting, maintaining a diet that mimics a donkey's natural grazing habits is essential for their overall health.  To ensure the health and well-being of donkeys, it's important to implement careful dietary management. Here are some essential guidelines for managing their dietary needs:

Quality Hay and Forage

High-fiber forage, such as grass hay, plays a vital role in the diet of donkeys. It provides the necessary fiber content that aids in healthy digestion and prevents issues such as colic. The indigestible fiber helps regulate the movement of food through their digestive system, promoting a healthy gut environment. 


Quality grass hay should make up the bulk of a donkey's diet. Grass hays found in the United States include: 


  • Orchard Grass - make sure to look for “horse” quality Orchard and never feed Orchard grass labeled as “Cow” hay.
  • Timothy - generally found in square bales
  • Coastal - very fine coastal is too easy for donkeys to swallow without chewing thoroughly and can cause choke and impaction colic, so look for coarser stalks
  • Fescue (although, you should not feed Fescue to pregnant jennies in their last trimester)
  • Bermuda 
  • Rye (only feed equine safe species)


Note: Stay away from legume hay such as alfalfa and clover as it is too rich for donkeys 


Providing access to clean, dust and mold free hay helps maintain their digestive health and ensures they receive the necessary nutrients.  The general rule of thumb is feed 2% of the donkey's body weight in dry forage.  An average standard size donkey weighs 500 pounds, so they would need 10 pounds of grass hay per day. Providing hay free choice or over 2 feedings per day helps mimic natural foraging in the wild.


Healthy donkeys do not need packaged feeds and grain.  Because these feeds are typically designed for horses or other types of livestock, they are typically too rich, too high in sugar and fat, and too low in fiber for donkeys.  One of the worst things you can feed a donkey is sweet feed, or sugary treats, including apples and carrots.  


However, donkeys with health or low weight issues, can be fed properly formulated feeds that are low in sugar, low in fat, and high in fiber.  A donkey knowledgeable vet or equine nutritionist should be consulted first.


Monitoring and limiting grazing time

While donkeys enjoy grazing on grass, it's essential to be cautious about overconsumption, especially when it comes to lush, green grass. An excess of rich, green grass can lead to health issues such as founder (laminitis), a painful condition caused by inflammation of the sensitive laminae inside the hoof. Laminitis can result in lameness and even long-term damage if not managed effectively.  Green grass also can lead to donkeys becoming overweight and all the related issues that can go along with that, including metabolic diseases such as cushings. 


The smaller the donkey, such as miniatures, the more pronounced these issues become.  In fact, Peaceful Valley requires that miniature donkey adopters have a fully dry lot (no grass).


The best way to prevent the overconsumption of green grass is to remove it from the donkey's diet completely. Dry lot’s or paddocks with very limited grass are ideal. If that’s not possible, minimizing the impact of grass becomes crucial, especially during periods of rapid grass growth when the sugar content in the grass increases. This poses a higher risk of issues like founder. Hence, it's crucial to manage their time spent on lush pastures, and having a dry lot to manage consumption is considered best husbandry practice.


Providing Trace Mineral Salt

Donkeys, like other equines, require access to minerals and salt to supplement their diet. These can be found in block or loose form.  They provide essential nutrients that may be lacking in their forage, ensuring they receive a well-balanced diet.  Trace mineral salt is formulated to be complete, whereas “natural” mineral salt “rocks” may not contain everything donkeys need.


Veterinary Check-Ups and Nutritionist Consultation

Regular veterinary check-ups and advice from a knowledgeable equine nutritionist are essential to tailor the donkey's diet to their specific needs. This also helps in identifying any health issues early and making necessary adjustments to their dietary plan.

In conclusion, the health and dietary needs of donkeys are fundamental to their overall well-being. By providing them with a balanced diet that includes high-quality forage, limited access to rich grass, and necessary supplements, donkey owners can ensure the best possible care for these incredible animals. Ultimately, careful dietary management is key to preventing health issues and allowing donkeys to lead healthy and contented lives.