The Truth About Donkeys as Livestock Guardians

The Truth About Donkeys as Livestock Guardians


We are often asked why we don’t allow our donkeys to be adopted as livestock guardians.  The quick answer is that many of the donkeys that come into our rescue were livestock guardians that failed at their job and suffered long term neglect as a result. 


The long answer about WHY most donkeys fail as livestock guardians is below along with many of the factors that lead to their long term neglect.  While donkeys are commonly used as livestock guardians due to their natural instincts to defend their territory against potential threats, there are many reasons we do not recommend donkeys being used in these circumstances and why they are not usually the best choice.


Aggression towards other animals

While donkeys can be protective of their territory and the animals they consider part of their herd, they can also be aggressive towards unfamiliar animals. This aggression can pose a problem if the donkey comes into contact with livestock or companion animals that it perceives as a threat, potentially leading to injuries or death. Donkeys may not have the same level of control or ability to assess the level of threat as guardian dogs, which could pose risks to both the donkeys themselves and the livestock they are supposed to protect.  


Donkeys will often target calves and harass them and keep them away from the cows (which the donkeys may be trying to protect from the “intruding” calves). This can lead to the calves inability to nurse.  In many cases, the donkeys escalate to aggressive behavior and end up hurting or even killing calves. Donkeys will do the same with goats or sheep but it’s not limited to the kids or lambs. We get rescue calls all the time asking us to pick up donkeys that “did more damage to the livestock in one season than all the predators combined over all the years”. 


Limited effectiveness against predators

Donkeys may be generally effective at deterring smaller predators like coyotes or stray dogs through their loud braying, charging behavior, and kicking ability. However, they may not be as effective against larger predators such as large cats (such as cougars/mountain lions), bears, wolves or animals that hunt in packs, such as feral dogs.  In areas with a significant threat from larger predators, alternative livestock guardian animals like livestock guardian dogs or llamas (or both) may be more suitable.


Predation risk

Donkeys may be more susceptible to predator attacks themselves. While they may deter some predators, they can also become targets for larger predators or packs of dogs that see them as potential threats or prey. At least once per year, we get photos of donkeys that have been mauled by predators.  Mini donkeys should NEVER be used as livestock guardians for this very reason. 


Training and management challenges

Donkeys, like any livestock guardian animal, require proper training and management to be effective. Training donkeys to become effective livestock guardians can be more challenging than training specific livestock guardian dog breeds. Dogs have a long history of working alongside humans and have been selectively bred for guarding purposes. Donkeys, on the other hand, may require extensive training and socialization to become reliable guardians. Their natural instinct to protect can be unpredictable making it harder to train them consistently.


A University of Nebraska survey of 60 sheep and goat farmers found that less than 24% of donkeys are effective livestock guardians.  50% of donkeys were listed as ineffective - meaning they coexisted with the livestock they were supposed to protect, but provided no protection benefit and only added to the feed bill.  The remaining 26% were listed as failures and did more harm than good.  PVDR did an internal study and found that only an estimated 7-8% of donkeys were effective as livestock guardians, but there is no way to truly measure this except by trial and error. Are you willing to bet your goat, sheep or cows lives on whether or not you got one of the few donkeys that is actually an effective livestock guardian?


Dietary considerations

Donkeys have different dietary needs compared to other livestock animals. They require a specific diet that includes high-fiber and low-protein feeds - not pasture grass which is not naturally part of their diet.  Donkeys housed with cattle, sheep or goats usually end up living on too much grass and eating feeds designed for other species. If they are solely used as livestock guardians without proper access to suitable food sources, they may suffer from nutritional deficiencies, become unhealthy, unable to walk due to laminitis, and can ultimately die as result.


Socialization requirements

Donkeys are social animals that form strong bonds with other donkeys.  Their need to bond with another donkey is a survival instinct. This instinct can be so strong that a donkey who loses its bonded pair can die from the related stress.  This is because donkey’s can only get their deep sleep - the equivalent of a human's REM sleep - with another equine standing guard. If they are used as solitary guardians they may become stressed, sleep deprived and exhibit undesirable, erratic behaviors. Cows, sheep, goats or farm birds can not replace the special dependance donkeys have on other equines, but they are often the target of their erratic behavior.  On the other hand, pairs of donkeys that are kept with livestock will often ignore the livestock and have no effect on minimizing predation. 


Housing, maintenance and costs

Donkeys have specific care requirements that need to be met, such as proper shelter, hoof care, and veterinary attention. Donkeys require shelter from rain and cold winds. They also need annual vaccines, including rabies, and dental exams from a vet.  They also need their feet trimmed from a qualified farrier every 6-10 weeks depending on many factors. The cost of maintaining donkeys as livestock guardians can be significant compared to other guardian animals. This aspect should be carefully considered, especially if alternative options are available.



Donkeys that live with livestock are often not treated as pets and get limited interaction with humans.  This along with the wide open spaces typical of grazing livestock can lead donkeys to  revert to their natural instincts and wilder ways.  Without regular interaction donkeys can become difficult to capture and handle. This means the donkeys go without regular hoof care, vaccines and dental care.  Most of the donkeys we get out of situations like this are suffering from serious, long term neglect which can be life threatening to the donkeys.  Needless to say, we don't want to adopt our donkeys into this type of situation.


It’s a myth that (all) donkeys are good livestock guardians

It's important to note that the effectiveness of livestock guardians can vary depending on factors such as the specific environment, predator pressure, and individual animal temperament. Each situation should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, considering the specific needs and challenges of the livestock operation. Alternative livestock guardian animals, such as livestock guardian dogs or llamas, might be more suitable in many circumstances.  Ultimately, the suitability of donkeys as livestock guardians depends on the specific circumstances and needs of the farm or ranch. It's essential to consider the size of the property, the types of predators present, the availability of proper nutrition and socialization, as well as the resources and expertise available for their training and management.


With that said, we don’t allow our donkeys to be used as livestock guardians for all of the above possible scenarios.  When we rescue, rehab and train our donkeys for adoption, we are doing so with the intent that they will be kept as pets. Many of our donkeys have already come out of environments where they were in essence failed livestock guardians and often seriously neglected.  The last thing we want is for them to go back into that environment - or for them to negatively impact any farming operation or hurt other animals or people.


We are often told by our adoption applicants that they don’t want to keep the donkeys as livestock guardians, but they do want to keep all of their livestock together.  This is also not recommended as the donkeys don’t differentiate between being a livestock guardian or just a member of the family farm.  Again, we don’t want to see your pet goats, cows, sheep, pigs, etc., hurt by your pet donkey .. it’s just not worth the risk.


For more information on using livestock guardian animals (donkeys, dogs or llamas), please refer to the many books on the topic.  And, if you have a successful livestock guardian donkey, you are one of the lucky ones.  However you should ask yourself, is the donkey lucky? Are the donkey's needs, both physically and socially, being met?  If not, you might want to consider an alternative livestock management strategy and get that donkey into a situation where it is eating the proper diet and getting the regular farrier care they need.