Question from Shelley: Tell us again why fat donkeys are a bad thing and what can happen as a result.
Donkeys are extreme "easy keepers", which is one of the worst misnomers ever created. There is nothing easy about feeding them, at least not in Northeastern US. The problem is that they are desert animals designed to eat twigs and air. The food available here is all too rich for them. At the same time, they need to eat small amounts of food almost continuously in order to keep their GI tract healthy.
The risks associated with obesity include arthritis, joint problems, liver disease, metabolic disorders, a higher risk of hyperlipaemia, insulin resistance and, most especially, a high risk of laminitis. Basically, all donkeys are insulin resistant by nature and are very prone to laminitis.
The problems are very much the same as those faced by humans who are obese, only much worse. Just as a diabetic is prone to leg and foot problems, so are hoofed animals. The big difference is that a hoof is a hard capsule that is meant to support the animal for 20-22 hours a day. Swelling inside that hard capsule has nowhere to go so all that pressure is forced inward where it tears everything apart. An episode of laminitis is devastating to the sensitive structures of the hoof and can easily become a cascade of one failure leading to another and another. The swelling causes damage, which causes more swelling, which causes more damage........It is excruciating for the animal and, even if caught and treated early, is often life threatening.
The weight issue is something that I struggle with all the time because my hay is to rich despite the fact that it is native, unimproved, unfertilized grass that was cut way past its prime. I try to offset this by keeping their hay ration at 1.5% of what they should weigh (horses and donkeys generally need 1.5-2% of their body weight per day in roughage). The general rule of thumb is to feed 2% in the winter, when energy needs are higher. Tessa should weigh about 1100 lbs and the donkeys about 400 lbs each. That comes out to about 16 lbs a day for Tessa and 6 lbs each for the donkeys. Since my hay bales average 25-30 pounds, this ought be easy, they get one bale a day split between them. To increase their roughage intake and satisfy their need to nibble, they also get wheat straw, which has been tested and proven to be very low calorie/low energy. And yet, they are still too heavy.
Some of this is my fault. We have had a crushingly brutal winter and when I come home at 2:30 am and it is 25 below with howling winds and they want more hay, I always cave. Since we have had a record breaking number of nights just like that and the snow is too deep for them to get any meaningful exercise, the pounds are adding up. I am trying to be a lot stricter, but I am really bad at it. I want them to be happy and the only way to do that in these conditions is more food.
I could probably fix this by feeding a higher percentage of straw. However that has a whole host of other problems. The straw is very hard to get, is extremely expensive and is in limited supply. I have to be sparring with it to make it last. There are some other sources of straw that I have found, but it comes through a dealer at very high cost, variable quality and, most worrisome to me, no idea of what chemicals have been applied to it or what the sugar content of it is. Some straw can actually have more sugar than hay does depending on when it was cut.
The chemical issue is a real concern. I know that the wheat straw I buy is safe because I have established a relationship with the farmer who produces it, but there is no way of knowing about the other sources. I consulted with a lab to find out about chemical testing and found that it is a herculean task. There are so many potentially harmful chemicals used that you have to know exactly what was used before you even try to test for residue and each test begins at $350 per sample. I asked the lab if this is really something I should worry about, and they told me yes, they routinely test samples that have up to 400 times the legal levels of chemical residue. As I am using this straw as feed and not just bedding, that worries me. How can that possibly be good for them?
What I really need is hay that has a lower sugar content. However, in this area, that is proving to be as elusive and rare as unicorns. I really wish my herd were all a little "harder" to keep, it sure would make things easier. So, we continually battle the bulge, trying to find the right balance between keeping the weight in check and keeping everyone warm and happy. If you ask the herd, the only problem they see is that I am far too stingy with the groceries.
"Just who are you calling fat, huh?"
"I'm not fat, I'm BEAUTIFUL!"