Thursday, March 12, 2015

Easy Keepers Aren't

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!"


  1. Another very informative post. Thank you.

  2. Awww I feel their pain - trying to get excess fat off my butt! Hmm we need to do a weight watchers intervention for donkeys. Honestly though, yes they burn more with the cold but not enough to offset the lack of exercise I bet.

  3. Wow, you should publish a book on the care and feeding of donkeys and horses. Your articles are very informative. I wonder if the wild burros here in Nevada ever get laminitis? If they do, it is probably from the treats given out by passing motorists. They are pretty good a begging.

  4. This post should be given to all new donkey owners. I sure could have used the information in the beginning. I had to learn by trial and error and reading lots of books and blogs. It is true they seem to be designed to "eat twigs and air". I laugh, but it is really not funny, that mine seem to gain weight just by breathing. Domestic donkeys are hard to keep here in the West, too, especially with the current drought. Early rains bring grass and then the grass stresses from lack of rain. The donkeys think the grass is candy at this point and then they stress when there is little left to forage. They nibble on tree bark, a few oak leaves here, a pine branch there. They are so relaxed when there is enough to forage by roaming the property. Thank you, once again, for some really helpful information.

  5. You ARE beautiful Emma and you're not fat!!!

  6. Steele was a very easy keeper- Andalusians are (desert horses). Keeping him trim and ensuring that Irish got enough was difficult.

    Do they inhale their hay? Would a slow net feeder help?

    1. I use small mesh nets with one inch holes, I even double them up to make it even harder. My herd has gotten so good at net manipulation that doubling the nets barely makes a difference. It's amazing what those little lips can do:)

  7. I hear you loud and clear. Although during the winter our donkeys are constantly moving as the mules and horses are just to find a place out of the wind. Everyone always seems to be nagging at another except of course on sunny warm days like today.
    It looks like I have dead donkeys and mules.
    Siera can get fat looking at hay I swear!
    In the summer we have to limit her pasture and separate her from the other girls. She frets by walking the fence.
    Self exercise...
    Thank you, great post.

  8. What a great post!
    I, too, feed wheat straw for roughage and know for a fact that if we didn't live on such a steep incline - where my donkey boys have to hike up and down multiple times a day - that I'd be dealing a lot more with weight issues.

  9. Good thing you wrote a post about this - too many donkey owners don't realize that overfeeding a donkey is just a long term punishment for the poor animal...
    I have the same weight issues here with my girls... I'm so looking forward to spring coming, but on the other hand it fills me with terror, because I'll have to find ways to limit their intake of fresh grass - which is way too nutritive in spring... Not easy.. It's like putting a child in front of a table of chocolates, and telling him he cannot have any..
    As for the hay and straw, I'm happy I have easy access and unlimited supply of it here... Oh my when I read your worries about the straw...

  10. Great post - easy keepers ...? Ha! Even after 13 years of living with donkeys, I feel like I never get feeding quite right! Re straw - I do have access to barley straw and rely on it. It's challenging though because each bale is different , often too much dust and/ or chaff. But I did as FB at the UK Sanctuary about "organic straw" vs non and she seemed to think it wasn't bad to feed non-organic (all I ca get) as it is meant for human consumption of the barley part. This year though some of the straw turned pink which filled me with horror and of course I didn't feed that! I think increased exercise is a key to healthy donkeys if at all possible - hard in winter. Oh and FB also told me that she considers grass to be one of 3 "poisonous" plants for donkeys along with yew and ragwort, given that they have seen so many problems in donkeys from grass consumption.

  11. helloww

    its a cute donkey, somehow it reminds me of donkey in shrek film and it always made me smile :)
    btw talk about dance maybe the donkey should understand the benefits of dance too :)

    baba loves you all, love the donkey too

  12. Hopefully soon they can get more exercise and balance out. Just like we have to. Very informative post.