General Information About Donkeys
The donkey is a member of Equus asinus and is more correctly called an ass. 'Dunkey' is an old English word meaning greyish-brown in colour. Burro is Spanish for ass. In America, the term 'donkey' is often used for domesticated asses while burro may refer to the feral donkeys which are found in various regions of both North and South America.
Donkeys have had a very hard life in many countries and are often regarded as stubborn and lazy because they don't react in the same way as the horse. They are very strong for their size and have served humans patiently in many ways over many years. Donkeys and horses have served man in many ways through the years.
Sizes and Types
Donkeys come in a range of sizes from miniatures to the American Mammoth Jackstock. Male donkeys are called jacks and females jennets or jennys. The foals may be jack or jennet foals and castrated males are geldings. Horses belong to a different species, Equus caballus, but can interbreed with donkeys. Generally the hybrid offspring of two different species is infertile. The offspring of a jack and a mare is called a mule. A stallion mating with a jennet produces a hinny. Donkeys have been beasts of burden for thousands of years and have suffered in many areas from abuse and neglect.
Donkeys are classified by their height. For registration purposes a miniature donkey is under 36 inches high at the withers (when mature), a Small Standard donkey stands between 36.01 inches and 48 inches. A Large Standard jennet is between 48 and 54 inches and a Large Standard jack or gelding between 48 and 56 inches. Mammoth donkeys are over these heights. The Poitou donkey of France is now quite rare but is another of the larger types with jacks standing 14 to 15 hands. The coat of the Poitou (or Baudet de Poitou) becomes long and tangled, hanging in dreadlocks from the body.
The donkey has a background as a working animal and his conformation and temperament should suit him for such a life even if he is only a pet. Good conformation usually means less health problems. A good donkey has a pleasing symmetry to his general outline and should look solid and strong. Knock-kneed, cow-hocked donkeys are becoming much less common as people realise the importance of strong, straight legs and feet.
The head should be in proportion but short rather than too long and tapering to a small muzzle. The forehead is very wide between the eyes. A bridle for a donkey must have a longer browband than a bridle for a horse.
The profile may be slightly dished or straight. The eyes should be large, set low and wide apart. He should have a kind expression. The jaws should not be over- or under-shot but be round and open. Jaws which meet properly allow proper mastication of food. The ears should be long and clean-cut. They should be carried firmly and alertly pointed.
The neck should be firm, well fleshed and strong. The mane is usually short and upright. The withers are normally barely noticeable and the shoulder slopes slightly although not as much as the shoulder of a horse. The animal should be deep through the girth with a short back and strong, broad loin. There needs to be plenty of length between the point of hip and point of buttock. The top of the croup should be round and the tail well set but not low.
The legs should be straight with good bone and short cannon bones. The pasterns will be more upright than those of a horse. The hooves should be hard, clean and tough. The typical donkey hoof is narrow and upright. Front feet are oval in shape and the hind feet are more elongated with small but well developed frogs. Like the Arabian, the donkey lacks the fifth lumbar vertebra of the spinal column.
Donkeys come in a wide array of colours including broken coloured and spotted. Grey donkeys often have dorsal and shoulder stripes.Christians sometimes say Jesus gave the donkey his stripes which looks like a cross on the body of the donkey in recognition of the donkey who carried Jesus. Like many primitive equine breeds such as the Norwegian Fjord and Highland, there may be horizontal stripes on the legs. The nose is often white. There may be white eye rings and a white underbelly.
Donkeys are not stupid but have a different mindset to a horse. Its instinct when confronted with something strange or frightening is to stay still and consider the new situation. It is not in its nature to flee in panic as a horse might. It was this characteristic which John SimpsonKirkpatrick's donkeys to remain steadfast under fire at Gallipoli.
Donkey will browse on coarse herbage, thistles, shrubs and marsh grass. Donkeys have low energy requirements. Lush pasture over a period of time can result in obesity and metabolic disorders such as laminitis (founder). Hyperlipaemia is another possibility if the donkey is allowed free choice of high quality feed and/or if an obese donkey is made to lose excess weight to quickly. Donkeys are very fussy about their drinking water and fresh, clean water is essential. It is best not to give donkeys titbits as they learn to nip if a treat is not offered. Better to feed treats in a bowl.
Donkeys clean themselves by making a dustbath in part of their pasture. The coat is longer and coarser than that of the horse and donkeys do not have a protective undercoat. Instead the long hair traps air pockets which act as insulation. Donkeys enjoy being groomed but too thorough grooming removes air pockets and natural oils.
The hooves of donkeys are very elastic and do not wear down to the same degree as other equines. They rarely need to be shod. The feet should be trimmed regularly. If trimming is neglected, the feet can grow to incredible lengths leading perhaps to permanent crippling.
The donkey is by nature a desert animal. If kept in a cold climate they need to be able to shelter from harsh weather. Although they do not mind the cold, they are susceptible to bronchitis or pneumonia if they are allowed to become chilled. Donkeys tend to become sodden during rainstorms or snow because of the different texture of the coat.
Donkeys should be wormed regularly. Rotate through a range of wormers to prevent internal parasites building up a resistance to one brand. Any donkey which rubs itself excessively, particularly on the tail-head, should be inspected for lice. Donkeys should be vaccinated against major equine diseases the same as horses are. Your veterinarian will be able to suggest appropriate vaccinations for your area.
Jennets are slow to mature and should not be bred before three years of age. Breeding before this can result in permanent damage to the skeletal and muscular system. Foals to very young jennets may be born with congenital malformations. Donkeys have an average gestation of 12 months but it can vary between 11 and 14 months. Twins are more frequent among donkeys than among horses.
Donkeys have a life span of 30 to 50 years. Treated kindly and with respect, donkeys make wonderful companions and pets. They are not really happy on their own and need a companion. They are wonderfully patient with children, are happy to be ridden (keep weight-loading to sensible limits), driven or used as pack animals. What could be more enjoyable than letting your donkey friend carry your picnic supplies to a pleasant spot? He will even eat your crusts for you.