GENTLE ANIMALS Vet Naomi Clarkin with two donkeys.
Although donkeys – originally from Africa and later Asia – have been used as working animals for at least five millennia, donkeys have only been in Ireland for a couple of hundred years. At one time there were very few farms and homesteads in the country that didn’t use the labours of a donkey for work on the farm and the bog.
There are still very many donkeys all over Ireland, and sadly many stories of abuse and neglect. Sometimes this is because people don’t know how to care for these creatures properly. Here, I’m going to look at some key aspects of looking after them and keeping them healthy and happy.
Home and dry
As a consequence of their relatively recent arrival here, they haven’t had a chance to adapt as a species to our wet climate. Being from Africa and Asia, they do not have naturally waterproof coats, so it is essential that they are provided with a three-sided shelter that faces away from the prevailing wind. Ideally they should be provided with waterproof rugs too during the winter, especially if young, old or frail for any reason. It’s possible to get blankets made especially to fit the donkey shape. You can find lots of options online.
Donkeys are herd animals and highly social, so for their welfare they must be kept with other animals like horses, ponies and goats for company, but they love company of their own kind the most.
Tooth and nail
In their natural environment, donkeys would walk about 20 miles a day browsing food, across dry, sandy and shaley terrain, so the hooves grow quickly to counteract the inevitable wear. On the soft, wet land of Ireland, donkeys easily suffer from painfully overgrown and distorted feet, so it is really important that the hooves are trimmed every couple of months. That’s six times a year at about €20 a go (depending on the farrier and how far they have to travel, and so on). You can get the number for a farrier from your local vet. Also Steve Chapman is a qualified ‘Barefoot Trimmer’, who is happy to trim donkey’s feet. He works throughout Mayo.
As well as minding their feet, donkeys may require the attentions of a vet or equine dentist to tend their teeth, which continue to grow throughout their lives. Weight loss in an otherwise healthy donkey, or dropping little lumps of feed while chewing are signs that the teeth may have spurs which need rasping off.
Fed and watered
Being used to a diet of twigs, leaves and poor-quality forage, donkeys’ digestive tracts are built to take a lot of fibre. The best way to ensure they have enough is to make barley straw available. A healthy young donkey would comfortably get through the winter on half a bale of barley straw per day, plus a ‘leaf’ of hay and a handful of low-protein crunch feed, so long as he has access to some grazing too, which would also relieve boredom, if he were being kept in.
In spring and summer, donkeys are prone to getting overweight if grazed freely on lush green grass. This can lead to a very painful condition called laminitis. So keep an eye on your donkey’s waistline!
I’m not sure how widespread the belief is any longer, but it used to be said that donkeys only drank once a year on Palm Sunday! This led to the idea that they didn’t need access to fresh water, which is, of course, untrue. They need fresh water available at all times.
Catch the worm
To keep your donkey in good health, he or she also needs to be wormed with a recognised horse worming paste available from your vet. If they share pastures with horses and ponies, the wormer needs to include treatment for lungworm, as donkeys can carry and spread this parasite without showing any signs themselves. Your vet may give specific advice for your situation, but generally I would say, worm your donkey twice a year in September and April.
Donkeys have done us a good service in years gone by. They are fond of human company and respond well to love and attention. Let’s mind them well.
Dr Naomi Clarkin BVetMed, works with Tom Fabby MVB, Killian O Morain MVB and David Fabby BVetSc at WESTVETS on the West Road (098 25618). The practice now stocks horse food and shavings, and its new practice manager, Anna Hudson BSc, will happily give advice about feeding and supplements for all your equine friends.