Horse Care Other Tips

Do Donkeys Bite? (And How to Keep Your Fingers!)

Donkeys can bite
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Written by Susanna W.

Any animal can bite—but are you likely to be bitten by a donkey? Short answer, no.

Generally speaking, donkeys are known to be calm, docile animals. The original “beast of burden,” donkeys have been used as work animals by humans for thousands of years. Their strength and compact size is an asset…most of the time. Compared to horses of the same size, donkeys are stronger—and in case you were wondering, this strength translates to their jaws as well!

Donkeys could bite for a variety of reasons, but the most frequent occurrence is while hand-feeding treats. Another commonly mentioned reason was for attention, but these bites were described more as “nibbles.” Learn all the reasons why a donkey might bite, and how to exercise additional caution, in this article!

Donkeys can bite

While horses and donkeys are closely related, they are not the same. Horses evolved to eat grasses, while donkeys evolved in harsher, more desert-like climates. Instead of grazing, we refer to donkeys as “browsers.” Donkeys can subsist on a much broader range of feedstuff, including tougher forages like straw and woody shrubberies. These coarser feeds require more energy to chew, hence stronger jaws.

Reasons Donkeys Bite

Any animal will bite under the right circumstances. Some reasons a donkey may bite include:

  • Protecting its territory from predators
  • Defending its young
  • As a way to communicate with other donkeys
  • A pain response
  • A fear response
  • To guard or get food (or defend food from others)
  • A hormonal response (an ungelded male)
  • To play

Donkeys normally don't bite

For the most part, donkeys are gentle and not likely to act aggressively towards humans. Biting isn’t a common behavior among domesticated, trained animals.

Being relatively new to donkeys (and on the receiving end of a few finger munches) I reached out to a group of donkey enthusiasts on a social media site to ask about their experiences. The results are certainly interesting!

Donkey bite chart

Half of all respondents had never been bitten by a donkey. Of the unfortunate half, about 50% were directly related to hand-feeding the donkey treats (in most cases, this was an honest mistake and the human admitted full responsibility).

While this is by no means a scientific study, it does provide interesting insights. Of the people who commented, these were the summarized reasons about the biting incident:

Category Count %
     
Treat Related 13 22%
Attention 9 16%
“More of a Nip” 7 12%
Ungelded Male 4 7%
Jealous 4 7%
Young 4 7%
Curiosity 2 3%
Territory 2 3%
Farrier 2 3%
Feeding Related 1 2%
Play 1 2%
Mom/Baby Scenario 1 2%
Injured/in pain 1 2%
     
Total 58  

Donkey Play

Avoid Bites

Being bitten is unlikely, but not impossible. Here are a few things to consider to keep yourself (and others!) safe around donkeys, or any equine:

  • Always use caution when meeting an animal for the first time
  • Don’t attempt to handle, or feed, someone else’s donkey without permission
  • Be extra careful when feeding treats! Fingers feel an awfully lot like carrots
  • Be respectful of a mama donkey and her baby
  • Have male donkeys gelded, and never let new people or strangers handle a jack (uncastrated male)
  • Don’t sneak up on or startle a donkey
  • Avoid getting between two or more donkeys so you aren’t caught in the crossfire of a possible disagreement

Donkeys are generally docile, calm animals–the risk of being bitten is low, but never zero. Following basic safety rules when working around animals will help you avoid coming into contact with donkey teeth!

Donkey Finger Bite

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are donkeys aggressive?

Donkeys are generally very calm, docile animals. Unlike a horse that will run away if scared (“flight” response), donkeys exhibit the “fight” response. They may act aggressively towards a predator that enters their territory. For this reason, they are commonly used as livestock guardians, as they will defend against animals like coyotes. Generally, humans are not viewed as predators.

Q: Are donkey jaws stronger than horse jaws?

Yes! Donkeys are “browsers” and have evolved to eat much coarser, tougher materials than horses. This requires stronger jaws so they can properly chew things like woody shrubs.

Q: Do donkeys bite?

Yes, any animal can bite if provoked.

Q: What is the most common scenario where a donkey has bitten a person?

Most donkey owners reported getting fingers accidentally nipped while feeding treats to donkeys. In the majority of cases, the person accepted full responsibility for the injury.

Check out this video on a technique to avoid biting related to treats.

Feeding Donkeys

Parting Thought

Donkeys have a blind spot right under their noses, so they rely on whiskers/lips to “feel” what they are eating. Fingers and carrots can be easily mistaken! If you opt to hand-feed treats, be sure to hold your hand flat and avoid feeding small treats.

Or avoid hand-feeding altogether and use a feed pan or let the donkey pick the treat off the ground.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 

Sources:

https://donkeylistener.com/biting-donkey/

https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/what-we-do/knowledge-and-advice/for-owners/understanding-donkey-behaviour

https://firsttimefarming.com/are-donkeys-mean/

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About the author

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Susanna W.

Horses are my first love, but travel is a close second! I grew up riding in 4-H and went on to ride on my college equestrian team. As an adult, I've ridden and shown Quarter Horses for 20+ years, including several wins at Quarter Horse Congress. I also worked for 7 years at a leading horse feed company, and I'm passionate about equine health and nutrition. Lastly, I have a big soft spot in my heart for senior horses!