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Donkey vs. horse nutrition: What’s the difference?

donkey nutrition
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Written by Susanna W.

Nutritional Requirements for Your Hungry Donkey

If horse nutrition wasn’t complicated enough, donkey nutrition might be an even more challenging topic. Try to use good judgment, fact-check your resources, and consult an equine professional with specific questions.

Please note—this article is not meant to be comprehensive or used as a feeding guide specific to any individual animal. It is simply a summary of what we have learned so far!

Donkey nutritional requirements are both similar and different to horses. These learnings are helping to prepare us as we bring our two BLM burros home.

donkey treats

Key Feeding Recommendations

Donkeys require fewer calories than horses. This is due to both digestive system efficiency and their (generally) smaller size.
It’s important to not confuse low calorie feeds with low quality—donkeys still need vitamins and minerals and are susceptible to mold just like horses.

Like horses, the majority of the donkey’s diet should be made up of roughage (hay and straw). Specific forage may depend on your region and availability.

Both horse and donkey digestive systems need time to adapt to change. If you need to change up their diet, do so gradually.
Donkeys may be even more prone to obesity than horses. It’s important to carefully monitor body condition score and feed intake.

donkey feed

The Equine Digestive System

Both donkeys and horses share the same Taxonomic Rank from Kingdom down to Genus, but then diverge at the species level.

This translates to: Donkeys and horses are similar, but not the same.

Thinking about how the two species evolved can be helpful to better understand the digestive tracts. Horses evolved on plains, grazing on grasses. Donkeys evolved in more mountainous terrain, browsing on a wide variety of vegetation including woody shrubs as well as grasses.

donkey grass

source: canva

Due to these differences in forages, donkeys have evolved to possess much stronger jaws than horses. (I’ve had multiple fingers mistaken for carrots and can attest to this!) Much of what a donkey forages on are lower in calories than grasses available to horses. As a result, their digestive systems have evolved to become extremely efficient, extracting more nutrients out of what they eat than that of horses.

While both horses and donkeys contain the same overall number of microbes in the digestive tract, each species has evolved to possess different combinations of microbiota specific to the types of forages consumed.

One common misconception is that donkeys only require low-quality forage. This is a misnomer-don’t confuse quality with calories. Donkeys still require vitamins and minerals, and are susceptible to colic from moldy feeds, the same as horses.

Donkeys can digest feeds with higher fiber. One example is straw—as a “horse person,” I would never consider feeding straw to horses. In contrast, however, this is a perfectly acceptable feedstuff for donkeys. Think of it as celery for donkeys—it shouldn’t be the primary source of forage for nutrients, but it’s a great additive to keep them busy and their digestive systems full, without adding unnecessary calories.

Note: Never feed moldy or dusty hay/straw to any animal–horse, donkey, or other livestock.

Forage

Both horse and donkey diets should primarily come from forage (typically in the form of hay or pasture). Horses should be fed 1.5-2% of their body weight each day in forage. Donkeys require about the same, 1.5% of their body weight.

donkey nutrition

Specific forages will depend on what is available in your region. For donkeys, the preferred forage is barley straw, but this isn’t widely available in the United States. Straw is not typically grown for feed in the US, so it can be difficult to find straw that is mold and dust-free.

Alfalfa hay is an excellent option for horse forage, but is too rich in protein for donkeys.

Remember how efficient their digestive systems are? The extra protein makes the energy content too high and could cause obesity or laminitis in donkeys.

donkey forage

source: canva

Grass hay is a good option for both horses and donkeys. It’s lower in protein and sugar and high enough in fiber to be suitable for both animals. Always be sure any hay you feed is free from mold, dust, and toxic weeds.

We plan to keep some straw on hand to feed during colder temperatures. Additional roughage is important in the winter, as the equine digestive system produces heat as it ferments fiber.

Feeding additional hay can help keep all types of equines warmer in extremely cold temps.

For both animals, feeding high-quality hay may fulfill their dietary needs depending on individual metabolisms and workloads.

Horses are commonly fed a grain supplement for vitamins/minerals and extra calories. Donkeys generally do not require extra calories, so grain may not be a good idea. Donkeys do need vitamins and minerals, so if they are not getting adequate levels/ratios in their hay, a supplement may be needed.

Supplements vs. Concentrates

This can be a bit of a gray area. When discussing supplementing an equine diet, a person could be referring to two different types of feed.

Grain is fed as a “supplement” to hay and is also referred to as a concentrate feed. It provides extra vitamins, minerals, and calories that may not be available in the hay provided and is generally measured in pounds. Only feed grain formulated for horses.

Livestock species have varying vitamin and mineral needs, and quantities/ratios can be quite different. For example, copper is toxic to sheep and goats, but is an essential mineral in equine diets. Ruminants like cattle may require feed medicated with Bovatec or Rumensin, both of which are toxic to equines.

Supplements are formulated to add extras vitamins and/or minerals in a concentrated form—they are typically measured in ounces. Supplements don’t provide a significant source of calories (unless you’re feeding a weight-building supplement).

three donkeys

source: canva

Most donkeys don’t require a grain or a concentrate, provided they have access to good quality hay. If you have a pregnant, lactating, senior, or athlete donkey, they may require extra calories, in which case grain would be a good option. Regardless, not all grains are created equal.

Remember, donkeys are extremely efficient in digesting both protein and energy—so you’ll want to look for a grain that is low in both sugar and protein.

Stay away from textured feeds (they are coated in molasses, which has a high level of sugar. Also, don’t buy a topline enhancer or ration balancer (high in protein).

Generally speaking, avoid anything with corn as an ingredient. Corn is high in starch which isn’t great for the equine digestive system (horses or donkeys).

Look for feeds that are low in NSC (non-structural carbohydrates). Donkeys seem to thrive on low NSC feeds that are formulated for horses that have metabolic concerns.

Not all feed companies call this out on the label, so you may need to do a little research or math to be able to compare feed tags “apples to apples.” What is NSC? NSC stands for non-structural carbohydrates. The formula to calculate it is pretty simple—just add Starch + Sugar to get to the total NSC for that particular feed.

I started my research by comparing the tags on four different equine feeds that I was familiar with:

donkey nutrition

After reviewing the levels above, we decided to try SafeChoice Special Care with our burros. It was the lowest in protein and NCS, and still includes pre- and probiotics, biotin, and added amino acids.

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Salt

Similar to horses, salt should be provided free-choice. We bought a trace mineral salt block that was formulated for equines. Our donkey trainers feed a loose Himalayan salt.

You can also buy Himalayan “salt on a rope” that doubles as both a salt source and general entertainment.

horse salt

source: canva

Treats

We’re going to keep things simple to start. Carrots are an excellent choice as they are low-calorie (and cheap) The downside is their shelf life, especially in freezing temperatures.

Another donkey favorite are animal crackers—the plain, non-frosted variety!

donkey carrot

source: canva

Shredded beet pulp is another high fiber donkey-friendly treat option, provided you can find it without added molasses. This is a by-product of sugar beet processing which means it should be low-sugar/energy, as processing removes sugar.

Watch out, though. Some companies add sugar back in the form of molasses for palatability.

Always soak beet pulp before feeding to reduce the risk of impaction colic. Another benefit to beet pulp? It makes a great hot mash in the winter to encourage hydration.

Electrolytes

If a donkey isn’t feeling well, it may be helpful to add some electrolytes to their feed. You can mix in electrolytes with grain, treats, or (soaked) shredded beet pulp as discussed above.

Want to watch Blue and Moon’s progress? Follow them on Instagram!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is obesity dangerous for donkeys?

Obese animals have increased risk for many health issues such as laminitis, founder, and joint problems. Donkeys are extra prone to hyperlipaemia, a condition brought on by stress and/or an underlying condition. Hyperlipaemia is a serious condition that can lead to organ failure and death.

What can you do with donkeys?

Donkeys make great pets and working animals. They can be used for riding (be mindful of weight limits), driving, packing, and even pack burro racing. Donkeys can make good livestock guardians and can be used as therapy animals.

Can you adopt a donkey?

Yes! There are two general ways to adopt a donkey in the United States. The first is to adopt a wild (or trained) BLM burro. As of 2022, you can actually be reimbursed $1,000 for adopting a wild burro. The second is to adopt from one of many donkey rescues or sanctuaries, such as Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, which works throughout the lower 48 states along with Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Making Progress, Safely Disclaimers:

This article is designed to be informative, detailing what I’ve learned as I researched donkey nutrition. After working with horses for more than 20 years, I was surprised to learn all the differences between feeding horses and donkeys.

Please reach out to your vet, or an equine/donkey professional with specific nutrition questions.

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

Sources:

https:// www.nutrenaworld.com/product/safechoice-special-care-horse-feed
https:// thehorse.com/1102027/what-type-of-forage-should-you-feed-donkeys/
https:// www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/what-we-do/knowledge-and-advice/for-owners/what-to-feed-your-donkeys
https:// equimed.com/news/health/how-donkeys-nutritional-needs-differ-from-those-of-horses
https:// thehorse.com/1100681/particular-microbiota-might-make-donkeys-extra-easy-keepers/
https:// stablemanagement.com/articles/feeding-mules-and-donkeys
https:// www.platinumperformance.com/articles/feeding-donkeys-and-mules.html
https:// www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/what-we-do/knowledge-and-advice/for-owners/hyperlipaemia-in-donkeys

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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!