The Best and the Worst Aspects of Donkey Ownership
Are you thinking about adding a donkey to your herd? Donkeys can be loyal, fun-loving animals that bond strongly with their humans.
But owning any animal, including donkeys, comes with some unique pros and cons. Donkey owners are generally very enthusiastic about their animals but won’t sugarcoat their quirks. After all, some attributes, including intelligence, can be both a pro and a con!
Keep reading to learn more about what makes a donkey a great companion and a bit of a challenge.
A donkey can make a fantastic addition to your herd: they form close bonds with people and other animals, may guard other livestock from predators, and are relatively inexpensive to own. Weigh these pros, however, against cons such as their longevity (you may need to write your donkey into your will), loud braying, and how difficult it can be to identify illness.
Donkeys have been used as a “beast of burden” for thousands of years. They are highly intelligent and generally gentle in nature.
If you’re familiar with horses, donkeys are similar—but are definitely not the same.
A few key differences:
You can’t feed a donkey like you do a horse. Donkeys evolved as “browsers” while horses evolved as “grazers.”
Because of this, donkeys are much more efficient at digesting feed and are more prone to obesity. (Learn more about donkey nutrition.) You’ll want to avoid grain and may need to minimize grazing time.
Fight or Flight Response
Horses run away when they sense danger while donkeys will stand their ground and fight.
Donkeys can kick with both front and rear hooves (sometimes both at the same time) and can also bite to defend themselves.
Like horses, donkeys also need regular hoof care. The structure of the hoof differs from that of a horse, so be sure to find a farrier that is familiar with trimming donkeys.
Donkeys will need annual vet exams, vaccines, and dental care.
Similar to horses, donkeys are herd animals and need companions—preferably another donkey. Donkeys also enjoy human companionship and can be very affectionate.
It may take some time, but donkeys form strong bonds with humans and other animals.
Donkeys require shelter from the elements and may need additional measures beyond that of a horse.
Horses have evolved to possess a water-repellant oil in their hair which better equips them for poor weather.
Donkeys evolved in dry, desert-like conditions where this feature was not necessary, so they may need some extra help to stay warm and dry in inclement weather.
There is some controversy about whether or not you should blanket a donkey—this difference in hair coat indicates that blanketing may be necessary, depending on your climate and accommodations.
Additionally, horses will chew wood out of boredom. Donkeys will also do this, but to an even greater extent.
For this reason, you may need to do some extra donkey-proofing to protect their enclosures.
This chart summarizes some of the main pros and cons of donkey ownership:
Donkeys: The Pros
There are many pros to owning a donkey! Here are a few that stand out:
Donkeys make great companion animals to horses, goats, cattle, sheep, and other livestock. They are generally a less expensive alternative to getting a second horse.
Donkeys are known to protect themselves and sometimes other livestock from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions. They will kick, stomp, and bite intruders who enter their territory.
Many people add donkeys to their livestock herds for this reason alone. However, “guard donkeys” may be a bit of a misnomer. Donkeys are not guaranteed to protect other livestock. Be sure to do some research on their needs and manage your expectations accordingly.
Donkeys are relatively easy keepers and are inexpensive to feed compared to horses and cattle. They have extremely efficient digestive systems. Many people opt to feed straw instead of hay to manage their weight. Straw can also be considerably cheaper to source than hay, depending on your geography!
Not only do they eat less, but they also don’t need expensive grains or supplements like a horse might require.
Donkeys are also relatively inexpensive animals to purchase compared with horses or cattle.
Please note, there are plenty available for adoption!
Donkeys are very strong for their size and can carry up to 20-25% of their body weight. While a standard donkey can’t necessarily carry an adult rider, they can be used as pack animals or for labor on the farm.
Mammoth donkeys are large enough to carry a rider and are commonly used for riding.
Donkeys are very smart animals. They need extra time to think through scenarios. If they trust their owner, they can be relatively easy to train.
Donkeys are very good at figuring things out and can learn quickly.
Generally speaking, donkeys are relatively healthy animals and require less veterinary care than a performance horse.
Donkeys can live into their 30’s, 40’s, and even 50’s. It can be very nice to have an animal friend around for such a long time!
Their distinctive “hee-haw” braying noise can be quite entertaining! Have you seen Nelson and his rubber chicken?
Donkeys: The Cons
Where there are pluses, there are often drawbacks. It’s important to understand both sides of the equation to make an informed decision.
Here are some of the cons associated with owning donkeys:
While donkeys are great livestock companions, they really thrive when they have another donkey to interact with. If you are considering a donkey, please think about getting two.
Additionally, donkeys form very strong friendships. If their donkey best friend dies, they can become depressed and get sick. It’s important to understand these bonds and make decisions accordingly.
Donkeys may interpret dogs as coyotes and can be quite aggressive towards them. Be very cautious when bringing dogs around donkeys!
You may need to do some extra training, or set up your farm to keep the two separate.
Don’t assume every donkey will have this “guardian” gene—each individual is different and some display this type of behavior more than others.
Donkeys are definitely cheaper to maintain than horses, but they do still cost money.
You’ll need to account for hay, annual vet care (at a minimum), farrier visits, halters, lead ropes, and perhaps a blanket depending on your winter environment and available shelter.
Depending on where you live and what you plan to use them for you may also need the ability to transport them.
Donkeys have much stronger jaws than horses; be sure to discourage biting behavior and use caution when feeding treats. Donkeys can also kick, and not just directly behind them like a horse.
Don’t startle them and understand what may trigger kicking so you can stay in a safe zone.
While they are strong, mini and standard-size donkeys likely will not be able to carry an adult human, so riding may not be an option.
Sometimes a donkey’s intelligence can be interpreted as stubbornness. Not only do you need to train them what to do, but you also need to convince them why.
Donkeys are escape artists—you’ll need to spend some extra time ensuring they can’t escape their enclosure.
While donkeys are generally healthy, they are very stoic and don’t show symptoms of illness like that of a horse. If you wait until a donkey is showing symptoms, it may already be too late.
Be vigilant about early warning signs such as loss of appetite and call the vet early if you have concerns.
Donkeys can live into their 30’s (even 50’s). Consider this when getting one—what’s going to happen if your donkey outlives you?
Many people write their donkeys into their wills so there is a plan for the animal. Without a plan, older donkeys frequently end up in kill pens.
While some people very much enjoy donkey braying, others (like your neighbors) may not. It’s pretty loud. Be sure to take this into consideration.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are donkeys easy keepers?
Yes, donkeys have very efficient digestive systems and require much less feed than that of a horse. They are very prone to obesity as a result.
Don’t confuse low quality with low calorie, though! Donkeys are susceptible to mold and colic just like horses.
Q: What do you feed a donkey?
They can thrive on limited pasture and grass hay. You can also feed straw (think of it like celery for donkeys) as it will help keep them occupied and their digestive system full without adding calories.
Learn more in our article about donkey nutrition.
Q: How much does it cost to own a donkey?
Donkeys are relatively inexpensive compared to horses, as they consume a lot less. You probably won’t need expensive lessons with your donkey, or a bunch of new tack.
That said, they still cost money and you should have a “rainy day fund” for medical emergencies.
Q: Are there different kinds of donkeys?
Yes, but not to the extent of horses. While there are hundreds of horse breeds, donkeys can be simplified into types based on their size:
- Standard Donkey or Burro: Your average donkey—3-4’ at the shoulder. Too small for riding, but a great size for packing.
- Mini Donkey: Less than 3’ tall at the shoulder. Generally kept as pets.
- Mammoth Donkey: 4.5’ at the shoulder or bigger. These are rideable!
Q: How many acres of land do donkeys need?
Depending on the size of the donkey, you should have between half and one acre of land per donkey.
Miniature donkeys thrive on less acreage, while larger donkeys require slightly more.
Donkeys gain weight quickly, so it’s essential to keep an eye on your donkey’s body condition and restrict access to rich pasture if they become over-conditioned.
Q: Are donkeys easy to train?
Donkeys are very smart, which can make training easier.
Some people say they are easier to train than horses; however, the ease of training depends on establishing mutual trust and respect between the donkey and the handler.
They can be incredibly stubborn and difficult to train if a relationship hasn’t been fostered between the donkey and the trainer.
Donkeys respond best to positive reinforcement. Patience is also vital.
Incorporating play into training is one of the best ways to help your donkey learn and for both of you to enjoy the process!
Q: Why is having toys for your donkey important?
Aside from companionship, donkeys need mental stimulation.
They are very bright creatures, and they can become destructive if they are not provided with a positive outlet.
In nature, donkeys faced a never-ending series of puzzles that honed their intellect to its current state.
But on farms, donkeys never have to figure out from where their next meal is coming or how to ward off predators.
Providing your donkey with various toys helps its intellect stay sharp. And it prevents your donkey from inventing their own fun!
Most donkeys enjoy many types of toys, from commercially produced to homemade.
Beach balls, hula hoops, and even a mound of dirt can provide hours of entertainment for your donkey.
And if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching donkeys at play, prepare to cancel your Netflix subscription because you won’t be able to look away!
Should you get a donkey (or two)?
Only you can decide if getting a donkey is the right choice! Donkey owners are generally very enthusiastic about their experiences and will freely offer up information regarding their applicable challenges.
If you have the space and means to care for a donkey, please consider adoption. There are thousands of animals available for adoption both through private rescues and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) programs.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- How to Adopt a Wild Donkey: A Helpful Beginner’s Guide
- Donkeys and Horses: Better Together or Bad Roommates?
- 5 Simple Steps to Halter Training Your Wild Donkey
- 13 Best Treats and Toys for Busy-Minded Donkeys
- 5 Simple Tips to Help An Abused Horse
- Do Donkeys Bite? (And How to Keep Your Fingers!)
- Dangerous Horse: The Result of Being Abused
- Why horses are dangerous (but worth the risk!)
- 3 Fear-Free Secrets to Gain Your Horse’s Trust & Respect
- Bonding 101: How to Make the Most of Your Horse Time
- Safety First: How Much Can a Donkey Carry?