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What Do Donkeys Eat in the Wild and as Pets?

Genevieve Dugal

According to the BBC, the oldest living pet donkey is Bubbles, who has lived to 60 years old, while the normal range for pet donkeys is around 30. So, what has Bubbles eaten all these years to keep him healthy and thriving? And do wild donkeys eat the same?

First of all, and contrary to popular belief, donkeys should not be fed the same food as horses or cattle. Indeed, donkeys are a unique equine species; they differ from horses by specific morphological and physical variations. Therefore, the donkey’s diet should consist mainly of barley straw, sparse forage, hay, grass, fibrous plants, and a few treats here and there.

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Quick Facts about Donkeys

Donkeys in The Field
Image Credit: Antranias, Pixabay
Species Name: Equus asinus
Family: Equidae
Type: Mammal
Order: Perissodactyla
Temperament: Smart, gentle, curious, stubborn
Lifespan: 25-30 years in the wild; up to 50 years in captivity
Size: 36 to 48 inches
Weight: 400 to 500 pounds
Diet: Herbivore
Distribution: Wild donkeys: Northern Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Middle East
Domesticated donkeys: Worldwide
Habitat: Wild donkeys: Deserts, savannahs
Domesticated donkeys: Prefer warm and dry areas (but can be found anywhere)

What Do Wild Donkeys Eat?

Humans have used the wild ass for work for at least 5,000 years. They are primarily found in desert areas, where their ability to survive poorer diets and disease while masking overt signs of pain and distress has made them indispensable to humans.

In the arid and semi-arid areas of the world, wild donkeys have evolved to adapt to a hard life where the quantity and quality of vegetation are scarce. Indeed, their digestive system can digest the thorny vegetation of arid areas, as well as extracting moisture from what they ingest. Thus, wild donkeys graze on lower-quality forage, herbaceous plants, tree bark, and small shrubs. They are also able to go quite a long time without drinking.

Is It OK to Feed Wild Donkeys?

While feeding wild donkeys with some straw or even treats like carrots won’t cause them any harm in terms of their health, it is not recommended to do so, mainly in areas where you can find populated areas nearby.

Here’s why:
  • This can be dangerous for you. Yes, they’re cute and fuzzy, but be careful; these wild donkeys can bite. Indeed, like any other wild creature, their behavior can sometimes be unpredictable. For example, if some unsuspecting people with no bad intentions come across a wild ass on their way, and decide to approach it to give them a treat, then the ass might take a bite of whatever is available – even if that something is a person. Toddler’s ears, in particular, probably look tasty as it often happens that a donkey suddenly decides to chew on them.
  • This can be dangerous for the donkey. Imagine if every tourist starts feeding any wild donkey they come across: these animals will eventually associate humans with food and may wander the road more and more. In addition, not everyone always carries fruits and vegetables; thus, they could feed them unhealthy or even toxic foods – like chocolate or cookies.
  • This may even be illegal. In some places, like Riverside County in California, you can get a fine of up to $500 if you are caught feeding wild donkeys – or burros, as they’re called in most states in the US. And, as John Welsh, spokesman for the Department of Animal Services, said, “you can’t keep feeding these burros without recognizing the dangers you’re putting them in.”
Donkey Eating
Image Credit: Fritz_the_Cat, Pixabay

 

new horse shoe dividerWhat to Feed Your Pet Donkeys

The primary source of food for donkeys should be low in sugar and high in fiber. Barley straw (the stalk of the plant that remains after the grains have been harvested) is a great option and will allow the donkey to chew it for hours without gaining weight.

On the other hand, do not serve your donkey all his straw ration at once! In fact, donkeys should not eat a lot, but they should eat often; thus, your donkey will have a hard time digesting if you give it a large amount of food at one time. Therefore, it is essential to provide it with a small amount of straw, grass, and hay throughout the day.

Besides, avoid giving your donkey grains such as oat, barley, wheat, and corn. These foods contain too much starch and sugar and are responsible for the development of diseases like laminitis in donkeys and causing obesity.

Also, for your donkey to be happy, make sure you have enough space to let it roam and graze all day. However, be careful that he does not eat only grass all day long. Grass should be considered as a supplement to his diet, not the main food.

Should You Give Mineral Supplements to Donkeys?

Talk to your vet about what supplements to give your donkey; he may recommend some depending on the type of soil in the area where you live.

Here are some supplements that you could give to your donkey, but only having received the approval of your vet:

  • Mineral lick block: Choose one that doesn’t contain molasses, or your donkey will only lick the block for its sweet taste.
  • Cubes rich in fiber: You can give it to donkeys that need to gain a little weight, but try to find some specially made for donkeys or made for animals that eat little or for ponies.
  • Frozen dry grass: It can be an excellent supplement for sick or too thin donkeys to get them back in shape. Ensure it is pesticide-free and never give them any grass collected from the lawnmower, as this could make them sick. Be careful when giving them frozen dry grass, as its high level of sugars could be hazardous to the animal’s health and could cause laminitis.
  • Protein pellets or cubes: These prefabricated pellets contain essential nutrients for the donkey. They are helpful for females nursing foals or for donkeys who go through freezing winters and need a little pick-me-up. Never use pellets designed for another animal (g.that, poultry pellets), as some of them contain meat that could poison your donkey.

Finally, always provide your donkey with clean, fresh water. Ensure it doesn’t run onto the barn floor, as donkeys need completely dry soil for their hooves. Remember to check in winter that the water has not frozen. If so, you need to remove the ice and install a water heater on the drinker. Older donkeys will appreciate some warm water during the winter.

Donkey in farm
Image Credit: Alexas_Fotos, Pixabay

What Are Good Treats for Donkeys?

Fruits and veggies are good treats for donkeys. However, don’t feed them too often, as it may lead to overweight. Indeed, you might be surprised at how easily your donkeys can gain weight! This can lead to serious health problems: laminitis, joint problems, liver disease, and metabolic disorders.

In addition, if you feed your pet treats too often, he could develop behavioral problems; in fact, if you get him used to receive a carrot every time he sees you, he will associate you with this reward. So, if you decide not to give more to him, he might get restless and frustrated.

Here’s a list of a few great treats for your donkeys:
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Pears
  • Watermelon
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Pineapple
  • Carrots
  • Fresh mint

What Should You NEVER Feed Your Donkeys?

Don’t give your donkey more than a handful of what you’ve chosen at a time. Don’t feed it leftovers from your meals either, as donkeys have a hard time digesting vegetables from the Brassica family – like broccoli and cauliflower. They also have difficulty digesting potatoes, onions, eggplant, tomato, garlic, and peppers. In addition, donkeys need a simple and healthy diet, which is why you should not give them bread, cookies, or cakes. In any case, strictly avoid giving them processed foods, chocolate, dairy products, meat, or even horse feed.

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Final Thoughts

Feeding your pet donkeys isn’t complicated, as long as you follow directions and provide them with proper forage, clean water, and the occasional treats, such as vegetables and fruit. On the other hand, wild donkeys have managed to survive in arid and semi-arid areas with poor quality forage. But they also tend to die younger than their domesticated counterparts.

So, if you want your pet donkey to thrive as long as possible, feed him properly, provide him with the best living conditions, and give him plenty of love. With good genetics and a little luck, he might even reach the venerable age of Bubbles!


Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

Genevieve Dugal

Genevieve is a biologist and science writer. Her deep love for capuchin monkeys, pumas, and kangaroos has taken her worldwide to work and volunteer for several wildlife rehabilitation centers in Bolivia, Guatemala, Canada, and Australia. As a Canadian expat, Genevieve now lives in Argentina, where she wakes up every morning to horses and cows saying hello from the vast plain next to her home office window. She is the proud mom of three rescued dogs, Lemmy, Nala, and Pochi, and a frisky kitten, Furiosa. Having the privilege of sharing her knowledge and passion for animals of all kinds is what makes her fulfilled and happy.