Donkeys in hard winter

by Hope Holland           

In the midst of a deep freeze that left much of the east coast of the United States shivering, TheHorse.com published an article entitled “Study: Donkeys Need Added Protection in Cold Climates” written by Casie Bazay, NBCAAM.

“Many people think of donkeys as hardy little equids that are typically easier to maintain than horses. If they have one weakness, however, it’s their lack of an insulating winter coat. Recent study results from the U.K. revealed that donkeys’ hair coats hardly change across the seasons, meaning they aren’t nearly as well-equipped to deal with cold weather as many people might believe.”

“The initial idea (for the study) came from the Donkey Sanctuary,” noted researcher Britta Osthaus, PhD, senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University. “This study is part of a larger project that also collected data on the use of shelters in correlation with temperature, wind, insect density and precipitation.”

“It is a saying amongst donkey owners that donkeys aren’t waterproof, but nobody had tested the hair properties in a systematic way,” she added.

The team found significant differences in the hair coat properties between species, with donkeys’ hair significantly lower in weight and length than horses both in winter and spring. They observed substantial seasonal changes in hair weight and length for both horses and mules, but not for donkeys. Measurements related to insulation properties revealed that donkeys do not appear to grow any winter coat. Mules’ hair coat properties were much closer to that of horses than of donkeys, said Osthaus.

“Our data clearly suggest that the native horses studied are better adapted to the temperate climate of the U.K., where there are distinct seasonal changes in climate and cool winters,” concluded the researchers.

“Based on (this) published study, donkeys need access to a warm and dry place when they want it,” Osthaus stressed. “They are desert animals, and their coats show this clearly. Don’t be deceived by the fluff, it’s not as insulating as the winter coat of a horse.”

Donkeys had always seemed like such sturdy little denizens of the equine world, unlike their more highly strung and specifically bred cousins. Upon further investigation though it did seem that many of the 169 breeds of Equinus asinus listed on the worldwide Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have originated from stock from considerably warmer climes.

The aforementioned Donkey Sanctuary did indeed have a number of pictures of little long-eared donkeys sporting tidy blankets. Did this mean that there was an essential difference between the North American donkey and the British Isles donkey? Or was the standard of care simply different? An email to the Donkey Sanctuary itself and an answer from Liz Hazell-Smith, a research assistant there, set the matter to rest.

“You and your donkey keeping friends are correct in the fact that we don’t recommend rugging (American equivalent: blanketing) most healthy donkeys in the winter. We do recommend continuous 24-hour access to a warm and dry shelter, which is large enough to accommodate all the animals lying down if need be. In addition, the shelter should face away from the prevailing wind if possible. We would recommend that any elderly, sick or extremely underweight donkeys be rugged. We have also on occasion rugged foals who are not coping with the cold weather…In addition, although you may have seen ‘little long ears warmly wrapped up in tidy blankets’ on our website and Facebook page, this is normally only recommended for the elderly/sick donks. And our standard advice of ‘do not rug a healthy donkey’ still applies.”

Pennsylvania donkey owner and longtime long ear advocate Lana Graves in Gettysburg, PA said that all of her younger donkeys live year-round with access to a run-in shed and did very well in all sorts of weather. Her older denizens of the donkey pastures, an elderly donkey and his dam, would be taken into the horse barn where they would share a stall and be blanketed when truly bad weather came. The mini mule, also an older animal, stays with the younger donkeys in the run-in shed because she sports a really thick winter coat.

“My young donkeys are really very hardy and get along well in all sorts of weather,” Graves said. “When the worst of the winter weather hits, I line the inside of the big run-in shed with piles of hay for them to munch on and there they stay all in the back of the shed together keeping warm in a bunch. The sun shines in easily three-quarters of the day and keeps it toasty in there. The run-in shed is big and it faces away from the direction that our winter winds come from and has protection from the hill behind it as well.”

“Now, as far as Willy — my old boy who is 32 and his dam Sealy, age 34 — are concerned, they don’t do well in the cold and snowy weather anymore,” Graves continued. “So, I put them in one of the stalls in the horse barn so they can keep each other warm and I put pony blankets on them.”

Having donkeys in their 30s is not unusual. Wikipedia notes that while “working donkeys in the poorest countries have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years; in more prosperous countries, they may have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.” There are local stories of donkeys that well exceed even that 50-year expectancy and the purchase and ownership of a donkey is often fraught with making sure that the little creature will go to a good home if the owner precedes the donkey into the afterlife.

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