Dr. Tania Sundra

01 February 2020

Colic in Donkeys

The stoic nature of the donkey means that signs of colic are usually less dramatic than those seen in a horse, such as rolling, sweating or pawing the ground. Just because the signs can be less dramatic it does not mean the donkey is feeling pain any the less.

Many donkey owners will tell us their animal is a little “dull” or maybe “off-feed”. However, the latter is also not commonly recognised due to a behaviour known as ‘sham-eating’.

Inappetant donkeys will “sham eat” – they are seen by their owners to grasp small amounts of food by their lips, make chewing motions, and even swallow without ingesting much food at all.

Any of the following signs in donkeys should cause concern:

  • Dullness – most commonly the first sign
  • Lack of appetite or refusing to eat
  • Rolling and pawing at the ground (rare in donkeys, if seen indicates very serious problem)
  • Fast breathing, raised heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Colour of gums or inside eyelid – brick red colour is a poor sign
  • Lack of or a reduction in the normal quantity of droppings.

If you notice any of the above signs, you should contact us immediately on 0427 072 095. Your donkey could be at serious risk of developing a life threatening condition known as Hyperlipemia if veterinary attention is not sought immediately.


Donkeys should be fed a diet high in fiber and low in energy and sugar, which is best supplied using straws and moderate quality hay and grazing. These diets should be complemented with an enriched natural environment allowing opportunities to browse and exercise and carry out other natural behaviors. Dietary management of the donkey is essential to avoid health issues and ensure their well-being.

Dental disease is common in donkeys, particularly geriatrics and this often leads to an inability to chew long fiber forages, causing gradual weight loss with associated depression and lethargy. For these animals, it is essential to replace long fiber forages with alternative fiber sources that can be easily chewed and digested (eg. soaked beet-pulp, hay-cubes and chaff).

Donkeys will typically drink 5% to 10% of their body weight daily, and lactating jennies and donkeys with a high level of activity such as working donkeys may need more. In the donkey’s natural habitats, water is normally in short supply and widely dispersed. This condition has led to donkeys being more thirst tolerant than horses and to them being able to rehydrate rapidly (20–30 L within a few minutes). It is common also for donkeys to maintain a normal appetite even when dehydrated, a trait that may lead to late diagnosis of dehydration and concurrent issues such as impaction colic. Donkeys can be very fussy about drinking from unfamiliar or contaminated water sources, leading them to tolerate excessive dehydration whilst maintaining a seemingly normal appetite. To prevent impaction colic, care must be taken to provide clean, palatable water from suitable containers.

Although there is significant shared heritage between the donkey and horse, they are remarkably different in their physical traits, behavior and nutritional requirements. Treatment of the donkey as a “small horse with big ears,” particularly when formulating diets, frequently leads to compromised health and welfare because their innate needs are not being met.