While few donkeys in the UK still work as pack animals or at the seaside, many are kept as companions. A naturally calm and inquisitive nature means donkeys make excellent therapy animals, and they are often used in assisted learning programmes.
The donkey evolved from the African wild ass, in and around the area now known as Somalia. They were first domesticated in Egypt, more than 5,000 years ago, and have been closely associated with humans ever since.
With origins in an arid desert climate, where vegetation and other food sources are typically sparse, donkeys face unique health challenges when living in cooler, wetter regions. The ready supply of high-quality, high-calorie feeds and lush grazing in countries such as the UK, coupled with a relatively sedentary lifestyle, has led to widespread obesity issues.
Overweight donkeys are at risk of equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), as well as laminitis. Wet, heavy ground can also be challenging for donkey hooves, which are adapted to the desert.
Hyperlipaemia, a condition that affects donkeys, miniature donkeys and small pony breeds, can also be fatal. If a donkey stops eating enough, his vital organs still require a supply of fuel — so his body begins to mobilise energy stored as fat deposits.
These free fatty acids are circulated to the liver to be converted into glucose, the main fuel used by all cells, in a process controlled by a series of complex hormonal events. Unfortunately, donkeys and small ponies are not able to efficiently “turn off” the fat release. The consequence of these high-circulating fats, termed triglycerides, is degeneration of the liver and kidneys, followed by irreversible multi-organ damage and failure.
The first signs of hyperlipaemia are loss of appetite and general dullness. Although pregnant jennies (female donkeys) and those nursing foals are most at risk, all donkeys can be affected.
More encouraging news is that donkeys in the UK are playing a major role in medical research. Donkeys live for longer than their horse cousins and many of the conditions they suffer from are comparable to diseases that afflict us. Changes in the lungs and brains of older donkeys, for example, are similar to those seen in humans as they age. This type of research has great potential to help both people and donkeys.
Roughly 15.5million equids — that is, horses, donkeys and mules — live in Europe, North America and Australasia. Most are well looked after and enjoy good nutrition and care.
By contrast, there are more than 100 million working equids in the so-called developing world. Indeed, more than 95% of the global donkey population can be found in low- and middle-income countries.
These vast numbers of working animals play a crucial role in both urban and rural areas. They provide agricultural energy, transport and, in many cases, the sole means of generating income for their owners, many of whom live in poverty. It is estimated that working animals are responsible for three-quarters of the traction energy (pulling power) in the developing world, while a staggering 50% of the world’s population depends on animal power as its main energy source.
While a healthy, well-managed donkey is an asset that can increase income, many owners are poorly educated about animal welfare and live too remotely to access any form of veterinary care. It is a shocking reality that 98% of the world’s equine vets treat just 10% of the world’s equids.
The welfare of working donkeys in low- and middle-income countries is crucially important, not only for the health and survival of those animals but also for the livelihoods of the people dependent upon them. The death of a donkey can spell financial ruin for an owner and further poverty for a family.
Working donkeys are susceptible to many more illnesses and injuries than those seen in the UK. They are often malnourished, typically working on busy roads and building sites. Problems include serious skin sores, lameness, fractures, eye problems, goading injuries, colic, road traffic accidents, and foot and farriery issues.
A hiding to nothing
Recently, a new threat has emerged in the demand for donkey hides, used in traditional Chinese medicine. The gelatin produced from donkey hide is a key ingredient of ejiao, which is used to treat a range of ailments. With almost five million skins required every year for ejiao production, the industry is projected to need more than half the current international donkey population over the next five years to meet demand.
The donkey population in China has fallen by three-quarters since 1992, leading the industry to turn to foreign suppliers — particularly in Africa, Asia and South America. Brazil has seen a 28% reduction in donkey numbers since 2007, with Botswana recording a 37% demise and Kyrgyzstan losing half of its population.
The impact of this population collapse has been felt most keenly by the 500million people relying on these animals in some of the world’s poorest communities.
Perhaps most worrying are the reports of animal welfare abuses in the supply chain. A report by UK-based charity The Donkey Sanctuary identified that donkeys are often stolen and transported to slaughterhouses in terrible conditions, with an estimated one in five of them dying in transit.
Because of the scale of demand, even pregnant mares and young foals — as well as sick and injured donkeys — are traded. The report reveals the trade also presents biosecurity risks, with unhygienic practices encouraging the spread of diseases such as anthrax, tetanus and equine flu across vast regions of the world.
Many groups are working to support donkeys, mules and their owners. The Donkey Sanctuary, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, is active in more than 40 countries and is an advocate for donkey and human welfare worldwide.
These charities need our support — not just to keep the army of working animals on the road, but to ensure the health and welfare of all donkeys across the globe.
Snowdrop’s sizeable sarcoid
When a member of the public noticed their dire state of health last year, donkeys Marble and Snowdrop were relinquished into the care of The Donkey Sanctuary.
Snowdrop was suffering from a particularly aggressive sarcoid, which was in close proximity to her right eye. The bleeding tumour, which threatened her vision, was causing obvious discomfort and needed immediate attention.
A pedunculated sarcoid — so named because it is on a stalk — can be challenging to treat. Vets at the charity’s state-of-the-art hospital in Devon carried out a resection with a specialised laser to remove the majority of the tumour, followed by a series of chemotherapy injections over several months to destroy cells at the base of the site. Each time chemotherapy was administered, Snowdrop was sedated to ensure she remained calm — particularly given the sensitive location of the tumour.
The treatment was risky for Snowdrop, but also for her companion. Donkeys develop very close bonds and separation can cause extreme anxiety, which can in turn trigger the life-threatening condition hyperlipaemia.
Both donkeys were seriously overweight when they came to the sanctuary, but a special diet has since restored them to an appropriate condition. And despite the advanced state of Snowdrop’s sarcoid, treatments seem to have been successful.
Ref Horse & Hound; 12 December 2019