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Donkeys diseases and care

Written by  Dr. Joan Kleynhans
| in Veearts
| November 10, 2015

Modern donkeys are descended from wild asses in Northeast Africa. DNA studies of African and Asian wild asses have led to scientists drawing this conclusion; the history of donkeys is tied to human history. The early use of donkeys corresponded to people shifting from an agrarian to a more mobile, trade-oriented society.

Although the donkey played a major role in travel and transport throughout history, it has been little studied and not celebrated in art or history. In many rural, developing parts of the world it still plays a major role in transport.

Donkeys seem to be very tough and resilient and able to survive where horses cannot. They are resistant to many diseases which may prove fatal to horses. However, they also require good care for optimal

“They are resistant to many diseases which may prove fatal to horses.”

health and productivity. They need companionship, so should never be kept alone. They need a high fibre diet and should be able to graze. They require access to shelter. Training and handling should take place daily.
Mental stimulation and environmental enrichment should take place. Daily grooming is necessary, as well as regular health checks. They require veterinary care when necessary. Their feet and teeth should be taken care of regularly. Measures should be taken to prevent illness, through vaccination, individual care, and stable and pasture management. 

Common diseases affecting donkeys include Rabies, African Horse Sickness, colic, laminitis, ectoparasites, sarcoids, and wounds and injuries.


Rabies is always fatal. It is caused by a neurotropic virus which is transmitted by a bite from another rabid animal. Its presentation can be variable, but any rapidly progressing neurological condition should raise suspicion. The  incubation period is usually from two weeks to two months with death in three to seven days after the appearance of symptoms.


African horse sickness is an infectious viral disease spread by midges. It is seasonal and different forms of the disease occurs with different outcomes. Donkeys should be vaccinated against AHS early in summer. During an outbreak, or when Culicoides midges are very active, wash donkeys down with an insect repellent. If possible, stable them from before dusk to after dawn. The Kenyan Veterinary Association recommends washing them with 5ml kerosene in 1 litre water to repel insects. The incubation of AHS is four to eight days. Donkeys are generally more resistant to AHS than horses.

There is no specific treatment against the AHS virus, but good nursing may be of value. Rest, shade, fluids, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and eye ointments may be of value. Palatable food is important. Isolate sick animals and use a spray to deter insects. Practice good hygiene. Use gloves, clean equipment, new sterile needles and syringes.


Babesia equi and B caballi are protozoal blood parasites spread by ticks. Acute or chronic syndromes may be seen. Acute  cases show intermittent fever with sweating as well as anaemia, pallor and jaundice.   There are  petechial or echymotic haemorrhage on conjunctiva . The heart rate is elevated and there may be haemoglobinuria, colic, and reluctance to move.

Chronic cases show chronic debility, weight loss, anaemia, emaciation, and haemic murmur. It may be difficult to detect parasites in blood.

Treatment: Imidocarb 1-4 mg/kg im, repeat after one or two days if signs persist. Use lower dose in donkeys. Berenil can be used, but is more toxic in the equine. Supportive therapy is valuable.


Dourine is a venereal disease caused by trypanosomes. Symptoms include swollen penis or vulva and discharge, oedema at the sides of the body with hind leg weakness in advanced stages . Half of affected animals die. Dourine is a controlled disease and affected animals are euthanized. Berenil can be used for prevention at time of mating.


Strangles is a highly contagious bacterial disease. It can occur in epidemics, with young animals at most risk. The bacteria can persist in the environment for months. Isolation of affected animals and disinfection of all food and water troughs, harnesses, buckets etc. is very important.

Affected animals have a high temperature, look sick, often cough, initially have a watery nasal discharge, which becomes purulent after a few days. Lymph nodes will be enlarged and painful and swallowing will be difficult. Abscesses rupture after about one to two weeks, bringing immediate relief. Occasionally animals will have auto-immune complications. Antibiotics should
NOT be used early in the course of the disease unless there are complications.


Caused by Bacillus anthracis, anthrax is a very important zoonotic disease and must be reported to the nearest state vet. Symptoms include fever and depression, oedema under jaw, on neck and ventral abdomen, bleeding under mucous membranes and possibly bleeding from orifices. Death occurs one to three days later. There is no rigor mortis and blood may not clot. Carcasses should be buried deep in lime or burnt, or left closed for 48 hours and then buried. Exposed people must seek medical advice. Monitor exposed animals closely. If temperature increases by one degree, treat with penicillin. An effective vaccine is available to prevent this fatal disease.


Tetanus is caused by Clostridium tetani which grows in deep anaerobic wounds and produces a toxin. Clinical signs are caused by the toxin and not by the bacteria. In early stages, the animal appears stiff and anxious and shows an excessive response to sudden noise and movement. Turning its head is difficult. Later the third eyelid protrudes, ears are erect, swallowing is difficult and the animal salivates. Rigidity and spasms increase. Eventually the animal becomes recumbent, convulses and dies. Treatment may be attempted if the animal is still standing. Tetanus toxoid can be administered by a vet. High doses of penicillin kill the bacteria, but do not counteract the toxin.  Deep wounds should be explored and repeatedly flushed with saline, diluted iodine or peroxide. House in a quiet dark place. The prognosis is not good. Once recumbent, the animal should be euthanized.


Because equines are hindgut fermenters, they are more prone to intestinal problems than bovines. Colic has many causes, all of which cause pain. Death is due to circulatory collapse secondary to collection of fluid in the malfunctioning gut, as well as endotoxic shock secondary to movement of endotoxin across the malfunctioning gut wall.

Colic may be caused by sudden changes in diet, too much grain, highly fermentable green fodder, poor quality or mouldy hay, long gaps between large meals, insufficient water, rapid drinking of too much water, or poor teeth. It can also be caused by endoparasites, eating sand, or eating rubbish such as plastic bags.  


Donkeys show fewer behavioural signs than horses, but the colic is just as serious. Vets should ideally examine animals before giving pain relief, as this will hide clinical signs. The donkey’s pulse rate can give an indication of severity. If it is between 60 and 80, it is of concern. A pulse rate over 80 is very concerning. Mucous membrane colour also indicates severity. Pale mucous membranes indicate dehydration and shock. Dark red or purple mucous membranes indicate peripheral circulatory failure and endotoxic shock. A vet should be consulted early in the course of colic.


The distribution of equine endoparasites is remarkably constant throughout the world. There are four main families: nematodes, trematodes, cestodes and arthropods.  They can be controlled by regular removal of faeces where animals gather, not feeding from the ground, adequate nutrition and regular deworming.


Ectoparasites and skin conditions should be treated. Conditions include mange, lice, bacteria, fungi, flies and injuries.

Donkeys are susceptible to the same conditions as horses, and although they are quite tough and stoic, deserve the same attention to their health and management as horses.