Signs of good health

Routine Checks

Every owner will, at some time be concerned that all is not well with their donkey. By understanding the signs to check for it should be easier to spot an early warning of a problem developing.

It is certainly our experience that donkeys are very stoical by nature. They generally do not show obvious or dramatic signs of illness or lameness until the problem is well advanced. Familiarity with routine health checks and the behaviour of your own donkeys is the key to early recognition.

For both the new and experienced donkey owner, it is certainly advisable to become used to using the following 5 point check list on at least a daily basis.

  • Behaviour
  • Appetite and thirst
  • Faeces (and urine)
  • Eyes, nose and resting respiration (breathing)
  • Coat and skin


This is perhaps the single most important check. A healthy donkey should be alert and aware, interested in what is going on around it with ears pricked. No donkey should spend prolonged periods lying down. Healthy donkeys should be able to get up and down easily, and move freely without limping, taking their weight equally on all four legs. Each donkey will have its own characteristics – e.g. a particular companion, grazing pattern, daily routine. It is sometimes only a slight change that indicates, at an early stage, a potential problem. So get to know your donkey’s ways as soon as possible!

Appetite and thirst

Donkeys would naturally graze for long periods of time. It is therefore important to control their diet to prevent obesity, but a healthy donkey should be looking to eat throughout the day and have no problems chewing or swallowing.

The amount a donkey will drink obviously varies according to daily temperature, moisture content of food, work load etc. but routine checking of the water supply may provide evidence of their intake.

Faeces (and urine)

Check for fresh faeces, the consistency of which may alter with diet. There should be regular output of normal, moist faeces formed into balls, which break up easily.

Male and female donkeys adopt a characteristic stance when urinating. Normal urine is yellow and watery, and may on occasions be cloudy. It should be passed freely, without straining. Repeated attempts to pass urine or urine which is obviously discoloured or bloody should be viewed with suspicion. Mares in season may be seen to attempt to pass urine more frequently.

Eyes, Nose and Resting Respiration (breathing)

Eyes should be clean and bright, open and free from discharge. The nostrils equally should be clean and discharge free. At rest there should be minimal movement of the nostrils as the donkey breathes. In fact it is often difficult to make out the movements of the chest, the movements of the flanks are often the easiest to observe. A flaring of the nostrils, a marked rise and fall of the ribs and flanks, or any noise associated with the donkey’s respiration should be cause for further investigation.

Exercise, stress, excitement and fever will increase the rate and depth of respiration.

Coat and Skin

A healthy donkey should have a flat, clean coat with no signs of itching, bald areas, sores or abnormal lumps and bumps. It is a good idea to get your donkey used to you routinely running your hands over all areas of the body, legs and head – a donkey’s coat can often hide developing problems.

The above five points should be checked at least on a daily basis.

More detailed checks

If you are concerned that all is not well then there are a number of simple tests and checks that you can do yourself. These will certainly help in giving your vet a full picture of the problem should you feel it necessary to seek further advice.

  • Temperature, Pulse, Respiration Rate. (“TPR”).
  • Gut Sounds.
  • Feed Test.
  • Condition score/body weight estimate.


Normal values: Adult Range 36.2–37.8C (97.2-100F), Average 37.1C (98.8F).

Young donkeys up to 2 years old 36.6-38.9C (97.8-102.1F).

Buy a clinical thermometer from your vet and ask him how to use it. Get used to checking your donkey’s temperature so that you feel confident should you suspect that there might be a problem developing.

Pulse Rate (beats/min)

Normal range: 36-68 Average 44 beats/min.

With a little practice anyone can learn to count the pulse in the artery that runs under and across the lower jaw. Count the number of pulses felt in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. Keep the donkey’s head still with a hand above the muzzle. Use the fingertips of the other hand to locate the artery (about 4mm diameter) and by varying the pressure you will soon be aware of the pulsations corresponding to each heart beat.

Respiratory Rate (inspiration/min)

Normal Range: 12–44 Average 20 inspiration/min.

It is best to do this with the donkey undisturbed. Stand back to one side and either watch the rise and fall of the flank or chest or the breath coming out of the nostrils (on a cold day). Again count the number of breaths (a “rise” and “fall” = one breath) in 15 seconds and multiply by 4.

Gut sounds

A normal donkey’s digestive system is generally a noisy affair with many squeaks, gurgles and rumbles. These are particularly evident when the grazing is good but are also audible on winter rations (hay and straw). Your vet will use a stethoscope to hear these sounds but your own ear placed against the skin of the flanks (between the last rib and the hind leg) should pick up some of them. If you get used to the normal sounds in a healthy donkey this can be a useful test – particularly if you suspect that your donkey may have colic (abdominal pain) or may not be passing faeces.

Feed Test

A favourite test at the Donkey Sanctuary is the “ginger biscuit test” although many poorly donkeys will take a biscuit, particularly if they are used to this treat, a lack of interest is definite cause for concern.

Condition Score/Body Weight Estimate.

Keeping a written record of your donkey’s condition and body weight is a very useful exercise – especially in the elderly donkey where gradual weight loss might be missed. A simple measure of heart girth recorded regularly will help to monitor your donkey’s condition. To do this accurately a standard technique should be used. With the donkey standing square pass the measuring tape (2m) around the body behind the elbows and over the withers vertical to the ground. With the tape tensioned to keep it close to the skin but not stretched, read the tape when the donkey breathes out.

If at any time you have concerns over your donkey’s health or well being then a call to your local vet should help to put your mind at rest. By providing information on each of the signs of health discussed here, your vet will be able to quickly decide the best course of action to take.

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