worth knowing about donkeys

"Follow a goat and it brings you to an abyss - follow a donkey and it guides you home safely"

old Arabic saying

the domestic donkey



Class: Mammals (Mammalia)

Order: Odd-toed ungulates (Perissodactyla)

Family: Horse family (Equidae)

Genus: Equus

Species: African wild ass  (Equus asinus)


donkeys belong to the family of horses, which include seven species: 

- Przewalski´s horse 

- Plains zebra 

- Mountain zebra 

- Grévy´s zebra 

- African wild ass

- Asian wild ass (Onager)

- Tibetian wild ass (Kiang)


According to the latest research, our domestic donkeys descend exclusively form the African wild ass. 

The domestication (becoming a farm animal) of the donkey begun in Egypt about 6.000 years ago. Donkeys were and are being used as pack/ride and draft animals. 



Although donkeys are not typical herd animals, they need company. No donkey should be kept alone. It is also not enough, to keep it with another animal. There should be minimally 2 donkeys in a group. 

The fur of donkeys is protecting them very effectively from cold and heat, but not against wetness. Therefore, donkeys must definitely have a dry, draught-free shelter. Donkeys should not be kept on a moist-wet surfaces for a longer time, because their hooves tend to rot. 

Donkeys love sand, where they can rest and roll. The sand remains in the fur and protects them from parasites. 

Parasitological analyses of faeces should be the base for a regular deworming. 



While feeding a donkey one should keep in mind that donkeys origin from very arid regions, where they have to move long distances to get a few blades of grass. Our nutrient-rich meadows can unfortunately become an issue for them very quickly. The animals are getting fat very fast and then they get diseases like laminitis, colic and troubles with their liver. Therefore, they should be held only on meagre pastures. 


Feeding rules:

  • Feed only a little, but often. 
  • Donkeys need low-energy feed with a high amount of crude fibre. 
  • Clear water should be available ad libitum. 
  • Cereals are not necessary (even with pregnant or lactating mares)! 
  • A salt-lick-stone for Equidae should be available for a whole group of animals.



Trained donkeys can serve as riding animals for children or draw carriages, they can carry loads (trekking) or can help as therapy animals (Asinotherapy). They are very loyal companions. 


differences to horses

Differences between horses and donkeys can be found not only from the extern, but also anatomically, physiologically, genetically and in their behaviour. 


External differences 

Donkeys appear in nearby all colours. The generally dark standing mane leads to a dorsal stripe, which passes the whole back to the tail, which ends in a tassel. Over the shoulders in the area of the withers, often a dark cross-belt is running, which builds together with the dorsal stripe, seen from above, a cross (a shoulder cross). 

The ears of the donkeys are considerably longer than the ears of a horse. In their original homeland, in the desert, the long ears served as thermo-regulators. Thanks to their length and thin skin, they can cool down very quickly and so they protect the body of the animal from overheating. 

Anatomical, genetical and physiological differences 

  • Unlike horses, donkeys have only five instead of six lumbar vertebrae.
  • Donkeys have 31 pairs of chromosomes, horses have 32.
  • The body temperature of donkeys is a bit lower, in average 37 °C (but can strongly oscillate). Horses have 37,5 – 38,2 °C. 
  • Donkeys can get 40 and more years old. Horses over 30 are said to be especially old. 
  • The gestation period of the donkeys is longer than that of the horses. It takes in average 365 to 370 days (about 12 months). The gestation period of a horse takes 330 days (about 11 months).  
  • There are also differences in the vocal cords of the animals (a donkey doesn`t neigh like a horse) and in the larynx. In the larynx of a donkey, there is a so-called “blind bag”, which horses don´t have. 

Differences in behaviour 

Horses are classic flight animals, donkeys are not. Does a situation seem to be dangerous a horse will run away, this is what it`s instinct tells to do first to be safe. A donkey`s first reaction in the same situation will be to stand still as rooted. Thereby it is not inactive, it is checking the situation. Is it really dangerous also a donkey would flight but before doing so it is checking if this is necessary. This behaviour is a result of the circumstances in their original mountainous desert homeland, where a „headless“ escape could cause lethal consequences. Men evaluated this behaviour as uncooperative and as a result donkeys are said to be stubborn or silly animals. 



Mule: Crossing of a horse mare and a donkey stallion 

Hinny: Crossing of a donkey mare and a horse stallion 

Both of them, so mule and hinny, are generally infertile and they are in the most cases not able to reproduce.  


Zesel: a crossing with zebra

Other names for zesel: zebrule (made of zebra und mule),zedonk, zebdonk or zonkey (for zebra and donkey), or zebresel


Donkey bridge: 

Generally, donkeys are extremely surefooted animals. But if you try to lead a donkey through a water stream, it will be hard. To cross the watercourse would be physically no problem for the animal, but due to the mirroring on the water surface, the donkey cannot recognize how deep the water is. The surefooted animal is moving forward, only if it is feeling for 100 % safe. For such “bull-headed” donkeys, there were the so-called donkey bridges built since the middle ages, which were small benches to cross small brooks. 

Analogically to this, in German and in some other languages, there is a phrase “donkey bridge” meaning a mnemonic, or an extra effort, which leads through detours to the goal. 


A stubborn / silly donkey:

In case of danger, the instinct of a horse is telling the animal “run away”, due to that horses tend to flee in stressful situations. With donkeys, exactly the opposite is happening, the reaction of the animal is that it remains standing, as rooted to the ground. Additional stress like screaming, pulling or hitting makes this stiffness even stronger. As a result of this, the donkeys are said to be especially stubborn or silly animals. 


This behaviour is a consequence of the circumstances in the origin mountainous desert homeland of donkeys (northern Africa, Arabian peninsula), where a „headless“ escape could be equal to death. In case of danger, the donkey is evaluating the situation on it`s own and during this, is standing stiff. If it realizes, that there is really some threat, it even escapes. But if there is no danger at all, it had saved the hazardous escape and thereby also energy. 


Did you know…. 


… that a harnessed team of 64 mules had brought the coffin with the dead body of Alexander the Great from Babylon to Alexandria? 


… that the mules of emperor Nero got shoes made from silver? His wife, empress Poppaea used to take bath in the donkey milk and in order to this, she held 500 donkey mares.


… that according to an old Christian tradition, the donkeys had previously no signs in the fur. The dark shoulder cross (which is present by many donkeys) should have appeared only after the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. The fur with the shoulder cross was believed to have numerous healing effects.