Donkeys have been serving humankind for 5,000 years (Ali et al., 2014). It is estimated that there are about 90 million donkeys worldwide and they are especially widespread in Central and South America and parts of Europe (Ali et al., 2014). In the UK, most donkeys are kept, unlike the horse, as pets. The fact donkeys are now popular as pets means they are seen more frequently for treatment in equine practice. Therefore, all Registered Veterinary Nurses (RVNs) working with donkeys should know the main differences between them and horses so that individualised species-specific nursing care can be applied.
Donkeys are highly intelligent and capable of learning; however, this is often overlooked, and donkeys are commonly referred to as stoical or stubborn.
Stoicism is predator avoidance behaviour typically exhibited by prey species. As illness and injury make prey species such as the donkey vulnerable to predators, the ability to hide weaknesses makes them less likely to be targeted (Evans et al., 2021). Stoic behaviour can make reading the signs of discomfort and pain in donkeys difficult in practice.
A sick or injured donkey may show no obvious clinical signs until its condition is severe. This means a noticeably dull or unusually quiet donkey is a veterinary emergency
A sick or injured donkey may show no obvious clinical signs until its condition is severe. This means a noticeably dull or unusually quiet donkey is a veterinary emergency and requires immediate attention (Evans et al., 2021). It is, therefore, imperative that RVNs understand general donkey behaviour when it comes to monitoring and assessing comfort levels.
Donkeys showing caution will often be misinterpreted as being stubborn (McLean et al., 2019). Fear will often produce a defensive reaction from a donkey, and they will often try to escape. Defensive behaviour should be recognised as fear and not misinterpreted as the donkey being stubborn or uncooperative (Evans et al., 2021). Fear can produce both “flight” and “fight” responses, and these can result in defensive behaviour. RVNs working with donkeys in practice should be able to recognise the signs of fear as this will help reduce stress and the risk of injury to handlers.
Defensive behaviour should be recognised as fear and not misinterpreted as the donkey being stubborn or uncooperative
Donkeys generally form lifelong friendships and do not like to be alone. Bonded donkey friends may become distressed if they are separated, and this can lead to complications such as inappetence and colic. Inappetence in donkeys can lead to a potentially fatal condition known as hyperlipaemia (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2015).
Bonding behaviour should always be considered by an RVN when donkeys are admitted to the hospital for treatment. If possible, both the donkey and its companion should be admitted and kept in the same stable to avoid any unnecessary distress. If one of the donkeys is euthanised, it is essential that the surviving donkey is allowed to remain with the body of its companion until they have lost interest. If this advice is not followed, it can cause significant distress to the surviving donkey, who may develop hyperlipaemia as a result (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2015). The RVN should also discuss the possibility of finding another companion for the surviving donkey with the owner and assist with this where possible.
TLC in the form of grooming, petting and hand feeding can contribute enormously towards a donkey’s recovery
Due to their tendency to form strong bonds, it is beneficial for the RVN to spend time with a sick donkey. TLC in the form of grooming, petting and hand feeding can contribute enormously towards a donkey’s recovery (Dabinett, 2008).
Monitoring donkeys in the hospital
An RVN monitoring a donkey in the hospital environment must be sensitive to the subtle behavioural changes that are often early indicators of illness. Donkeys are stoical by nature and often do not exhibit dramatic symptoms of illness. RVNs caring for sick donkeys should also be aware of their tendency to display “sham eating”. This is where the donkey seems to be interested and eating but is, in reality, only playing with its food (Sprayson, 2008).
Normal clinical parameter readings differ between horses and donkeys, and RVNs should be aware of these differences when monitoring sick donkeys in the hospital. Table 1 compares the normal clinical parameter readings for horses and donkeys.
|Temperature||Normal range: 37.5 to 38.5°C|
|Normal range: 36.5 to 37.7°C|
|Pulse||Normal range: 25 to 40 beats per minute|
Average: 32 beats per minute
|Normal range: 31 to 53 beats per minute|
Average: 41 beats per minute
|Respiration||Normal range: 8 to 12 breaths per minute|
Average: 10 breaths per minute
|Normal range: 13 to 31 breaths per minute|
Average: 20 breaths per minute
Straw should form most of a donkey’s diet as it is high in fibre and low in sugar. Good quality barley straw is ideal for donkeys with good teeth (Figure 1). Oat straw is better suited for old or underweight donkeys with good teeth as this has a slightly higher nutritional value than barley straw (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2015).
When caring for donkeys in practice, it is always a good idea to ask the owner to bring in feed from home. This ensures that the diet is kept the same and avoids any unnecessary changes to the diet which could lead to colic. If the donkey’s diet needs to be changed for the long term following veterinary treatment, the vet or RVN should fully involve the owner in the formulation of a new diet, as this will encourage a higher level of compliance.
Drug metabolism and pain relief
Although the prescription and dosing of medication is the responsibility of the veterinary surgeon, an RVN should be aware of the differences in drug metabolism between donkeys and horses. Therapeutics are often administered to donkeys based on the dosage and intervals recommended for horses because very few drugs have donkey-specific label indications. Yet differences between donkeys and horses in drug distribution, metabolism and elimination have been noted for most therapeutic agents studied (Grosenbaugh et al., 2011).
These differences can be partially explained by the donkey’s unique physiology. Since their ancestors evolved in a desert environment, the modern donkey exhibits qualities that allow them to tolerate dehydration better than the horse and recover more quickly from its effects (Grosenbaugh et al., 2011).
Donkeys eliminate phenylbutazone much faster than horses, and this is thought to be due to differences in the protein binding of the drug (Lizarraga et al., 2004). It has, therefore, been suggested that higher doses and shorter dosing intervals of phenylbutazone are required to achieve effective analgesia in donkeys (Cheng et al.,1996; Mealey et al.,1997). With this difference in mind, an RVN caring for sick donkeys should be aware of the differences in drug metabolism between horses and donkeys.
It has […] been suggested that higher doses and shorter dosing intervals of phenylbutazone are required to achieve effective analgesia in donkeys
As donkeys are stoic and do not exhibit signs of pain as readily as horses, analgesia must be considered very carefully. Drug selection and doses should be prescribed and administered with this in mind. Donkey-specific pain scales created and tested by Van Dierendonck et al. (2020) should be considered when assessing pain in donkeys as they differ slightly from the pain scales commonly used for horses.
Hyperlipaemia is a life-threatening disease to which donkeys are particularly prone, both as a primary and secondary condition. It is, therefore, essential that any RVN dealing with donkeys is aware of measures taken to prevent, identify and treat this disease. Hyperlipaemia occurs when animals mobilise triglyceride from body fat reserves in response to a negative energy balance (Grove, 2008). This can result in multi-organ failure as lipid is deposited in the liver and kidneys.
Hyperlipaemia occurs when animals mobilise triglyceride from body fat reserves in response to a negative energy balance
Clinical signs include, but are not limited to, the following (Grove, 2008):
- Gut stasis with diagnostic mucus-covered dry faecal balls
- Congested mucous membranes with a delayed capillary refill time
A comprehensive guide to the treatment of hyperlipaemia is beyond the scope of this article. However, the basic principles include (Grove, 2008):
- Treating any underlying disease
- Fluid therapy – maintaining circulating volume, correcting electrolyte imbalances and restoring acid/base balance
- Symptomatic therapy – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), analgesics, anti-ulcer medication, multivitamins, anabolics and antibiotics
- Nutritional support – maintaining a positive energy balance
Mortality rates of 60 to 90 percent have been reported for hyperlipaemia in donkeys (Grove, 2008). Prognosis improves if the syndrome is detected in its early stages and prompt action is taken. This highlights the importance of the RVN carefully monitoring donkeys for signs of the disease.
Prevention is better than cure, and this is an area where an RVN can really make a difference with careful monitoring and swift action. If any donkey shows inappetence, a blood sample should be taken and analysed for hyperlipidaemia (Grove, 2008).
If any donkey shows inappetence, a blood sample should be taken and analysed for hyperlipidaemia
Reducing stress is also an important factor for an RVN to consider with patients coming into the practice. Donkey companions should be welcomed and catered for, and lots of TLC should be given. If a donkey needs to lose weight, an RVN should make sure that this is done safely and slowly.
Donkeys are not just small horses with big ears! There are many physiological differences to consider when compared to horses. An RVN working with donkeys must be able to recognise these differences and cater for them. Donkey-specific protocols should be put in place and adhered to.
By following protocols specific to donkeys, the RVN can ensure that these patients receive individualised, species-specific nursing care
Special areas of consideration, such as strong bonding, specific nutrition, different drug metabolism and different clinical parameters, should be taken into account, along with the tendency for donkeys to develop hyperlipaemia. By following protocols specific to donkeys, the RVN can ensure that these patients receive individualised, species-specific nursing care and, therefore, have an optimum chance of recovery.