Updated: Nov 16
Many of us in north eastern climates are already feeling the effects of the cooler temperatures, the shortening of days and the frost on the pastures in the morning before the sun comes up. Maybe our joints are starting to snap crackle and pop a little more than usual.
There’s been an age old debate about whether or not equine owners as a whole should blanket or not blanket their equine family members. We wanted to share our two cents on the topic to help our donkey friends out, and to hopefully share some insight to donkey owners who may be going back and forth on whether or not to blanket their long-ears. After all donkeys are not little horses with big ears.
The short answer to a complicated age old question is, it depends. Depending on where you live and your climate, no not all donkeys need blankets. There are a lot of factors to consider here. How cold it gets, how wet it is, the age of your donkey, if they have cushings disease or any other types of health problems or acute illnesses, etc.
Common Phrases We Hear include;
“But my donkey gets as fluffy as a yak, why would he/ she need a blanket? ”
"But he/ she is on the chunky side, shouldn't that be enough insulation?"
"Donkeys are heartier than horses though right?"
Lets dig in..
A Donkeys Fur
The truth is your donkeys fluffy fur does not have the density or insulating properties that a horses natural coat provides. Not only that but donkeys lack the oil horses have in their coats that act as a natural water repellent, which in turn keeps their skin dry. This is also why horses have that sweet horse smell that we all know and love, and donkeys do not. (Sorry donkeys.)
Donkeys are descendants of desert species, who use dust and sand as a way to bathe themselves. We may not think it's very impressive after our perfectly groomed long ear takes a nice sand or dirt bath, but this is actually good hygiene on the donkeys part. Dust keeps away mites and other skin issues naturally. Since it doesn’t rain often in the desert, donkeys have not evolved to have oil in their coats to protect them from our freezing rain, wind, sleet and snow that our northern winters bring. Mixing a lack of a waterproofed coat, a lot of extra winter fur without insulating properties and wet weather and you have a miserable donkey. This can unfortunetly even become a death sentence for an immune compromised/ older donkey.
When it comes to extra fat being insulating myth, this is not accurate. An overweight donkey is considered health compromised. Their extra fat acts as the opposite of insulation to them, and can make them immune compromised, in turn making them more susceptible to the cold in addition to many other issues that cause them discomfort that I won't get into in this post. The same can go for a donkey that is underweight as well, but it's more natural for a donkey to be on the thinner side than chunkier side of the spectrum in general.
Donkeys who are older, sick, injured, have weight issues, have cushings disease or thyroid issues are more vulnerable than a younger, healthier donkey and may just need an extra layer or two to give them a hoof up this winter to keep them cozy, healthy and comfortable.
Is Your Donkey Actually Cold?
“But my donkey never acts cold!” Donkeys have evolved to first freeze (no pun intended) before having a flight or fight response like most other mammals we know. Donkeys stop and think through problems or how to respond to a stressful situations before acting upon it. Which is why they’ve unfortunately gotten the notorious title of being “stubborn.” When in reality they're just being smart. It’s their instincts way of protecting them from being eaten by predators. Pretty fascinating, but not great for the people who love them and want to know when they’re not well. It can make it very hard to notice if your donkey is actually cold. If you notice your donkey seems just a tad off, it's better to be safe than sorry and call your vet.
Signs Your Donkey Is cold:
1. Their tail is tucked under them and they're standing with their ears back and look rigid.
2. They are acting hungrier than usual.
3. They are shivering.
4.They are cold colicing regularly or have in the past during cold snaps.
5. They don't want to move around as much as they do normally.
6. They are acting grouchy or 'hangrier' than usual.
My Donkey Does Not Allow Me To Blanket Them, Now What?
Don't Panic! Just because you've never put a blanket on your longear, does not make you a bad donkey parent. We would love to chat with you about how to prepare your donkey for getting a blanket on for the first time, if this is something you are struggling with. It can be very frustrating and we understand, we've all been there. Please don't hesitate to reach out to us if this is something you're dealing with.
The bare minimum a donkey should have (with or without a blanket) is access to a 3 sided shelter with a roof to protect them from the elements. If the opening or door is south facing thats even better! Bedding the shelter deeply with pine shavings, and cleaning it daily so they have a warm dry space can go a very long way too.
If your donkey won't allow you to put a blanket on them in an emergency, you can also put a heat lamp in your donkeys stall to take the chill off. Disclaimer: Please do your own research on heat lamps and be aware of any fire hazards that come with heat lamps. In general make sure that your heat lamp is high up enough to be away from their back and head so they are not able to touch the lamp itself. I usually keep them a few feet above where their head sits naturally.
Can I Feed My Donkey Something Warm?
Yes! Digestion is a great way for an equine to warm up from the inside out.
Provide them with warm water first, and warm mashes at least once a day during cold snaps. (Mashes should not have too much of anything extra that your donkey is not used to getting regularly already. Warm or hot water added to what they eat daily is totally acceptable.) I can not count the amount of times I've lugged buckets of warm water out to each donkey for almost every single donkey to suck the buckets dry, despite having access to clean fresh water in water bucket or tub with a heater in it. Water tank heaters typically do not "heat" the water tanks, but keep them just above freezing. Donkeys LOVE warm water, especially in the winter time. This can help to prevent illness or impaction colics, and gives them warm pick me up before a cold snap. If you want to get extra fancy make your donkey a little cocktail and add some flavored electrolytes to encourage fluid intake.
Slow and steady intake of hay is also great for keeping them warm. We do this by using slow feeder Hay Chix nets. We really like the half bale "extreme slow feed" hole size. This has helped to prevent many colics and keeps donkeys busy.
Other Blanketing Tips
1. Blankets should be checked daily to make sure there are no rips, tears or dampness under them.
2. Clips should always be clip side facing IN toward the donkeys body to prevent getting caught on anything.
3. Donkeys should be groomed daily when wearing blankets and at minimum once a week with a slicker brush or a long toothed brush to ensure their skin is still getting some air and that dead skin is being removed.
4. Blankets need to be washed and re-waterproofed every year. You can find waterproofing spray online or at any tack shop that sells horse blankets. (We like scotch guard.)
5. When putting on a blanket start fastening buckles and clips from the front to the back. This way if they get startled the blanket is not caught on their back legs and falling off the rest of their body.
6. Have spare blankets on hand in case one gets damaged or wet.
7. Do not brush/ blanket your donkey if their coat is wet. Brushing while wet will move water and dirt onto the skin and could make them cold. Blanketing them when they are wet could be asking for pneumonia.
8. On warm, sunny days remove your donkeys blanket so their skin can breathe, and so they can get some sunshine and air.
9. Have a few different blankets on hand. A rain sheet, and a few different water proof coats ranging from 200g- 800g insulation to protect them from the elements are very helpful to have on hand when you're in a pickle or your donkey is ill.
Please don’t take what we’ve said here today and use it as a blanket statement. Use your discernment and go based on the weather and your individual donkeys. The bottom line is, just because they've survived the winters for years without being blanketed, doesn’t mean they are thriving and comfortable.
Below is a photo showing how the chest clips on a blanket should be faced in for safety.
Blankets Made Just For Donkeys
Have trouble fitting your donkeys for blankets? It can be very tricky to find a horse blanket that fits a donkey correctly. Bray Hollow Farm in NY makes blankets specifically for ponies and donkeys. If you’d like to check them out you can click the link below to check out their website!
What About Mules?
For mules it's very important to use your judgement. Some mules inherit more donkey genetics than horses and vise versa. In the photo below these are two mule coats. taken on the same day, the same time of year and they are the same age. But you can see one has a much thicker coat than the other. The mule on the right never needed a blanket, but the mule on the left who is actually my mule, Slick needs to be heavily blanketed in the winter months or he will get ulcers or become ill.