Close this search box.



Donkeys can play a vital role in the economy. As a result of the droughts the number of donkeys used for cultivation and transport has increased dramatically. In the southern part of Africa donkey use is on the increase and liable to remain at high levels for the foreseeable future.

Donkeys are utilised throughout the country for a variety of reasons – such as transport on farms, rural villages and everyday water and supplies collection, and ploughing. Recently their value in guarding sheep and goats has reduced the need for other forms of predator control 1.

Donkeys are pretty optimal because:

  • Kilogram-for-kilogram, they produce more work than oxen
  • Kilogram-for-kilogram, they eat and drink much less than oxen, and eat particularly low quality vegetation.
  • They are outstandingly easy to train and handle.
  • They have a fairly low center of gravity and pull from a point not too high from the ground.
  • Their hoofs, being without points, do minimal damage to soils.


  • Friendly towards humans
  • Willing to work
  • Can turn in a small space
  • Easy to train
  • Need little supervision in work
  • Can utilise poor food well
  • Need little water
  • Not affected much by external parasites
  • Less impact on soils than cattle or machines
  • Can survive well in tsetse areas
  • Can survive droughts better than cattle
  • Comparatively cheap to buy
  • Strong relative to size
  • Live/work long years in good care
  • Milk good for humans, especially babies
  • Useful for calming, training and guarding other kinds of animal
  • Work better in pairs with a friend
  • Suffer from being alone
  • Noisy when frustrated or lonely
  • Friends are not easily separated
  • Uncastrated males are aggressive towards other donkeys
  • Skin easily wounded
  • Tendency to wander long distances if not supervised
  • Tendency not to move out of the way of traffic
  • Need shelter from cold and damp
  • Produce only enough milk for own young, no extra
  • Comparatively small in size
  • Mature slowly
  • Breed slowly
  • Manure more fibrous than nutritious
Source: P Jones
  1. Dr Peta Jones (see next heading) adds: “Not all donkeys make good livestock guards because there are significant behavioural differences between individuals. Also, a donkey’s behaviour may be unpredictable during oestrus, or when ewes are lambing or rams are working, as donkeys are able to sense behavioural changes in these animals”.


What is the difference between a donkey and a mule?

A mule is a donkey-horse hybrid: the mother a horse, the father a donkey. The disadvantage of size in a donkey can be overcome if mules are bred. Mules are just about as strong as horses, but have the disease resistance and willingness to work that donkeys have. The great disadvantage of mules is that they are not fertile, and only extremely rarely can breed further mules.

Notes on donkeys by Dr Peta Jones

Traditional ox-drawn equipment and donkey carts without correct donkey harnesses can damage donkeys. See heading “Donkeys and work” further down the page. Photos used courtesy of the NSPCA.

Ways of judging a donkey’s temperament

  • A donkey with its ears pointed forward is interested and willing to participate.
  • A donkey with its ears back is frightened, angry or too excited and can easily behave badly.
  • A donkey with a calm temperament would, in an open field, allow a strange human (or donkey) to come quite close before moving away, and when it moves, it will move slowly.
  • A responsive donkey will be very watchful and, although allowing a stranger to come quite close in an open field, will be prompt in backing away from any strange movement.
  • An excitable donkey will run, probably kicking its heels in the air, when seeing a stranger in an open field.
  • A donkey is obedient if it knows the commands, responds to them quickly and does not need to have them repeated.
  • Moving 1 km under 5 minutes is FAST for a donkey, and it cannot be expected to go much further than 1 km at this speed.
  • A donkey that walks more slowly than a human being is TOO SLOW.
  • A donkey is AGILE if it can turn in a space only a little wider than itself and climb up and down steps at least 50 cm high; if it cannot do these things, it is CLUMSY.

Some important considerations:

  • Bearing in mind that donkeys separated from their friends are liable to suffer and, at the very last, give trouble, it is wise to choose donkeys in pairs, i.e. pairs of friends.
  • A female must not be separated from her foal before it is about a year old and certainly not before she has weaned it herself otherwise behavioural problems might be caused in both mother and foal.

Not to be forgotten, when a donkey is bought, is its name. If the previous owner has a name for the donkey, then this indicates that the donkey has probably received good treatment, and most probably some good training. As a buyer, you will need to use the donkey’s original name so as to establish a good relationship with it.

Donkeys, transport and the environment

Donkeys must be transported in accordance with standards and legislation to ensure their welfare is protected. Ideally donkeys should be purchased locally where possible to minimise the distance travelled and need to transport them. This is because they do not respond well to being put in lorries – often dying in transit – and can struggle with the different vegetation in new environments.

Where soils are concerned, donkeys are light, hoofs small and cause less compaction than larger animals such as cattle or horses and of course tractors and trucks. Where vegetation is concerned, donkeys have relatively low feed requirements compared to cattle and horses and because they are very selective, will leave many plants and grasses alone, preferring to journey long distances in search of what they like rather than to stay in one place and eat everything. Because this helps them survive droughts so well, they are often the only animal survivors of droughts. Some people blame them for the bareness of the landscape whereas in fact they are simply the survivors, existing where few other animals can.

Donkeys and nutrition

Daily Rations For A Working Donkey. (“Working donkey” is a 200-300 kg donkey carrying 25-70 kg load at 4 km/hr, 6 hrs/day). To be given in the morning, and then the same amount again in the evening:

  • 500 g grain (e.g. maize, sorghum) coarsely ground FOLLOWED BY
  • 2.5 kg chaff (i.e. waste matter from winnowing sorghum or millet) or groundnut shells. Some chaff can be replaced with hay or straw (dry grass).

A general rule of thumb is that a donkey should be provided daily with straw or hay equalling 5% of its bodyweight, even though it may only eat about half of this. If a donkey is working and has no opportunity to graze, specific daily amounts are recommended (see above).

Old donkeys which cannot easily use their teeth should be allowed to have finely ground grain and chaff, in slightly lesser quantities if they are not working. Young, pregnant or lactating donkeys may require another half a kilogram of grain. A resting donkey which cannot graze and has to be given food needs about 1 kg less than a working one.

Although donkeys do not have a rumen, they make very good use of the cellulose in plants by means of a specialised part of their colon, and require a high proportion of such roughage. On the other hand, an excess of proteins can actually be harmful to donkeys, so if supplements are provided, these must be especially selected for a donkey’s own digestive needs. Cattle supplements will not do, and horse supplements must be used with caution.

Food industries in some countries produce a supplementary food for horses in large pellets, known as ‘horse cubes’. These can quite safely be given to donkeys, who like them very much. However, it should always be borne in mind that donkeys need more fibre and less protein in their diets than horses do. They are not simply ‘small horses’, as they are quite different in many ways.

Even when well fed, donkeys will often seek out their own supplements if they have the opportunity. This is because of the different individual requirements of each donkey. They will search rubbish heaps and poultry runs for tidbits, but should really be prevented from doing so. They might take in substances harmful to their digestion, like plastic and meatmeal. Also, they might over-eat, or eat decaying food with poisonous bacteria or fungi.

Sometimes it could be minerals that donkeys are looking for. Salt blocks or ‘licks’, as well as calcium and phosphorous in powder form (the most important ones) can sometimes be obtained from farm suppliers. A WARNING: Urea is poisonous to donkeys in large enough quantities, and is sometimes included in cattle licks.

An occasional supplement which provides minerals and can also help with constipation, is molasses. Because it is sweet and could rot their teeth, donkeys should not be encouraged to have it too often or in large quantities. However, it is very good for their health and they love it. Mixed with their evening tidbit to bring them home, it has a powerful effect.

Supplementary feed should be provided in clean containers that cannot easily be knocked over by donkeys – and there should be sufficient containers that the donkeys do not need to fight for priority. If there is one thing that really interests a donkey above all else, it is food.

One way to ensure that a donkey has enough to eat is to provide at least the fibre component in the form of hay – cut dried grass or the smaller stalks of grain – available in the night enclosure in a hay net. It is one thing that will draw the donkey home at night, but should not simply be scattered on the floor. Nets of wide mesh can be made which can be hung from poles or walls, and the nimble mouths of donkeys can easily take out what they want.

Crop residues available as supplements

Such residues piled in a yard that donkeys occupy can serve as supplementary feed through the dry season. If mouldy, however, they can harm donkeys. A haynet holding 6 kg straw – daily ration for one donkey – can easily be made of rope, to be kept away from damp and raised and lowered as required.

Nutrition and transport

Donkeys cannot easily be transported in lorries and trucks in the way that cattle and sheep are, and it is necessary for those selling and buying donkeys to be aware of this.

Too often, donkeys will die a couple of days after reaching their destination. This could be for a number of reasons, one of which could be separation from friends, another the sheer terror of the journey. Both of these contribute to a nervous reduction in a donkey’s blood sugar levels. A period without food will also contribute to this; it has to be remembered that donkeys digest food more rapidly than ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats and must therefore eat more regularly. In normal circumstances a couple of days without food might not kill a donkey, but a stressed donkey is a different matter. A donkey suffering from fear or any other nervous upset is also likely not to want to eat, and the problem can thus be compounded. The anxiety may also cause diarrhoea and this too will stress a donkey’s digestive system as well as dehydrate it.

Just by itself, the drop in blood sugar level can be fatal, but this can be prevented if the donkeys are given a glucose injection immediately before the journey begins. That then leaves other things to be dealt with: physical damage caused by other donkeys and the vehicle, the effect on the donkey’s behaviour, and also dehydration.

It is far better, and probably cheaper too, to have donkeys driven on foot across country than to have them taken in a motor vehicle. It may be slower, but it has a less disastrous effect on donkeys.

Donkeys and work

It is to be understood that the below applies to a healthy adult donkey in good physical condition.

Effective utilisation of donkeys requires a technology that matches the animals’ size, shape and abilities. Donkeys in sub-Saharan Africa are used increasingly for packing, carting and tillage, all of which demand different technologies. The technology needed for draft applications is less well established but requires consideration. This is especially important as donkeys are increasingly being obliged to take on the role of oxen even to the extent of working with traditional ox-drawn equipment, which can damage donkeys. Elsewhere they have taken over from horses, but even so they may often require different equipment.

To specify what technology and equipment is appropriate for donkeys, the characteristics of the power unit (i.e. the donkey) must be defined. Detailed information in the literature is sparse and possibly suspect. However, a ‘typical’ African donkey weighs about 140 kg. It has a sustainable draft capacity equal to about 17% of this live weight, or 240-280 N draft force (dependent on the specific task being performed). It walks at about 0.7 metres per second while working and can sustain this output for 3-4 hours per day. Such a ‘typical’ sub-Saharan donkey therefore can develop 170-200 W of sustainable power and perform 1.8-2.8 MJ of work in a day. If implements or carts require more energy input than this, they will not be appropriate for single donkeys.

Similarly, common donkey carts in southern Africa weigh 250 kg. With a small 100 kg payload, a single donkey could only pull this cart if the road were flat.

What needs to be avoided is the system in common use, adopted from horse technology, whereby the front end of the shaft is suspended from the animals’ necks by means of straps attached to a horizontal transverse pole shared by the two animals. Especially in the case of two-wheeled carts rather than four-wheeled wagons, load imbalance generally means that much of the cartload is transferred through the shaft onto the draft animals.

  • If the traces are too short, this load comes directly onto the donkeys’ necks rather than their withers, and donkeys’ necks are less strong than those of horses and can suffer damage.
  • If the traces are too long, the load may be on the withers but the animal ends up exerting pulling force not through the harness but on the transverse bar which – depending on the length of the straps – can hit against its neck or the tops of its legs and can cause damage through not being designed for the purpose of being pushed to move the horizontal weight of the cart.

The very worst kind of cart for donkeys is the one most common in South Africa: two wheels, giving balance problems, and one shaft, giving hitching problems (hitching is the way the animal is connected to what it operates). It is important for donkey health and efficiency to overcome these problems. For information and specifications for building donkey carts, please enquire from the Donkey Power Facilitation and Consultancy, Chris Bradnum from the University of Johannesburg, Prof C McCrindle at the University of Pretoria or the ARC-IAE (contact details under “Role players” heading).

Donkey First Aid

One advantage of donkeys is that they suffer very little from diseases and pests. Intestinal helminths and ticks can, however, affect their work and shorten their lives and so regular treatment or environmental control should be part of good husbandry.

Other problems to watch out for are:

  • Hoof and leg problems from neglectful use;
  • Harness wounds;
  • Snake and other predator attack;
  • Respiratory ailments from poor housing in cold and wet conditions;
  • Eye irritations which, if not treated, can result in blindness.
Check 1Behaviour and MovementDonkey should be alert, ear pricked. Both behaviour and movement should be normal
Check 2AppetiteGood appetite and donkey should show normal desire and ability to drink
Check 3Faeces and urineShould be normal in consistency, frequency and content
Check 4Eyes & NoseEyes & nose should be clear and bright. There should be no abnormal discharges from any part of the body (eyes, nose, ears, vagina, penis etc)
Check 5Weight Coat & SkinDonkey should be in good physical condition, well fleshed, no jutting bones. Supple, soft, clean with no parasites
Check 6Injuries and or TraumaDonkey is free from injuries or wear, including harness related trauma

Hoof Wall Disease and Some Other Causes of Lameness:

When a donkey is lame and the problem is clearly in the hoof, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly what is wrong. Fungal infections within the hoof wall can occur, which are very painful for the animal and can be transmitted to others. There are treatments which can be tried because they are often effective. The following is considered to be tried and true:

Copper Sulphate (‘Blue Stone’) Bath:

This method remains one of the most effective control techniques. To 2 litres of water, add 225 ml (11 tablespoons or 45 teaspoons) copper sulphate and 27 ml (5-6 teaspoons) vinegar and/or citric acid. This bath should be used on each affected foot for about 5 minutes every other day. If all else fails, this should work. A good technique is to use a section of inner tube to hold the solution in contact with the foot. Slip the tube half its length up the leg and pour in a cup or so of the solution and fold the rest up around the pastern. It can be secured with a soft rope or rubber ‘catapult’.. The donkey is then walked around for a while. The walking action forces the solution up into the affected area. Be sure to keep the pH of your solution around 4 or a little higher with this method since it will come into constant agitated contact with the skin. You can adjust the pH upward with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).

The advantage of this is that it can be mixed and kept stored indefinitely. Even if it evaporates, it can be reconstituted with water, but it is better to keep it from evaporating.

Orphaned foals

If a foal’s mother dies, and there is no other mother available, or one cannot be persuaded to adopt it (by covering the foal with salt to encourage mother-licking), then of first importance is to find a suitable other animal, not necessarily a donkey, to keep it company 24 hours a day.

It should of course be kept warm and dry, and have plenty of soft places where it can lie down to sleep.

Foals have teeth and will start tasting plants and gradually eating them from the time that they are only a few days old. However, they will not survive without plenty of milk, and they should have this for at least 6 months. The recommended mixture for donkeys is very close to human formulae i.e. 375 ml cow’s milk + 125 ml water + 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Feed this, warmed to blood temperature, every 3 hours to a young donkey out of a suckling bottle.

Several articles can be found on, including “Managing donkeys”, “Feeding a donkey” and “How to keep a donkey healthy”.

International business environment


It is estimated that 4.8m donkey hides a year are needed to satisfy demand for a gelatin-based traditional medicine called ejiao (Donkey Sanctuary, 2019; Murray, 2019). This is seeing a disconcerting drop in donkey populations across the world. In South Africa, for example, the population went from 210 000 in 1996 to 146 000 in 2019 (Johnston, 2023). Investment in donkey farming is needed to replenish numbers, but it could take 20 years to reach the levels required for the ejiao industry (Donkey Sanctuary, 2019; Murray, 2019). In a welcome move, the African Union (AU) banned the trade in donkey hides in February 2024.

National strategy and government contact

  • It is important that animal traction is undertaken in accordance with the Animals Protection Act No 71 of 1962, the SABS Standards SANS 1031 Animal harnessing and hitching, and SANS 1025 Animal drawn carts. Buy the SANS Standards from the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) at, or call 012 428 7911.
  • Find information on the different directorates of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) at
  • Strategy varies from province to province, and also involves the Department of Transport – notably in Limpopo and North West – and the SABS as regards donkey carts.

Role players


Note: Click to expand the headings below. To get a free listing on our website like the ones below, visit here for more information or place your order hereDisclaimer: The role player listings are not vetted by this website. Find details of the Highveld Horse Care Unit, the Eastern Cape Horse Care Unit and the Cart Horse Protection Association Clinic & Training Centre on the “Horses – the equine industry” page. These groups are very much involved with donkeys too.

Kamerkloof Studtis Estate – Donkey cart rides included in tourist attractions
Wheel and Water – Donkey carts, “Animal Power to unlock Africa’s people power”
The Donkey Dairy – Read about the benefits of donkey milk (“liquied gold”) and the products made from it on the website
 Representative Bodies
 Training, Consulting & Research Service Providers
 Community, NGO and NPO Service Providers

Websites and publications

See websites listed earlier on this page. Many publications and documents are available there.

  • Find the Donkey Sanctuary report Under the Skin (updated November 2019) at
  • Donkeys for Development. Jones, PA. ATNESA/ARC/Donkey Power. ISBN 0-620-22177-1. This small handbook designed for resource-poor rural donkey owners covers everything from choosing and buying donkeys, through their life-cycle and nutritional and veterinary needs, to equipment-making and donkey training in a mere 160 pages with plenty of photographs and diagrams. An updated version on CD (along with PowerPoint presentations on donkey use) is also available. These are obtainable from Donkey Power CC. Contact Peta at asstute [at]
  • Care and Use of Working Donkeys – an Educational booklet – is available on the Department of Agriculture’s website Take the Resource Centre menu option. Also find “Animal traction: care and use of working donkeys” on the listing. A revised version is available electronically from asstute [at]
  • Find the NSPCA educational resources which include Look after your donkey, horse or mule, and Working Donkey and Farm Animal Welfare Guide at
  • Fielding, D., & P. Krause. (1998). Donkeys. London: Macmillan ISBN 0-33-62750-4
  • Hutchins, B., P. Hutchins & L. Patton. (1999). The definitive donkey (2nd edn). Texas: Hee-Haw Book Service. ISBN 0-9659312-0-X
  • James, M. & Jones, P. (2007). Care and use of working donkeys. Fort Hare: South African Network for Animal Traction and National Council of SPCAs. (Available electronically from asstute [at]
  • Svendsen, E.D., J. Duncan and D. Hadrill (eds). (2008). The professional handbook of the donkey (4th edn). Yatesbury, UK: Whittet Books. ISBN 13 978-1-873580-68-4


Some articles

Unless stated otherwise, the information on this page is from Dr Peta Jones. Contact her at asstute [at]

Table of Contents