Key Concepts for Managing Donkey Feet

With more than 40 million donkeys populating the world, and most of them involved in work rather than showing or recreation, these animals’ health is important to many countries’ productivity. Like other ungulates, including horses, donkeys frequently suffer from hoof disease and hoof-related lameness. In many cases these hoof disorders are preventable, but they necessitate veterinarian, farrier, and owner cooperation.

In a recent published review on donkey hoof disorders, Alex Thiemann, MA, Vet MB, Cert EP, MSc, MRCVS, and colleague Luke Poore, MA, Vet MB, Cert EO, MRCVS, from the Veterinary Department of The Donkey Sanctuary, in Devon, U.K., explained that donkeys and horses have distinct behavioral and anatomic differences. Appreciating these differences will help caretakers improve the treatment of donkey feet, allowing them to perform their work with minimal to no discomfort, Thiemann said.

“The stoic nature of donkeys compared to horses often delays the recognition of pain stemming from the feet,” Thiemann said.

Behavior: Donkeys Are Different Than Horses

Donkey behavior makes treating hoof disorders more challenging for those not familiar with their stress responses. For example, donkeys have a more marked “freeze and fight” response than their flighty horse counterparts. A fearful donkey often turns his head or steps sideways. This can result in the donkey squashing the examiner or farrier against a solid object, potentially causing harm and resulting in the donkey inappropriately being labeled as aggressive.

“If a donkey’s subtle signs of fear are ignored or unrecognized, they can become explosive and exhibit various defensive reactions such as striking or kicking,” Thiemann explained.

Having a bonded companion close by whenever possible can help assuage a donkey’s fear during handling. The study authors say this can help expedite the exam and treatment processes.

Donkey Foot Anatomy and Trimming

In terms of anatomy, Thiemann said, “Compared to horses, donkeys have a dorsal hoof wall that is slightly more upright, with a well-developed frog. The sole is thicker than in horses, and the wall thickness remains constant from toe to heel. Their foot is narrow and conical and can absorb excessive moisture. These ‘wet feet’ make the hooves of donkeys prone to infection, which predisposes them to white line disease, thrush, and deformation.”

Thiemann and Poore offered several recommendations for trimming donkey feet effectively, including:

  • Trimming the foot as close to the floor as possible to avoid joint pain;
  • Not abducting the limb and unbalancing the donkey;
  • Trimming the sole first (it does not flake away naturally); and
  • Assessing lateromedial balance for even weight distribution, which can be wonky in donkeys with narrow chests.

The authors provided the specific example of trimming overlong hooves.

“The hooves of donkeys are often neglected and, therefore, have excessive growth,” Thiemann said. “Without being trimmed, the toe turns up and the foot takes on a ‘Turkish slipper’ appearance.”

To begin, remove the frog and sole overgrowth before reducing the heels. Be careful not to remove the sole callous near the hoof wall in the toe region and to avoid overtrimming, which can cause bruising and bleeding. Next, remove toe overgrowth, stopping when thumb pressure on the sole reveals a slight give. Rasp the dorsal hoof wall, then remove the degenerate hoof wall and white line.

Diet and Hoof Health

As with horses, diet plays an important role in donkey hoof health. Ensure the donkey’s diet contains sufficient micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), sufficient energy to maintain appropriate condition, adequate levels of sulfur-containing proteins, and is low in nonstructural carbohydrates (starch and sugars).

The article, “Hoof Disorders and Farriery in the Donkey,” was published in the December 2019 edition of Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. The abstract is available free online.