What Do Donkeys Eat?

Animals that sweat – donkeys
© babeaudufraing/Shutterstock.com

Written by Volia Schubiger

Updated: November 5, 2022

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Donkeys, known for their ‘helping hooves,’ are domesticated members of the equine family. Originating from Africa and the Middle East, donkeys were tamed more than 5,000 years ago.  These robust mammals have been used for centuries as working animals, as they are able to carry heavy materials such as water and plow. 

Smaller than horses, and much more stubborn, donkeys happen to have a highly developed sense of self-preservation. Throughout the years, having survived in arid and semi-arid regions, donkeys have learned to adapt to harsh vegetation and scarce food conditions. 

While they might look like miniature horses, you’ll be surprised to find that they don’t always eat the same. So what do donkeys eat? Let’s explore what these smaller equines live on and how they differ from their other family members. 

What Do Donkeys Eat?

Donkeys eat barley straw, hay, and grass primarily for their diet. They are classified as herbivores as their large teeth and appetites are best suited for a plant-based diet.

Donkeys have an incredible digestive system and as such, they are able to survive in some of the toughest conditions. While they belong to the horse family, feeding a donkey a similar diet to a horse can be detrimental to their health. 

A study published in Livestock Research for Rural Development found that donkeys are quite different from horses in many ways and therefore should not be fed like horses. Donkeys need more fiber and less protein in their diets because they originally evolved as browsers eating shrubs and woody vegetation.

This is what created a ‘stomach of steel’ that allows donkeys to indulge in less nutritious forage than horses. They are also more prone to putting on weight if left to graze on lush grass unsupervised. 

A Complete List of Foods Donkeys Eat

Two mules drinking water

Donkeys are natural foragers.

©Elgaard / CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

Donkeys have primarily been found in desert areas and have adapted to eating in these arid areas. As desert dwellers, donkeys eat a diet that includes less than nutritious woody plants and shrubs. Their digestive systems are able to easily break down and extract nutrients from everything that they eat, allowing them to survive in such areas. 

Here is a common list of foods that donkeys eat: 

  • Straw 
  • Meadow Hay
  • Seed Hay
  • Grass 
  • Shrubs 
  • Desert plants 
  • Treats (apples, carrots, pears, bananas, turnips, sweet potato, squash, and swedes) 

Since donkeys put on weight easily, if you happen to care for donkeys, it is recommended to supervise how often they eat treats. 

How Much Does A Donkey Eat?

African Donkey, Equus asinus, picture taken in Tanzania

African Donkey, Equus asinus, picture taken in Tanzania

©Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

Donkeys are natural foragers and will spend up to 16 hours per day grazing. On average, a donkey will eat approximately 1.5-1.8% of its body weight in dry matter per day. A healthy adult donkey can weigh anywhere between 220lbs to 1000lbs. 

Unlike horses and mules, their bodies are incredibly efficient at metabolizing the food they eat. This means that they require far less energy to survive than other equine species. When kept at pasture, donkeys should each have at least a half-acre of grazing area available. 

How Does Their Diet Impact Other Species?

In areas where they are non-native, donkeys have, unfortunately, been labeled as invasive pests. In areas such as North America, where they have only been introduced 500 years ago, donkeys have been known to trample on native vegetation, destroy creek beds, spread weeds, and outcompete native animals for food sources. 

However, new research has found that donkeys may actually benefit their ecosystems by digging up wells in desert regions. Wild donkeys are able to discover potential water in dry, arid areas and dig up holes that are up to 6 feet deep to access this water.

These wells are then used by other wildlife in the region and even positively impact tree seedlings that are able to freely grow away from the competitive areas along the riverbanks. 

Is A Wild Donkey Dangerous To Humans?

A donkey in Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

Wild donkeys can be aggressive when provoked.

©Bernard Gagnon / Creative Commons – Original

It can be tempting to want to pet and feed a donkey that you’ve come across in the wild. While feeding feral donkeys with straw or even carrots won’t harm them in any way, it is usually not recommended. This is due to several reasons. While donkeys are generally calmer than horses and less easy to startle, their fuzzy appearance may be quite deceiving. 

Donkeys have been known to bite and their behavior can often be unpredictable and vicious. While donkeys don’t usually go out of their way to harm humans, they may bite you unintentionally or out of fear.

Since donkeys have an incredibly strong sense of self-preservation, they will go out of their way to protect themselves. This is especially true if they are guarding their herd. Unlike horses, you may not be able to tell beforehand that a donkey is about to strike. 

What To Feed A Donkey As a Pet

Unlike feral donkeys, domesticated donkeys can be quite sweet and gentle animals – making them a great pet! When their needs are taken care of properly, a donkey can be the best pet you’ve ever had. 

What do donkeys eat when they happen to live a life of leisure? As mentioned, donkeys are herbivores and need a lot of plant fiber. Making sure to feed them a diet that is high in fiber and low in sugar is the best way to keep them healthy and avoid weight gain and medical issues. Barley straw is a great option along with Meadow hay or seed hay. 

However, it’s important to avoid feeding donkeys cereal grain, as they may develop gastric ulcers from these. Many other foods can be harmful to donkeys such as bread, rotting fruit, chicken feed, and horse nuts, and should all be avoided. It is also important to provide them with mineral supplementation in the form of a mineral lick, which can be placed near their water supply. 

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About the Author

Volia Schubiger is a freelance copywriter and content editor with a passion and expertise in content creation, branding, and marketing. She has a background in Broadcast Journalism & Political Science from CUNY Brooklyn College. When she's not writing she loves traveling, perusing used book stores, and hanging out with her other half.

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