Care of Donkeys

Donkeys are very hardy animals that generally require a lot less medical attention than horses. Donkeys being an equine and similar to horses generally suffer from similar illnesses and ailments.


Considerations for the keeping and care of donkeys include:


  • Grazing and agistment

  • Correct feeding

  • Shelter

  • Company/companions

  • Grooming;

  • Feet and hoof care

  • Control of internal parasites;

  • Treatment for external pests such as lice and flies; and

  • Training

  • Transport

  • Harness and tack

  • First aid and veterinary care


To treat all these subjects in detail is beyond the scope of this website. There are many publications and sources of information concerning care for donkeys. See the links page for some accurate sources of advice.


As we maintain our pack teams in tropical conditions. I have listed some particular issues for keeping donkeys in the tropics that we have learned from experience.

Tick Paralysis

Donkeys are susceptible to tick paralysis caused by the “Shellback” or “Paralysis” tick (Ixodes holocyclus). This insect is endemic to the East coast of Australia. It seems amazing that a large, hardy animal such as a donkey can succumb very rapidly to such a small insect. Hundreds of dogs and cats die each year in our region as a result of tick paralysis. Many horses are victims and often the cause is blamed incorrectly on snakebite. Tick paralysis is a serious illness, yet few people seem to understand the mechanism so I include a short explanation. I draw from our own experiences and two articles that are available as web pages. 


Identification. The “Paralysis or Shellback” tick is one of a number of ticks that are present in Northern Australia. All ticks are similar in appearance and habits. The paralysis tick is the most dangerous. Other species are:


  • Cattle tick,

  • Bush tick, and 

  • Kangaroo tick.


The female paralysis tick is distinctive when partially or fully engorged as it has a hard shell and a particular arrangement of the legs.







Process. The adult female tick crawls onto a host animal and when satisfied that it has found a suitable position it attaches itself by rotating and drilling into the victim’s skin with it’s mouth parts The tick then engorges on blood in order to produce eggs. The female injects a neurotoxin, possibly associated with an anticoagulant. Male ticks also crawl onto the host, but simply search for females with which to mate. Only adult female ticks cause paralysis.


The toxin’s mechanism is not well understood, and a victim animal’s reaction to the venom can be very variable. In the worst case the animal suffers from severe paralysis and collapses, whilst suffering cardiac and respiratory distress. There is generally an accumulative effect. Animals can develop a resistance but this is a short-term reaction and should not be relied on.


Tick Season. The recognised “Tick season” extends from July to January. This is subject to vagaries of the weather and can extend or vary considerably. Adult ticks can be present all year in suitable conditions. The paralysis tick undergoes three moults to achieve breeding maturity. In each case a host animal is required. Native animals, particularly Bandicoots, host ticks and carry them into grazing areas.


Prevention.Donkeys (and horses) may be treated with an insecticide that helps to repel and kill ticks. If the treatment is maintained then the intermediate cycle is interrupted and the number of adult female ticks present in the grazing area may be significantly reduced. Prevention is much easier than treatment. We have used a number of preparations but find “SWIFT (Novartis Animal Health Australia PTY LTD)” a pour on type, to be very effective and easy to administer (we use a syringe to apply along the back-line). Anti-venine costs around $350 per shot (2001 price), plus any vet expenses. SWIFTis approximately $55 per litre. 40ml treats a 350kg animal and the effect lasts approximately six weeks in dry weather.


Donkeys should be checked regularly for engorged ticks. Ticks tend to accumulate on front legs, chest, under the jaw, on the neck and around the face. The rear of the animal should be checked as well.


 Symptoms and Signs. Symptoms and signs appear after the tick has been feeding for a couple of days. An affected donkey is likely to die if not treated quickly. An antivenene is now available. We have personal experience of one distressing incident when a 14-month-old filly suffered tick paralysis. An engorged tick was located and removed one July morning but the donkey was found that same evening suffering paralysis, and unable to stand up. Fortunately, the animal recovered, due to antivenene administered by our vet and a week of very time consuming care.


Typical signs are:


  • Weakness or loss of control of the rear legs;

  • Slow unsteady walking or wobbly gait;

  • The animal collapses and is unable to get up;

  • Control of facial muscles is lost and the animal finds difficulty swallowing;

  • The jaw may appear to dislocated; and

  • Irregular heartbeat and breathing.


Secondary injuries caused by struggling to stand up can confuse prognosis.


Treatment.The affected animal should be searched to find the tick or ticks. The tick should be killed with an insecticide eg SWIFT, or Permoxin. Use a cotton bud or a spray. Leave the tick to die then remove it using tweezers. Allowing the tick to die in place minimises further transfer of venom and may help to induce an immune response in the victim. Do not use irritant substances such as kerosene, as the tick may react and inject more venom. Should the head of the tick remain in place, remove it by scratching with the tweezers or a fingernail. The head will not inject more venom but may cause a local infection.

The animal’s condition may deteriorate even once all the ticks have been killed or removed as the toxin build up has a time lag and delayed reactions are common. 


If suffering any degree of paralysis, and not treated, an animal may die from respiratory failure, pneumonia or may drown from fluid in the lungs. A vet should be consulted. The paralysis makes the animal sensitive to extremes of heat and cold because the brain’s thermostat is affected. This requires that the animal be moved into shelter or that some form of shelter be built around the animal. Trying to move even a 3/4 grown donkey, single-handed is extremely difficult.


Pressure Sores. The animal will suffer from pressure sores by prolonged lying down on a hard surface. Rolling the animal over regularly will reduce the severity of pressure sores that will develop. The bony protuberances such as hips and shoulders are most vulnerable. Alternatively, the animal should be suspended in a sling. Attempts to provide cushioning may be difficult, I eventually made a thick bed of hay, and supported the animal between cushions made of feedbags stuffed with hay. (See pictures)


Other secondary infections may result from by grit getting into eyes and in abrasions caused by the animal’s struggles to get up.

Preparations need to be made to clean up dung and urine from around the animal. If not cleaned up, urine may cause loss of hair and infections because a donkey’s urine is very concentrated.


Rehabilitation. The animal may be weakened for several months by the toxin and a period of rehabilitation and rest should be allowed for. Strenuous exercise should be avoided in the first few days and up to six weeks to allow a gradual recovery of heart, lungs, muscles, and nerve tissue.