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What is a Donkey?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The donkey is a member of the horse family which has been used as a beast of burden and mount for thousands of years. These animals are well known for being extremely stubborn, especially when they are asked to do things which are dangerous, but they are also very gentle and incredibly surefooted, allowing them to traverse diverse terrain which would be too rough for horses. Donkeys can be found all over the world, and there are a number of breeds including the Mammoth Jack, Spotted Donkey, and Cypriot Donkey. You may also hear a it referred to as an “ass,” with most people using the term for larger animals, reserving “donkey” for smaller ones.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the modern donkey is probably a domestic version of the African wild ass, Equus asinus, and they are known by the same scientific name to reflect this. The Egyptians may have been the first to make use of the animal, probably initially as a beast of burden, as numerous paintings and works of Egyptian art suggest, and the animals slowly spread throughout the world from there.

The donkey has several advantages over the horse. These equines are incredibly strong, sometimes able to carry as much as 40% of their body weight. They are also easy keepers, requiring minimal food and capable of digesting almost anything edible. Their infamous stubbornness also keeps these animals and their riders out of danger, and donkeys are known for being very patient and trusting with people they know. Historically, many people had donkeys because they could not afford horses, and it became known as an animal of the lower classes as a result, with many peasant groups and folk organizations adopting the animal as their symbol.

In appearance, a donkey looks sort of like a horse, with a few major differences. Once of the most notable differences is the ears, which are extremely large and rimmed in black. Donkeys also have tails which differ from those of horses, with a small tuft of hair at the end, and their manes are short and upright, like many wild equids. The voice, known as its bray, is also quite distinctive and extremely loud.

Many breeds are marked with a dark cross formed by a long dorsal stripe from mane to tail, and a crossbar across their shoulders. In some Christian countries, people say that this cross is a mark of God's favor, acknowledging that a donkey carried the pregnant Mary into Bethlehem. Christ was also known for riding a donkey, probably because He was too poor to own a horse, and some folktales suggest that the animal acquired its cross by being present at the Crucifixion.

When a stallion is crossed with a jenny, or female donkey, the result is a hinny. When a jack or male is crossed with a mare, the result is a mule. These hybrids combine the best traits of donkeys and horses, and they are popular pack animals in many parts of the world. Depending on where you are, you may also hear small donkeys called “burros,” especially in Latin America and the Southern United States, in a reference to the animals brought to the Americas by the Spanish.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a donkey, and how does it differ from a horse?

A donkey, also known as an ass, is a domesticated member of the horse family, Equidae. Donkeys are distinguished from horses by their smaller size, longer ears, and braying vocalizations. They have a reputation for being hardy, able to carry heavy loads, and having a more patient and cautious temperament compared to horses.

What are the typical uses for donkeys around the world?

Donkeys are incredibly versatile animals used globally for draught and pack work. They are essential for transportation, especially in rugged terrain where vehicles cannot go. Donkeys also assist in agricultural tasks, such as plowing fields and carrying water. In some cultures, donkeys are kept for companionship or as guard animals for livestock.

How long do donkeys typically live?

Donkeys have a relatively long lifespan, often living for 25 to 30 years, with some individuals reaching up to 40 years or more when well cared for. Their longevity is a testament to their hardiness and the care they receive from their owners. Proper nutrition, healthcare, and living conditions can significantly extend a donkey's life.

What do donkeys eat, and how should they be fed?

Donkeys are herbivores with a diet consisting mainly of grasses and other plant material. They are efficient feeders and can survive on less food than horses. However, they require a balanced diet with adequate fiber, and overfeeding can lead to obesity. Access to clean water and mineral supplements is also crucial for their health.

Can donkeys reproduce with other members of the Equidae family?

Yes, donkeys can interbreed with other members of the Equidae family. The most common cross is between a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare), producing a mule. Mules inherit the donkey's strength and the horse's size, making them valuable work animals. However, mules are usually sterile and cannot reproduce.

Are donkeys endangered or at risk of becoming endangered?

Donkeys are not currently classified as endangered globally; however, certain populations and breeds may be at risk due to factors like habitat loss, overwork, and mistreatment. Efforts are being made to protect these breeds and improve the welfare of donkeys worldwide through organizations dedicated to their conservation and care.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By BoatHugger — On Nov 07, 2010

In a desert environment, a donkey can hear the call of other donkeys from 60 miles away. Donkeys are herd animals and do not particularly care to be alone. In a herd, the strongest donkey is chosen as the leader.

In Greece, donkeys were used to work on the narrow paths between vines. Their work in vineyards spread as far as Spain. Also, the Egyptians’ wealth was due to precious metals that were carried from Africa by donkeys.

By OceanSwimmer — On Nov 07, 2010

@momothree: Many donkeys will live for up to or over 50 years. They are very intelligent creatures. They have an incredible memory. They can recognize other donkeys that they were around up to 25 years ago.

Some of the things that make donkeys a better choice than horses are:

They are not very easily startled. They make decisions based on their own safety. They have a highly developed sense of self preservation.

By momothree — On Nov 07, 2010

How long do donkeys live?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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