Photo used with permission of Tara Pilonero...a rescue donkey who had foundered (see chopped feet at start of trimming process) and was obese, with broken crest.
1. Obesity: Donkeys can get fat on air. Yes, there are exceptions, that hard keeper that keeps you on your toes, but in general, donkeys, especially standards and minis, are extraordinarily easy keepers. Owners often fight obesity, even with the most careful care. Most donkeys will start to show signs of obesity with a cresty/fatty neck, and fat pads alongside their backs. Over time, the crest will "break" and fall over to one side. Fat donkeys go hand in hand with other health concerns, most notably laminitis (called founder when it continues). Laminitis can be deadly to equines and is extremely painful for the donkey. The laminae, which are finger like projections that zipper together to hold the hoof wall to the inner parts of the hoof and the coffin bone (aptly named because if it sinks during laminitis, it can kill the animal). When they become inflamed by changes in the blood chemistry brought on by a highly sugary diet (there are other ways to founder as well, but I won't go into that here), the laminae start to unzip, causing the bone inside to start rotating down towards the ground. There's a lot more to it than that scientifically, but thats the general gist to keep this succinct. Imagine walking on your nails as they are being ripped off. It's painful! The good news is, donkeys are a bit more hardy than horses when it comes to founder, and many times can be successfully rehabbed if they don't have other complicating issues and if there aren't other health concerns (and if the owners manage the donkey correctly). Having a GOOD donkey farrier who specializes in laminitis, along with radiographs from a vet who can show the farrier and you the condition of the inside of the hooves is vital, so that proper management and hoof care can take place. The broken crest will never return to normal, even with proper dieting. It may reduce, as will the fat pads. It is important to follow your vet's instructions on how to feed an obese donkey, because reducing food intake abruptly can cause sickness and death.
Photo curtesy of Joanne Rummel, rescue donkey "Twinkle Toes" before first rehab trim.
2. Long hooves: There is a difference between foundered hooves (which often are long and misshapen, with big growth rings) and simple long feet. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which for the layperson. Donkeys tend to grow very long hooves if uncared for, and because they are so tough, they do not break very easily unless on rough terrain. Unless your donkey properly self trims on rocky ground, having a donkey knowledgeable farrier out every 4-8 weeks (depending on your terrain and your donkey) is vital. Donkeys don't have the same hoof angles as a horse, and a farrier who doesn't know donkey feet will not trim them correctly and can cause major issues down the road. However, keeping those feet trimmed is super important for your donkey's health and comfort. I would say most rescue donkeys have long hooves. It is pretty common to see people who really don't care or know enough to get their donkeys trimmed regularly. Many cases (see first photo) need the hooves to be cut off by a hacksaw just to get close enough to normal to even start the regular trimming process.
Photo curtesy of Sarah Webb. Ten year old rescue jack, first dental exam.
3. Dental issues: Donkeys, like horses, need regular dental exams. Their teeth grow continuously throughout their lives until why are very old, and as they grind with them they often cause issues. Depending on the age, condition, and previous dental history of your donkey, the exams may be every year or once every few years. A veterinarian certified in dental work can perform a "float" of your donkey's teeth. The donkey generally (but not always) is sedated, and the teeth are ground down gently to preserve balance and prevent points, waves, and other distortions of the teeth/mouth. In the photo above, this jack has multiple issues but the glaring one is a severely long, pointed tooth that has been growing for a long time unchecked.You can see under that tooth in the lower jaw where scar tissue has built up around where it is entering the lower jaw. Issues like this cause extreme pain, difficulty chewing properly (and therefore digesting properly), sometimes choke, and also behavioral issues. Donkeys can also get abscessed teeth. If an upper or lower tooth is missing, the opposing tooth may grow long like the photograph because there is nothing to grind against. This is totally preventable.
While this is not a complete list, these are the three most common things I have seen in donkeys that are not cared for properly. These three things are preventable with proper care and management. There are a few diseases that cause laminitis and obesity that are not caused by the care received, but most cases are completely avoidable. So the next time someone says "oh, that's just how donkey's feet are".....we can all answer "NO! That's not normal!"