Donkeys: “We don’t need no stinkin’ blankets!”

Wallace, a member of the BHP herd

In winter, equines are generally best off if you provide them with plenty of hay and the option of shelter.

More specifically, Best Horse Practices views blanketing as not only unnecessary but potentially harmful in most horse-keeping situations. Read more about that here.

What, then, to think of donkeys needing added protection?

Recent research, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal led to one publication to write: “Donkeys Need Added Protection in Cold Climates.”

We could hear the blanket sellers hooting, hollering, and setting up their next ad campaigns!

Alas, we beg to differ.

Ann Firestone, president of SYALER

Ann Firestone has run Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue for decades. She has taken in, rehabilitated, and rehomed hundreds of donkeys and mules during her tenure as president. Firestone writes:

“In my experience. I only blanket exceptionally thin or ill donkeys.  I do make sure on cold days that they have free-choice hay 24/7. “

Not taken into this study’s consideration were many donkey-v-mule-v-horse distinctions that we know to be important anecdotally. For instance:

  • What about their varying metabolic rate?
  • What about the volume-to-surface area ratio?
  • What about digestion differences?

Dr. Sheryl King, Best Horse Practices Summit trustee and professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, offers this critique:

Dr. Sheryl King

The study reports what should be considered preliminary results comparing measures of hair coat between equine species. The experimental number of animals in each test group is low, and the unspecified breeds limit the data’s usefulness utility for drawing management recommendations.

The authors’ credentials are from the field of psychology, which makes the conduct of this study a bit out of their field of expertise. No psychological function was monitored in this study.

The research was funded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a humane group dedicated to rescue and protection of donkeys. Donkeys used in the study were a part of this group’s rescue herd. Whether these factors affected the study results is unclear.

The study was based on suppositions:

  1. Domestic donkeys descended from Equus africanus africanus (Nubian Wild Ass) or Equus Africanus somalinesis (Somali Wild Ass). These ancestors evolved in a hot, desert climate as opposed to many domestic horse breeds common to the UK that presumably evolved in a more temperate climate.
  2. Contemporary donkeys have changed little during the lengthy process of domestication.

The researchers compared weight, length, and width of the hair coat of donkeys with those of horses/ponies and mules to determine if there exists divergent winter hair coat adaptation between the species/sub-species.

However, the comparison groups used were either ill-defined or haphazardly selected. For example, the description of the donkeys used in the study was restricted to gender and age. Horses/ponies used were described as cold-blooded breeds. Cold-blooded connotes heavier-bodied animals specifically adapted to a cooler climate and possessing coarser hair coats. Consider the shaggy winter coat possessed by the Shetland, New Forest or Exmoor ponies.

One could argue that in order to make the best comparison between horses and donkeys, bloodlines originating from similar climates should be compared. For example, compare the donkey (African origin) to the Arabian or Turkmene horse or even breeds originating in a Mediterranean climate.

Some additional questions which the researchers might have done well to consider:

  • What was the latitude at which the study was conducted and what were the average and high/low temperatures during the summer and winter? Were the study animals housed close enough to each other that environmental conditions would be essentially the same?
  • Was the hair sampling performed during the same timeframe (only months were mentioned, giving a possibility of up to a 31-day variance in hair sample collection.)

There was a very substantial variation in hair coat measures, particularly within the horse/pony group and less so within the donkey group. This suggests a great diversity in seasonal responses within and not just between groups.

The mule group consistently fell between the donkey and the horse/pony groups. We are led to assume (never a good thing) that these mules were crosses between the donkey types and the horse/pony types used in the study.

I would take issue with their conclusions that “donkeys do not grow a winter coat.” I think a more appropriate way of expressing the data is that donkeys do not grow a winter coat like cold-blooded horses, or that donkeys don’t grow the same kind of winter coat.

Considering the temperatures and conditions for wild burro populations in the American West, and the fact that they are thriving, I suspect that the humane issue of hair coat growth in winter is probably not as critical as other factors such as adequate fat covering going into winter, food and water availability, and windbreaks.

Posted in Research, Reviews and Links.


  1. To have the article state that donkeys need added protection in cold climates is a broad statement with no basis in proven research. Unfortunately, the article will make it’s rounds on social media and other sites to prompt a donkey owner to question their cold climate weather protection decisions. I have two Arabians, neither produce long winter hair coats, they do not wear any blankets, and we just went through 15-20 below zero wind chills for two weeks. They were both quite comfortable outside with natural shelter and plenty of extra hay. The article…BALONEY! Thanks for bringing the article to our attention and providing a response to it.

  2. “Donkeys Need Added Protection in Cold Climates”, has them selves spent too much time in the COLD, and their common sense has frozen up from the cold. The wife and I had Mammoth, Standard, and Mimi. Come fall their hair changed consistence to make a thick coat that just told you, ‘I am all set for the Maine winter,’ we had a Mini that would turn into a ball of fluff on stilts. When they would come into the barn at night, we would brush the snow off their backs with NO interaction of any melting . Our thinking was WHY blanket the donkeys and make the natural process think it didn’t need so much hair, come real cold the packing the fluff factor of their coat contributes to the insulation value of a nice winter coat.

  3. All well and good – IF, as the article pointed out – the animals were realtivly healthy, and not aged. My standard spotted donkey is approximately 26 years old. He has had an infected incisor extracted, his teeth floated, and has been fed crimped oats and coastal hay besides what varieties of plant life is in my back seven acres in central Texas. The heat does not seem to bother him, and neither had the previous winters. This fall, as it is getting started, we have had our first “norther” with rain and heavy winds blowing so that he was shivering in his 1960’s barn. It is only corrugated steel, and has plenty of old nail holes, gaps, etc. to not be “air tight or warm”. He has also been without his companion, another spotted donkey, for several months and has lost some weight – not sure from what cause. I did put an old blanket on him, tied it around his “middle” and he didn’t think twice about it. He wore it for two days, before the strong “norther” was gone and seemed to be content with the warmth, etc. it provided. Am thinking about getting him a “regular” horse/pony type of waterproof blanket, as he is not getting younger, and it might take a while for him to gain some weight. – Just to say – there are always “exceptions” to every opinion, and I may be a bit more sympathetic as I am almost 75, and have two elderly dogs almost 16 and 14.

  4. I’ll have to take issue with this article. All is does is pick apart the study, yet offers nothing to show that donkeys don’t need to be blanketed in cold/ wet / freezing conditions, as the article title proclaims. Where is your scientific evidence to support your contention that donkeys don’t need to be blanketed? The truth is that the 2 studies that were performed on the topic — allthough perhaps flawed — have much more validity than this article, which is completely unsupported with any scientific evidence. BTW … very nice protective shelter at Save Your Ass Rescue, where donkeys can stay dry and warm huddling together eating forage 24/7 … as good as a blanket.

    • Thanks, Monique. We’re confused by your concerns around this article. While it is certainly not a scientific study, we do indeed offer evidence to support not blanketing equines unless they are already compromised by poor health or coat. Be careful that you are simply searching for posts that simply confirm what you want to believe.
      Are there donkeys under your care that are shivering or losing weight because of not being blanketed?

  5. I provide a well bedding shelter for my donkeys, as well as a good source of hay. But on cold days last winter my healthy miniature donkeys – aged 13/14 were absolutely shivering. It is impossible to buy blankets to fit, especially mid-winter, so without access to blankets or a barn I rigged up a radiant heater in my horse trailer and put them in the trailer until the cold and storm passed. The temperature was in the -40’s in northern Alberta.
    I wish I had blankets available for the frigid days as shivering is not acceptable. Sometimes, they do need blankets!

    • You can actually find blankets on Amazon. I have three little blankets for my three little miniature donkeys.. I’ll add they look even more adorable in their blankies lol.. They are always very ready and willing to have their blankets put on

  6. All donkeys need shelter with a slow feeder and warm clean water, salt for all seasons. Donkeys are stoic meaning they will not show pain until in most cases it is too late. Making preventative care a priority for donkeys.

    Trying to find a donkey vet is nearly impossible for most people so we must be proactive in the care of the desert equine the donkey.

    Freezing weather:
    Donkeys can get Hypothermia is a medical emergency quickly. Donkeys can get frostbite on their ears. The list goes on and on.
    The door must be closed in high winds, and single digits and below 0. Donkeys thick coat can not stay wet without suffering in freezing weather.

  7. I see this article is a couple of years old. Last winter was very cold with lots of snow and lots of sunny days. My rough coated burro did fine. This year we are experiencing weeks of snow/rain/slush with temps hovering at 33 degrees. I notice my burro is not happy, and spends time away from the herd, mostly in the run in unless the sun is out. With another eight days of rain in the thirties, coupled with nights in the teens and low twenties, I’m considering a waterproof blanket during rain and when night temps dip. It was sad to see her soaking wet with icicles dripping off her ears and being so very unhappy.

    What is not mentioned here is that donkeys do not have pilo-erection muscles in their follicles to make their hair stand up like horses. This is a distinct disadvantage. Once their hair is wet and compacted, they have no insulation. They are not fluffly like your ponies.

    Therefore I encourage people to use good judgement, good observation of their charges and not be polarized by extreme arguments. Ask your donkey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *