Donkeys – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of donkeys.


Donkeys are found across the world in the wild, feral and domesticated. They belong to the Equidae family, that also includes horses and zebras. Donkeys are also referred to as burros and asses.

There are a vast number of breeds of domesticated donkeys from all over the world which have been bred over time to preserve or eliminate certain traits. They are typically smaller than wild donkeys, with the smallest breed the miniature donkey and the largest breed, the mammoth.

In some countries/areas including Australia, wild or feral donkeys are recognised as a pest. In Australia, there are seven breeds that are recognised by studbooks:

  • American mammoth jackstock
  • American miniature mediterranean
  • Australian teamster
  • English/Irish donkey
  • Miniature Australian
  • Mule/hinny
  • Pet/performance.

Male donkeys are referred to as jacks, female donkeys as jennets or jennies and young donkeys are called foals.

Physical characteristics

Characteristic Details
Size – measured from hoof to shoulder
  • Wild: 125 cm
  • Domesticated: 92–123 cm
  • Wild: 250–430 kg
  • Domesticated: 180–450 kg
Age at adult size 2 years
Weight at birth 8.6–13.6 kg
Gestation period 12 months
Number of offspring Normally 1
Range of breeding ages Donkeys reach sexual maturation at 2 years old
Weaning age 5 months
Healthy characteristics
  • Temperature: 36.2–37.8°C
  • Heart rate: 38–48/min


Donkeys’ eyes are positioned widely apart, giving them high quality peripheral vision, estimated to give them an almost 360 ° view of their surroundings. This excellent vision means they are very capable of spotting danger and alerting their herd or other animals around them. For this reason donkeys are commonly used as guardian animals for flocks of sheep or lambing ewes.

Donkey head showing position of eyes Donkey head showing position of eyes
Image: Donkeys have an almost 360 ° view of their surroundings


Donkeys have very good hearing and can move their ears in different directions to help pinpoint the location of a sound. This contributes to their excellent ability to recognise danger and predators and alert their herd. Some sources claim that a donkey can hear the call of another donkey over 60 kilometres away.

Their sensitive hearing means that loud noises, whip cracks, dogs barking and clanging gates can frighten donkeys and cause distress. Loud noises should be avoided around them.

Donkey head showing position of ears Donkey head showing position of ears
Image: Donkeys can move their ears in different directions to help pinpoint the location of a sound.

Behavioural characteristics

Donkeys are intelligent and calm animals that find comfort in groups or herds of other donkeys or other animals such as horses, sheep and goats.

In the wild, herds typically contain one jack and several jennies, however it is not unusual for herds to contain more than one jack if they are submissive to the other jack. Donkeys do not form strong social bonds and herds will often break up and reform in the wild. Similarly in a domestic situation donkeys will find comfort with other donkeys as well as other species. It is important that they have company.

Two donkeys near a fence Two donkeys near a fence
Image: Donkeys will find comfort with other donkeys as well as other species

Donkeys can be very trainable due to their high intelligence and excellent memory. However, as they are cautious animals with a good sense of danger, they can become stubborn. They will often proceed slowly and with caution if presented with a task or situation that they are unsure of or if they sense danger. Their good memory enables them to remember places, routes and routines with ease.

With regular handling, donkeys typically become extremely docile and friendly around their handlers and often enjoy attention, scratching and brushing. They are generally calmer and less flighty than horses.

Donkey with its chin on a kneeling handler Donkey with its chin on a kneeling handler
Image: Donkeys become extremely docile and friendly around their handlers

Donkeys that have been regularly handled are typically not aggressive, however wild donkeys or donkeys that have not been handled can become aggressive. This response is to defend themselves by chasing, biting and kicking. It is important to consider that even handled donkeys have a strong sense of self defense around predators and will typically become aggressive towards dogs and other small animals.


Donkeys are typically docile and compliant animals that are used to living in tough conditions. Generally they are calm and not irritable however they can become aggressive when defending themselves, their herd or other animals that they have bonded too. Donkeys will kick, chase and bite when they become aggressive and have been known to injure and kill smaller animals such as wild dogs and foxes.

Donkeys used as protection

Donkeys are very protective animals and will fiercely guard their herd from predators such as dogs or foxes. This has led to them being used as guardian animals for sheep. It has become increasingly popular for farmers to keep a number of donkeys with their sheep to protect the mob, especially young lambs, from dingoes, foxes and dogs. Donkeys are usually calm, docile animals but when they spot a predator they will usually raise the alarm by making a noise to warn the herd and scare off the predator as well as chasing, kicking and biting the predator. This behavior makes them extremely useful guard animals and their use has been successful in reducing lamb mortality resulting from dog, fox and dingo attack. Being low maintenance animals that can be easily trained and handled has contributed to their popularity as guard animals.

While it is important for donkeys that are used as guard animals to bond to their herd and not be treated as pets, they should still be handled enough for basic animal husbandry procedures to be carried out such as worming, hoof trimming and vaccinating. Not only does this ensure their health needs are addressed, but also enhances the ease and benefits of using them as guard animals if they can be easily yarded, caught and handled. Donkeys that can be easily yarded, caught and even tied up are ideal for use as guard donkeys as this can make day to day management safer for handlers, animals and more time efficient.


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