Donkeys are herbivorous animals and therefore need a continual supply of fibre in their diet. Dental disease is the second only to hoof problems as the most common medical condition in donkeys.
Donkeys evolved to roam around 15km/day in very arid climates searching for sparse and coarse grasses as well as fibrous plant material. To cope with this long duration feeding pattern and abrasive roughage, donkeys’ teeth continually grow to compensate for the constant wear. This constant tooth eruption needs to be managed by regular dental check-ups by a qualified Equine Dental Technician or a Veterinary Surgeon.
The consequences of neglecting annual dental checks can involve weight loss, difficulty in eating, reduced appetite and malodorous breath. If these go unnoticed, it can lead to a donkey's death.
Signs to look out for
- Difficulty chewing, dropping food from mouth, extended feeding times
- Strong smelling mouth – sign of painful gum disease and tooth loss eventually
- Excessive drooling/salivation – may indicate ulcers, cuts, gum disease, fractures
- Behavioural changes – irritability, aggression, withdrawn
- Colic –increases significantly with dental disease and can be fatal in donkeys
- Whole grains or long stem fibres in dung – inability to grind down food, can lead to colic
- Weight loss and malnourishment
- No external signs – appear healthy due to the donkeys stoic/quiet behaviour but could have underlying dental disease
Diastema – very painful condition where a space in the teeth causes food packing and severe gum disease, infection and colic.
A severely overgrown tooth called a hook, which cuts into the mouth causing ulcers. Ulcers, just like in people, are very painful and can cause a significant reduction in appetite possibly leading to weight loss. If not treated, the tooth keeps growing into the opposite structures which can be life threatening.
These are just two of the long list of problems that occur in donkeys mouths. These conditions cannot be seen from the outside and an instrument called a mouth gag is often required to identify the diseases, especially if problems exist in the back teeth.
A qualified Equine Dental Technician (EDT) is important to ensure the proper health of donkeys. When an EDT checks your donkey’s teeth, they can find unnoticed problems. Routine care is usually done every 12 months but if your EDT finds problems in the mouth, treatment can become more frequent. These problems are all treatable, which will either control or cure the disease. Just like in people, these conditions can be extremely painful and by taking care of your donkey’s mouth, it will lead to a happier healthier donkey with an extended life expectancy.
Laurence O Sullivan
Senior Veterinary Surgeon
The Donkey Sanctuary