Burrowing into the traits of donkeys

Ears back could indicate pain or discomfort. Photo: The Brooke
Ears back could indicate pain or discomfort. Photo: The Brooke

Donkeys have a reputation for stoicism and an uncomplaining nature, but it transpires they probably have quite a lot to say.

Researchers have explored the behaviour of working donkeys in Lahore, Pakistan, in a major step toward better understanding their behavioural traits and emotional state. Most importantly, they wanted to identify signs that donkeys were in pain.

Yawning, sighing and stretching were just three behaviours observed in donkeys that were evaluated in published research led by academics from the University of Bristol in England.

Helen Whay and her colleagues, whose paper has been published in the open-access journal, PLoS ONE, studied the working donkeys to see if they could find patterns and consistency in behaviours.

The scientists, from the university’s School of Veterinary Sciences, confirmed that donkeys, which have a reputation as one of the most stoic of animals, in fact have a large number of behavioural traits.

They said there has long been a lack of scientific evidence relating to donkey behaviour, which is very different from that of horses or other equines.

This lack of evidence can make it difficult to reliably address a donkey’s welfare needs.

The researchers will use the findings to investigate how to analyse the different behaviour traits, start to identify emotional states and, importantly, to identify whether the animal is in pain.

The research builds on preliminary work to document donkey behaviour and the British-based charity, The Brooke, which funded the study, will apply the findings to improve assessment of donkey welfare in the countries in which it works.

The Brooke regularly conducts objective welfare assessments on donkeys, horses and mules in the countries in which it works, to establish what welfare issues are present, and as part of creating effective projects to address them.

The charity’s research co-ordinator, Melissa Upjohn, said: “Our team in Pakistan were so pleased to work with the University of Bristol on this project, and it provides vital information that we will incorporate into our assessments.

“A lot of the process involves observing a donkey before approaching it in order to see it act naturally, and so these identified behaviour patterns are exactly what we need to inform the work of our field staff in improving donkeys’ welfare and advising their owners on how best to help their animals.”

The research team assessed the behaviours of 21 adult working donkeys, comprising 12 females and nine males, over two days of observation.

A high head carriage and biting were seen more frequently in male donkeys than females, suggesting a focus on the external environment. “These are components of a normal social and sexual behaviour repertoire,” they said.

A level head carriage, licking/chewing and head-shaking were observed more frequently in female donkeys.

“Female donkeys appeared to be less focused on the external environment than the males, expressed by their level head carriage,” the researchers said. “Headshaking was significantly more frequent in females and may suggest that they react more vigorously than male donkeys to the presence of flies.”

Tail position, ear orientation, foot stamping, rolling/lying and head-shaking behaviours were affected by time of day, they found.

Tail swishing, head shaking, foot stamping, and ears held sideways and downwards were significantly correlated and were assumed to be behaviours to discourage flies. They occurred most in the middle of the day.

“All donkeys expressed an extensive behavioural repertoire,” the authors concluded, noting there were some differences evident between genders.

Some behaviours of working donkeys were not consistent over time, which may make them unsuitable for use in a tool for recognising pain behaviour in clinical situations.

Regan FH, Hockenhull J, Pritchard JC, Waterman-Pearson AE, Whay HR (2014) Behavioural Repertoire of Working Donkeys and Consistency of Behaviour over Time, as a Preliminary Step towards Identifying Pain-Related Behaviours. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101877. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101877

The full study can be read here.

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