Donkeys evolved to roam over long distances in very arid climates across rugged terrain, in search of sparse and coarse grasses as well as other fibrous plant materials. In order to cope with long-duration feeding on highly abrasive matter, donkeys have developed teeth that are designed to wear constantly. As the chewing surface wears, the long crown held in reserve, below the gum, erupts slowly towards the point at which the upper and lower teeth meet.
Donkeys have a finite amount of tooth available, so as they age their teeth begin to literally wear out.
Donkeys may have anywhere between 16 and 44 teeth depending on age, gender, and the presence of small, non-functional wolf teeth. During adolescence donkeys shed their temporary ‘milk’ teeth to allow for the permanent teeth to take their place. This shedding takes place at regular intervals, starting with the central incisors from around the age of 2.5 years. The mouth is not dentally complete until around five years of age. It is important that the milk teeth or ‘caps’ are shed at the correct time: if they are retained they are likely to cause infection, pain and trauma; if they shed too soon, the underlying permanent tooth might not have had sufficient time to develop fully — even if the tooth looks normal, it will be at much greater risk of increased wear and cavities.
Dental care as part of donkey management
All donkeys should have their teeth regularly checked by an appropriate professional. It is important that they are checked soon after birth to identify any serious problems. From then on it is recommended that all donkeys are checked twice annually, as their teeth shed, erupt and wear at a rapid rate whilst young. Your vet or EDT (equine dental technician) will advise you of appropriate appointments specific to your donkey. Geriatric donkeys are likely to need more frequent dental check-ups.
Prevention is key to maintaining good oral health
There is no need to wait until your donkeys’ teeth are razor sharp or you notice any of the typical warning signs before booking an appointment with your vet/EDT. Dental treatments are much more effective when carried out at regular intervals. A donkey with poor teeth — overgrowths and sharp edges. Do not wait until your donkey loses weight, has difficulty or stops eating, or develops malodorous breath; dental problems are likely to be severe in these cases.
It is your responsibility to employ an appropriate person to complete dental assessments and procedures. It is highly recommended that you consult either a qualified equine dental technician or vet who has gained the BEVA/BAEDT qualifications. A comprehensive centre examination will always involve the use of a humane gag to allow viewing of the back teeth.
Signs of dental problems
The following signs indicate dental problems in your donkeys:
• difficulty chewing
• dropping food out of mouth
• excessive salivation
• behavioural changes
• difficulty nipping at grass
• strong-smelling mouth
• food packing — retention of partly chewed food in cheeks pouches • whole grains or long fibre in the faeces
• nasal discharge
• colic episodes
• inability to eat or no desire to eat
• weight loss.
Remember: there might be no signs at all.
Donkeys are famed for stoicism, but could it be that we just do not notice the signs? Donkeys that appear very healthy or even obese might have significant dental problems.
In this video you can check how our donkeys have their regular dental checks: