It is a terrible thing when an animal you care for every day enters a time of serious health crisis. Aitana, who is the youngest of the four donkeys (born 2 October 2011) has always had problems with laminitis – a condition where the front hooves gradually become more vertical and the donkey can have difficulty walking. The remedy is to reduce the sugar intake and make sure the hooves are properly trimmed to recover the correct angle (or in extreme cases an operation is needed on the tendons); but the advice the vet gave me in 2017 – was to reduce high-protein feeds like grain and alfalfa, in favour of a simple straw diet.
What my regular equine veterinary never told me was that the blood test we had done in 2017 showed clearly that Aitana was anaemic as well! This was crucial information and should have clearly indicated a need for a richer diet than simply one that avoided the danger of laminitis.
That blood test is still in my folder of donkey paperwork: there is no way it tells a layperson “this donkey is anaemic”: only a trained professional could look at the blood count analysis and say to the owner, “Your donkey is anaemic…” The vet said nothing to me. Either: (1) she didn’t notice crucial information; or (2) didn’t think it was worth mentioning to the person whose full-time care the animal relies upon!
In January 2021 when the vet came to do the annual equine influenza and tetanus jabs, I asked if the weight loss in Aitana was a cause for concern and her diet should be changed. The vet said that the straw diet for a laminitic donkey was best. Everything was geared to the idea that laminitis was the main concern for this donkey and we should not deviate from it. Just a short while ago, as the cold weather in late November seemed to be too severe for a thin donkey, I bought a horse blanket to protect her from the cold. It was barely 48 hours after fitting her with the horse blanket that I found her collapsed on the stable floor and could not raise her. I called the vet and told her we had an emergency.
Before the vet arrived, I had managed to get Aitana on her feet, but at great risk to myself, putting all my effort into raising her, taking a large amount of her weight and doing a lifting operation without any idea how to raise a donkey off the ground. (When the vet arrived, I told her how I had struggled, but at no stage did she explain how to raise a collapsed donkey. As the reader will see, further down in this account, a professional vet with real equine experience (or any interest in helping a client animal owner!) will show you how to do it in two minutes!
When the vet saw the state of Aitana, her words were, “There’s not much we can do in cases like this.” The very phrase ‘cases like this’ seemed an awful blow to me, who had seen this animal born in 2011 on my own field, from her mother Matilde. ‘Cases like this’ was a phrase that anonymised the animal and seemed to denigrate the personal relationship between an actual named animal and her obviously distraught owner, who now began to think this was the end of his beloved Aitana!
The vet took a blood sample for a test, gave an injection of something that she did not explain to me properly (nor write into the equine passport medication record), and off she went, with the simple instruction, “Let her eat all she wants.”
Aitana didn’t want to eat anything… she was too weak. She remained on her feet for the next 24 hours, which was a worrying thing to observe, as a weak donkey was becoming weaker by not sitting down. Then she sat down again and would not get up. Desperate, I phoned again and the vet said she could not return, as she was 100 kilometres away “doing work with horses in Murcia”. She reiterated there was little she could do ‘in cases like that’. By now, my daughter Alys had booked a one-way flight from the UK to Alicante to join me and give donkey care support, or possibly get here in time to at least see Aitana before we lost her!
I had now spent two entire nights in the stable in a sleeping bag in cold December winds, lying beside Aitana to try and share my body warmth with a donkey who seemed to be barely holding onto life, and with no further support apparently forthcoming from my “equine veterinary professional”. After three entire nights without sleep and after a drive to the airport to collect my daughter to help with managing an apparently hopeless ‘case’, we decided to consult the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, but they said they “could not discuss the issues with you because of protocol and we can only speak to the vet.”
The Refugio del Burrito in Malaga – on the other hand – were magnificent! They identified an equine vet in Alicante who was with us within an hour. She assessed the situation and showed my daughter and I how to raise a donkey from the ground and get her on her feet. It took precisely two minutes! She then did her inspection and tests, administered honey and vitamins and drew up a list of things we needed to do for emergency action, including high-energy foal mix cereal pellets and supplements. She also said we should not spend any more time sleeping in the stable with the equine patient, as that was just wearing us out! Instead set an alarm clock and take turns to visit the stable at intervals in the night.
When the new vet left us – promising to return at the end of the weekend to do a full teeth & health check on all the donkeys – we felt that we had finally seen a professional at work. The sick donkey was outside of the stable and taking in the sunshine 24 hours later. Aitana is not out of the danger list yet: we are having trouble getting her to eat the high protein pellets. She is not taking in enough water. She is not sitting down enough, but standing for long periods as she feels afraid to sit down (in cae she cannot get up again!) We have a long way to go.
But the big learning point here for me, for my daughter, and for Aitana – who is still luckily alive! – is that we have seen a huge difference between professionals. Naïvely, as a retired professional myself, I fall into the trap of thinking all professionals care about their work, care about their charges, and care about their moral obligations. I still have not learned there are people who do not give a toss…
“There’s not much we can do in cases like this.” – our former specialist equine veterinary, working in Alicante province, December 2021.