Like horses, donkeys can sleep while standing up. Although there is not much scientific data on these hardy animals’ sleeping habits, it is believed that they snooze in this position in the wild to quickly escape if predators attack. However, they may lie down if they feel safe and completely at ease. That said, donkeys typically snooze for just 3 hours a day, and they can’t enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (deep sleep phase) while standing on all fours. Here’s what you need to know about donkey’s beauty sleep!


Why Do Donkeys Sleep Standing Up?

Donkeys, like most four-legged land herbivores, can doze off on their feet. In fact, taking a nap in this position is not unique to donkeys because they share the same particular anatomical structure with other hoofed herbivores: the stay apparatus.

But why would donkeys choose to sleep in such an uncomfortable position? They have evolved to sleep in a way that enables them to escape predators at a moment’s notice.

Indeed, donkeys being prey species, they must react fast if another animal likely to eat them is nearby. Dozing off in a standing position means they can rest while also being able to run away quickly if a predator appears.

Domestic donkey sleep standing up
Image Credit: Liilik, Shutterstock

How Do Donkeys Sleep Standing Up?

For us humans, sleeping upright while keeping our balance is an impossible feat. So, how do these massive animals pull off this trick?

To put it simply, the legs of donkeys and other terrestrial herbivores have what is called the stay apparatus. This anatomical feature is made up of ligaments and tendons that enable these animals to “lock” their major joints and stay upright with minimal muscular effort. This way, they can snooze for long periods of time without losing their balance.

Can Donkeys Sleep Lying Down?

Yes! In fact, according to National Geographic, most large quadrupeds can doze off on their feet but only experience REM sleep when lying down. Basically, horses, cows, moose, rhino, and bison sleep lightly when standing up, but they must lie down to sleep soundly.

Furthermore, when these animals appear to be asleep while upright, they are actually in a drowsy state called slow-wave sleep. This enables them to stay alert and wake up quickly in case of danger.

Donkeys also need to lie down at some point to experience deep and restorative sleep. However, they will only do so when they feel entirely safe and comfortable. 30 minutes of REM sleep per 24 hours is enough to keep them refreshed. They also don’t need more than 3 hours of total sleep daily, which is enough time for a long afternoon nap!

sick looking donkey lying on the ground
Image Credit: meunierd, Shutterstock

Do All Donkeys Lie Down to Sleep?

Sadly, no. Due to certain environmental factors and harsh living conditions, some donkeys can never lie down to sleep.

One study found that working donkeys in developing countries were often owned by people who unfortunately didn’t have adequate resources to maintain good animal welfare. Therefore, during rest periods, donkeys often remained tethered and harnessed. Since they were rarely allowed to rest without a harness, they had little or no opportunity to lie down during a typical day. Consequently, they couldn’t experience a truly restful sleep, which contributed to chronic fatigue and stress in these animals.

Heat also affects the lying behavior of donkeys. In a study of wild donkeys in California, researchers noted that they never lie down during the hottest months of the year, suggesting that these animals may be modifying their sleep posture to reduce the risk of heat stress.

Tips for Getting Your Donkey to Sleep Soundly

If you’re lucky enough to own one or more of these friendly and lovable animals, it’s only natural that you want to give them the best possible life.

Here are a few tips to make sure your donkeys get restful sleep when they need it the most:
  • Set up a safe, secure, and warm shelter where your donkey can sleep peacefully.
  • Provide a comfortable bed, one preferably made of barley, oat, or wheat straw.
  • Limit stressors, such as rowdy dogs and loud noises, near the shelter.
  • Refrain from disturbing your donkey when they are resting.

What Other Animals Sleep Standing Up?

Most hoofed herbivores, like donkeys, horses, and elephants, sleep standing up. Cows can too but typically lie down. But did you know that some birds can also nap on their feet? Flamingos are the most well-known example, but crows can also sleep in this position due to their flexor tendons.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of other animals that can doze off standing up:

  • Bison
  • Camel
  • Crows
  • Deer
  • Ducks
  • Flamingos
  • Gazelles
  • Geese
  • Giraffe
  • Moose
  • Rhino


Final Thoughts

In short, donkeys can snooze upright due to having the same anatomical speciality as horses and elephants! This mechanism (the stay apparatus) enables them to “lock ” their legs in a standing position, thus saving muscular effort. However, they do need to lie down at some point to sleep more soundly, although they don’t need much more than 3 hours a day.

Featured Image Credit: Pierre-Olivier, Shutterstock