What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. Updated: July 16, 2018
What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass?

Taxonomy or animal classification can often cause uncertainty. For example, it is sometimes difficult to tell if two different nomenclatures refer to the same animal or instead to a species and subspecies. Some animals are known by similar names but are of a different species, whereas others may be known by several distinctly different names yet still remain in the same species. It is understandable why we can often get confused by terminologies which need to be clarified.

You might have pondered the differences between a donkey, a mule and an ass at some point. They seem like they might be the same creature, but let us at AnimalWised provide the specific facts.

What is the difference between a donkey and an ass?

A donkey is an animal with characteristically long ears and a furry tail which has been used as a draft animal for generations. An ass, on the other hand, is... exactly the same! Both terms are synonymous and refer to the same animal. However, as we shall see, there are even more words used depending on the breeding of each animal.

The words ‘donkey’ and ‘ass’ are used interchangeably to speak about the same species of animal: Equus africanus asinus. This is an animal that, along with zebras and horses, forms part of the horse family Equidae. Their relationship with humans has been steeped over at least 5 millennia and they are still used today as work animals, particularly in lower-income countries.

They can grow up to 63” tall at the withers and have large ears to both pick up sound and act as a cooling system in hotter climates. They are not endangered, but are known to suffer cruelty as they are put to work in often harsh conditions. For this reason, certain charities exist and help raise money to look after sick donkeys and help workers to ensure they are treating them humanely.

What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass? - What is the difference between a donkey and an ass?

Differences in the etymology of a donkey and an ass

‘Etymology’ simply refers to the origin of words and the reason for their existence. So, whilst a donkey and an ass are the same animal, the two words have different origins:

  • The word ass comes from the Latin term ‘asinus’, the meaning of which refers directly to this animal.

  • The word donkey is harder to find its etymological derivation, but a common theory is that it is a combination of ‘dun’ (referring to the muted gray color) and the suffix 'ky' meaning small. Another theory is that it derives from the Spanish "don" for its lord-like demeanor.

Donkeys are linked to horses as they are from the same genus. It is difficult to trace which came first, but the etymology might help provide a clue. This is because another possible origin of the name is from the Middle English of donekie which translates to ‘a small grey horse’.

What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass? - Differences in the etymology of a donkey and an ass

What is the difference between a donkey and a jackass?

You may also have heard the term jackass used in relation to donkeys. While it is also now well-known as a slur used against people of low-intelligence or those who engage in idiotic behavior, the origins are really quite simple. It has to do with names given to male and female donkeys.

Some names are given to all equine animals, while others are species specific. For example, all female equines are called ‘mares’, but donkeys have a specific name ‘jenny’ for females.

Here are the names for male and female donkeys as well as their young:

  • A male donkey is called a ‘jack’.
  • A female donkey is called a ‘jenny’.
  • A female donkey which is ready to breed is known as a ‘broodmare’ (as is a female horse in this position).
  • A young donkey is called a ‘foal’ (as is a young horse).

The term jackass, therefore, simply means a male donkey. However, it is also a sort of redundant terminology. This is because only male donkeys are called ‘jacks’. You couldn't have a jackhorse as a male horse is called a stallion.

What about a mule and a hinny? Hybrid donkeys

You may have heard people ‘what is a mule?’ or even refer to a donkey as a mule, but this would not be technically correct. When a donkey or an ass (Equus africanus asinus) is mated with a horse, we get certain common hybrids:

  • A ‘mule’ is a widely used term is the offspring of a male donkey (a jack) and a female horse (a mare).
  • A ‘hinny’ does not refer to a donkey or an ass either. It is the hybrid between a female donkey (a jenny) and a male horse (stallion). Genealogically, it is more difficult to reproduce a hinny in comparison to a mule.

Some still, may have heard a donkey bet referred to as a ‘burro’. This is the word for donkey in Spanish and is commonly used in Mexico where these animals are very common, especially as pack animals. However, the word ‘burro’ is often used in Mexico's northern neighbor, the USA. There, the term burro is more specific as it refers to a small donkey.

As a side note, the Mexican dish Burrito derives its name from the donkey. A ‘burrito’ literally translates as a ‘little donkey’ and is likely to refer to the fact that they are so stuffed with ingredients, they are similar to how a donkey is often packed with gear to carry.

If you want to know more about animal hybrids, why don't you find out the difference between ligers, tigons and other big cat breeds.

What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass? - What about a mule and a hinny? Hybrid donkeys

What characteristics and behavior do these different breeds have?

These combinations of breeds can lead to the offspring taking on different characteristics. Mules and hinnies have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is more to do with the animal knowing its limitations and letting its owner know too. They have great stamina, require less food than a horse and are unlikely to be startled. The flight reflex of a horse makes them more unpredictable and they do not know when to reduce action, which can lead to them being worked until they drop.

It is also harder to breed mules and hinnies. This is because these animals usually have bad genes. They have 63 chromosomes, as they are a mix between horses which have 64 and donkeys which have 62. This results in almost all of them being sterile.

Therefore, we can conclude that a donkey and an ass are the same animal, but mules and hinnies are different animals. Their characteristics and behavior depend on their breeding and they might have been given an unfair reputation.

Do you want to learn more about the strange similarities and differences in the animal kingdom? Take a look at the following articles:

If you want to know more about how to care for a donkey, you might want to read this article on how to know if a donkey is pregnant

If you want to read similar articles to What is the Difference Between a Donkey, a Mule and an Ass?, we recommend you visit our Comparisons category.

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What did you think of this article?
Theresa Resko
Very interesting article.
Tom Danielson
Well that was absolutely informative and now I can explain it to my neighbors !!! Love the pictures such beautiful faces.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Tom,

So glad we could help out!
Very informative and easy to understand.
Thanks for the terminology of names. Very useful.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi John,

We're glad we could be helpful, thanks for the kind words!
I wanted to know the answer, but I have so much more. I always thought a ninny was someone who was a bit stupid. What a ninny I was!
This article is not true!! An ass has a cross on its back from the time it carried mother Mary to Bethlehem with the baby Jesus, a donkey has no cross on its back!! That’s what I was told by my uncle who breeds them..
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Martin,

We want to be careful so as not to offend you or your uncle's beliefs, but there is no evidence to support this view other than folk tales. It is not even a biblical belief, but one which has been passed down like many religious tales through suggestion.
This might be a useful article IF I COULD READ IT.
WHY did you post a picture of an animal on top of your text?
I don't even know what animal it is BECAUSE I CANT READ THE TEXT.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hello Pat,

We have had a similar comment before and we believe the issue may be from a browser which needs updating. As far as we can tell, it works across all platforms. Would you be able to say which picture it is being obscured? It would help us in running diagnostic checks. Thank you.
I like donkey it’s so cool animals
i think it was very cool
The donkey plays up front for West ham and the ass plays in defence
thats very usful

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