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Why Do Donkeys Have a Cross on Their Back?

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Donkeys are popular farm animals and those familiar with them probably know about the crosses on their backs. While most of us know they have them, few people know exactly why donkeys have a cross of their back.

Donkeys have crosses on their back because it is a trait passed down genetically throughout history to modern-day donkeys. There are religious myths that tell the story of how donkeys got their crosses, as well as a scientific explanation.

While different explanations exist about why donkeys have the cross in the first place, it does not change the fact that it is there.

Learn more about donkeys and the myths as well as facts about why they have crosses on their backs in this article.

donkeys at sunset

Do All Donkeys Have a Cross on Their Back?

The cross itself is a dark line of hair that runs across a donkey’s shoulder blades and all the way down the middle of its back to its hind end.

Almost all donkeys today have a cross on their back, although some are far more visible than others. Lighter colored donkeys tend to have darker stripes that are easy to see while the crosses on extremely dark-colored donkeys may not be visible at all.

Not all of the ancestral donkeys had crosses on their backs, therefore, some remain today that do not as well. It is important to know, however, that just because you cannot see the dorsal stripe on a donkey, does not mean that it is not there.

The cross is not always visible on donkeys that have black or extremely dark-colored coats. It can also fade on older donkeys, although it still may be slightly visible.

Cross sign on donkey back

What Exactly Does the Cross on Donkey’s Look Like?

The cross does not look exactly like a cross, however, it is similar and it is understandable why people and legends refer to it as a cross.

Looking at a donkey from above, the dorsal stripe begins at the base of their mane. It follows their spine down their entire backs towards their tale.

A shoulder stripe runs across their shoulders, from one shoulder across their backs to the other shoulder.

It forms a cross where the two stripes cross over one another above the donkey’s shoulder blades.

Are Donkeys Born With a Cross on Their Backs?

If the dorsal and shoulder marking is a part of their bloodline, then the donkey will be born with the cross on its back. The cross marking should be visible on their coat at birth, unless, of course, their coat is black.

What Are the Tales Associated With This Cross?

The main tales associated with donkeys and their cross are religious ones.

In one story, a donkey carried Jesus to Jerusalem and then, as Jesus carried his own cross, the donkey asked if it could help him carry it.

The donkey was turned away and, after waiting throughout the crucifixion, when the donkey turned to leave, it had the shadow of the cross on its back.

Another story tells a similar story, but instead of the shadow of the cross falling onto the donkey, Jesus actually tells God about how generous the donkey had been.

God blessed the donkey’s chief and placed his cross on the backs of all donkeys so the world will know they are holy.

Donkeys in the ranch

What Causes the Cross on Donkeys?

The cross on the back of a donkey is the result of a genetic trait passed down through generations. The cross is considered a primitive marking which is basically just a dark brown or black dorsal and shoulder stripe.

The cross, or stripes, are more easily seen on donkeys that descend from wild African asses, a breed that had the markings as well. It is not the result of magic, disease, or myth, it is the result of a genetic predisposition.

Why Do Some Donkeys Have It and Not Others?

Some donkeys do not have the cross on their backs at all because it was not a part of their ancestral past and genetic makeup. For example, the Somali ass still exists today in Ethiopia, however, donkeys of this breed do not and have never had the cross on their back.

Most donkeys today have crosses on their backs because their ancestors had them as well. Donkeys have been around for many, many centuries so their genetics have definitely changed over that time.

The dorsal and shoulder stripes on some donkeys can fade away as they age, making them harder to see.

Final Thoughts

It is true that not every single donkey in the world has a cross on its back, but the majority of them do. This is especially true for those in the United States.

While those who are religious believe the cross was placed on donkeys by God, scientists believe it is a trait passed down through generations of donkeys and wild asses. 


Learning about donkeys that have crosses on their backs was an educating experience to say the least. Here are the sources that were used to write this article.