Beak and Nail Care
How do birds normally maintain their beak and nails?
Birds normally care for their own feathers, nails, and beak. Excessive length or malformation of beak, feathers, and even nails can indicate health problems or may indicate that they are not being provided what they need to maintain them. The material that makes up the covering of the beak and nails is hard protein called “keratin”. It grows in dense, microscopic plates, similar to the structure of fine, hardened steel cutlery. Through normal wear, the plates flake away and leave an ever-sharper edge. Proper nutrition and a healthy liver are important to ensure the strength of the keratin. Deficiencies in either area will result in soft keratin that deforms or overgrows.
For beak and nail care maintenance, birds intentionally grind the upper and lower beak together during periods of rest. So long as the underlying bone structure is intact and their beaks are symmetric, a bird can normally maintain its own beak length. Injuries can make this impossible and require regular trimming. Otherwise, any excessive lengthening can be an indication of health problems and a veterinarian should be consulted. It is not advisable to ever attempt to trim the beak at home. The beak is highly sensitive and contains an underlying bone structure and can bleed or be painful if improperly trimmed. A veterinarian familiar with birds will trim or grind the beak properly during regular health examinations as needed.
Birds also bite and preen their nails to scrape away debris and excess keratin, leaving them sharper. In addition, climbing, foraging, and gripping perches tends to help wear away the nails and keep them shorter. Most wild birds are naturally very active during the day and would normally encounter a variety of perch textures and sizes in their wild environment. Birds in captivity also need to be provided a variety of sizes, hardnesses, and textures of perches.
However, despite even providing a variety of perches, nails may still overgrow and require trimming 1-2 times per year.
Can I trim my bird’s nails at home?
Yes, but it is important to be careful when trimming the nails. The quick is the blood and nerve supply that grows part way down the middle of each nail. In light colored nails it is visible as the pink area inside the nail. In dark or black nails the quick is completely hidden. When cut, the quick may bleed profusely. If you choose to attempt nail trims at home, have a clotting agent or styptic powder (e.g., Kwik-Stop, Bleed-X) on hand in case you do cut the quick.
Small bird nails may be trimmed with a human nail clipper. Larger birds require a stronger dog nail scissor or guillotine type nail trimmer. Nail trimmers should be sharp and clean. Dull, old blades will cause more trauma and pain. A rotary Dremmel tool can also be used and tends to cause less bleeding and pain so long as it is only applied in short bursts (long, hard grinding will heat the nail intensely).
During trimming, restrain the bird securely. Toes that move into your trimmers or Dremmel at the wrong time can be severely damaged. Nails should be trimmed a little at a time to help lessen the chance of bleeding. If you do small cuts each time the chance of a major bleed from the quick is substantially reduced. If bleeding does occur, remain calm and use finger pressure to pinch the toe just above the nail. This will slow blood flow while a clotting agent or styptic powder is applied into the cut end. Cornstarch or flour may be used in an emergency but is not an adequate substitute under normal situations.
Your veterinarian can trim the nails safely during regular health examinations and is prepared to deal with any bleeding should it occur. Some veterinarians may use an electric grinder on the nails of larger birds such as parrots, cockatoos and macaws.
What else can I do at home to help the beak and nail care?
Do not use sandpaper perch covers as they do not keep the nails short and could cause sores on the bottom of the feet. Natural washed branches from non-toxic trees make great perches. Trees such as elm, apple, plum, pear, magnolia, citrus trees, and poplar are just a few suggestions. Leave the bark on for texture and chewing. They should be of varying sizes and provide the opportunity for the bird to grip or grasp the perch, not just stand on with open feet. Birds are less likely to slip off, startle or fall from perches that they are able to grasp tightly. Varying sized perched provide better exercise for the bird’s feet.. For larger birds, a ceramic or cement perch may be a beneficial aid in safely wearing the beak and nails down. Cement or ceramic perches have been observed to cause excessive wearing of the beak if used as the only or most frequently used perch in the cage. For smaller birds such as a finch, budgie or cockatiel, cuttle bones, lava rock and mineral or iodized blocks may be helpful as a wearing surface for the beak. Mineral, cement, or ceramic perches must not be the only perch options available— remember to have a variety of perch sizes and textures for your bird to maintain proper beak and nail care.
Any changes in the rate of growth, color, texture symmetry or the way the beak or nail grows should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian immediately.
A high-speed (35,000 rpm) cordless rotary tool (e.g., Dremmel) works well for reshaping nails. Typical lower- speed models are not as desirable.
Great care must be taken to restrain the feet and prevent the bird from grasping the spinning tip or toe injury may result. Touching the Dremmel for brief periods is recommended to prevent painful heating. Because only thin layers of nail are removed at a time, the risk of bleeding is minimal. Also, the powdered nail residue tends to clot any minor bleeding.
Typical results, the foot on the left is yet to be trimmed, the foot on the right is finished. Remember that after trimming the nails, your bird’s ability to grasp on tight will be diminished, particularly if they are riding on your shoulder or hand.