Beak and Nail Care in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP; Rick Axelson, DVM

Do I need to be concerned about my bird's beak and nails?

Most wild birds are naturally very active during the day and normally sit on a huge variety of perches of varying diameters and textures in their environments. This variety of surfaces, along with ordinary preening and grooming behavior, wears down their nails so that they do not overgrow. Unfortunately, in captivity, birds typically have smooth-surfaced perches, all of the same or similar diameter. This lack of perch variability often results in decreased wear of nails and nail overgrowth. Without trimming, toenails may become long, very sharp, and/or flaky. Overgrown nails may become caught or trapped on toys, clothing, or parts of the cage. In these situations, parts of the toenail may be ripped off or may cause a broken toe, causing severe pain or blood loss.

"...lack of perch variability often results in decreased wear of nails and nail overgrowth. "

The beak is a multipurpose organ used for eating, preening, grasping, climbing (like a third foot), self-defense, touching, playing, and communication. It is capable of great strength and gentle touch. The beak is constantly growing but in a normal healthy bird, tends to stay a relatively constant length, because the bird is always wearing it down at the tip as it eats, climbs, and plays. After a bird eats, you may see it wipe and clean its beak on an object in the cage, such as a perch. This action helps wear down the beak. A bird may also grind its upper and lower beak together, which further wears down the lower beak. Providing your bird with pet-safe toys and chewing activities will not only help wear down the beak, but also provide hours of entertainment for your pet.

As a rule, if a beak appears too long, your bird could have a health problem, such as liver disease, scaley beak and leg mites, or cancer of the beak, and it should be seen by your veterinarian. It is never advisable to attempt to trim your bird's beak at home, as there is a large blood vessel running down the center of the beak that will bleed profusely if it is nicked. The tip of the upper beak has a substantial nerve supply and will cause pain if broken or trimmed improperly. A veterinarian familiar with birds will trim or grind the beak properly during regular health examinations if he or she finds that the upper or lower beak is elongated or misshapen.

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 vessel and nerve that grows part-way down the middle of each nail. The longer the nail, often the longer the quick. In light colored nails, the quick is visible as the pink area in the center of the nail. In dark or black nails, the quick is not visible. When cut, the quick may bleed profusely and it may be difficult to stop the blood flow. If you choose to attempt nail trims at home, you must have a clotting agent or styptic powder on hand. Ask your veterinarian about what clotting agents are safe for use in birds. In general, as birds preen their feet and ingest substances on the nails’ surface, clotting agents and styptic powder should eventually be washed off the nails sometime after the bleeding has stopped.

"Your veterinarian can trim the nails safely during regular health examinations and is prepared to deal with any bleeding, should it occur."

Toenails of small birds may be trimmed with a human nail clipper. Larger birds require a stronger dog nail scissor or clipper. Regardless of the instrument used to trim toenails, the bird should be securely and safely restrained. The nail may be trimmed a little at a time to help lessen the chance of bleeding. It takes good judgment, patience, and practice to trim nails properly. If bleeding occurs, remain calm, restrain the bird safely and securely, and use finger pressure to pinch the toe (from side to side just before the nail). This will provide a tourniquet action so that you can apply a clotting agent or styptic powder into the cut end. Cornstarch or flour may be used in an emergency, but is generally not as effective as a commercially available clotting product or styptic powder.

Your veterinarian can trim the nails safely during regular health examinations and is prepared to deal with any bleeding, should it occur. Your veterinarian may use a special instrument called a cautery pen, which has a loop on the end that becomes very hot and can cauterize (or cut with heat) the very tip of the nail, beyond the quick. Cautery pens are ideal because if the quick is cut, the nail will not bleed. Plus, the heat of the cautery loop keeps the instrument sterile – free of bacteria and other microbes that could be transferred from bird to bird. Cautery pens should only be used by trained professionals, as they get extremely hot and could injure both the bird and the person trimming if the bird moves when the nail is cut. Other veterinarians may use a Dremel drill - an electric grinding tool that rounds out the sharp pointy tip of the nails of larger birds such as Amazon Parrots, Cockatoos, and Macaws.

What else can I do at home to help the beak and nails?

Do not use sandpaper perch covers, as they do not keep the nails short and could cause terrible sores on the bottom of the feet. Birds also tend to pick the sand off these perches and can develop gastrointestinal obstructions from the ingested sand. Non-toxic, clean branches available commercially from pet stores are acceptable perches for pet birds.

"Natural well-washed branches from non-toxic trees make great perches."

Bringing branches in from outside to be used as perches is generally not recommended, as the wood could contain microscopic bacteria, fungus, and parasites that your bird could ingest when it chews on the perch. Perches should be of varying diameter so that the bird can distribute pressure over different areas of the feet bottoms, preventing sores that may develop from constant pressure on one area. Birds should be able to wrap their toes at least half way around the perch to ensure a good grip. They are less likely to slip off, startle, or fall from perches that they are able to grasp tightly.

Braided rope perches are a good choice for perches and are available commercially. Care must be taken, however, to replace braided perches if they become unraveled or frayed. Birds may ingest the frayed strands or toes/feet may get tangled in them. Cement or ceramic perches may help wear down the beak but should not be used as the only perch, or most frequently used perch in the cage, as their rough surface may lead to development of pressure sores on the bottom of feet. Manzanita and Dragonwood perches are an excellent natural hard wood perch widely used for all small, medium, and large birds. For smaller birds such as Finches, Budgies, Lovebirds, or Cockatiels, cuttle bones may be helpful as a wearing surface for the beak.

Any changes in the rate of growth, color, texture, symmetry, or shape of the beak or nails should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian immediately, as they could be an indication of an underlying medical problem.

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