by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
Like a fingernail or toenail, a bird’s beak is made up of living tissue that grows throughout the animal’s life. Both the top and bottom parts of the beak are composed of bone covered by a thin layer of skin and a continuously growing outer layer of hard keratin protein. The bones in the beak are connected to the skull. The beak tip also contains numerous blood vessels and nerve endings, making the tip very sensitive to pain and to bleeding if it is injured.
Birds use their beaks as an appendage to hold on to things, to balance as they move about, and for grooming and eating. As the beak grows, the outermost hard protein covering near the beak’s tip is worn down by eating, chewing on hard objects, and digging. New protein, made at the base of the beak near its junction with the skin, gradually moves down the beak as the tip is worn down.
Why Do Beaks Overgrow?
In the wild, birds have many opportunities to wear down their beaks as they hunt for and gather food and build nests. Pet birds generally do not have these same opportunities; therefore, sometimes their beaks overgrow from underuse. Often, however, a bird owner will think his or her bird’s beak is too long when it is actually a normal length for the bird’s species.
Certain types of birds, such as pionus parrots, certain species of macaw, and other parrots, have upper beaks that are normally longer than that of other birds and that are easy to mislabel as overgrown when they are actually normal length.
While lack of wear may lead to overgrowth of both the top and bottom parts of the beak in pet birds, so can various disease processes. Viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections of the beak tissue, nutritional deficiencies, metabolic abnormalities (such as liver disease), or trauma to the beak can lead to overgrowth. In some cases, overgrowth occurs rapidly within just a few weeks, while in other cases it takes months for overgrowth to become apparent.
How Do You Trim an Overgrown Beak?
If an owner suspects overgrowth of his or her bird’s beak, the bird should be checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible to rule-out underlying illness as the cause of overgrowth and to safely have the beak trimmed. The blood supply in an overgrown beak tends to be even longer than it is in a normal beak. Therefore, there is a significant risk of inducing bleeding when an overgrown beak is trimmed. As a result, owners really should never try to trim their birds’ beaks at home.
There are many ways for veterinarians to trim an overgrow beak. The most common and safest method is with a motorized Dremel drill. Typically, the bird is wrapped in a towel and one person gently restrains it while the other person uses the sides of a conically-shaped grinding stone drill bit to grind down the beak tip a little at a time, being sure not to overstress the bird or drill so long that the drill bit gets too hot. Care must be taken not to trim too much from the beak, or the drill may hit the blood vessel and nerves, causing bleeding and severe pain.
For very small birds, such as budgerigars, finches, or cockatiels, manual beak trimming with an emery board can work well. In general, the use of other hand-held instruments, such as toenail clippers or wire cutters, is not recommended for beak trimming. Use of these tools to trim beaks can lead to inadvertent beak splitting and cracking, as well as to jarring of the base of the beak (where the new protein layer forms) and potential future beak deformity.
How to Prevent Beak Overgrowth
Small birds should be provided with cuttle bones on which to grind their beaks, and medium-sized to large birds should be offered a variety of wooden toys to chew on to help keep their beaks trim. All birds can be given hard food items (such as nuts and crunchy vegetables) to help with beak wear.
Bird owners should try to look at as many birds of the same species as their pet to be familiar with what a “normal” beak looks like in that species. In many instances, however, even with appropriate food and toys, pet birds’ beaks can overgrow due to either genetic factors or to underlying disease. If a bird owner suspects his or her pet’s beak is overgrown, he or she should have the bird checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure there is no underlying pathology that needs to be addressed.