Earlier in the week I made an appointment with Linus (my umbrella cockatoo) for a nail trim. Some of his nails were a bit long and one was painfully sharp. I hunted for my favorite nail trimming clippers and couldn’t find them, so I put off the trim until they could be located.
I had bought these clippers perhaps as many as 12 or 13 years ago. I brought them home and tested them out on my dog and loved the handling so much that I returned to the store the next day to purchase enough replacement blades to last until either the clippers gave out, or I did. We will never know who might have won that race because now they are gone without a trace.
I went to the store today for new ones and found a pair with an exciting feature that my old clippers didn’t have: a movable bar that creates a barrier preventing us from cutting off too much of the nail. If I had known there was any possibility of an advancement in nail trimming technology, I would have made this bold move years ago.
When I was checking out, I couldn’t contain my excitement and told the sales girl all about my new discovery and how great this safety feature is for parrots. She stared at me blankly. Either I was that day’s most boring customer, or she had no idea what I was talking about. If only to preserve my ego, I went with the latter.
If someone in a pet store doesn’t understand how a nail trimming can go wrong, maybe some others don’t either. So…here’s your nail trimming post.
How your bird’s nails grow
A bird’s nails are made of keratin, the same material our fingernails are made of. In the center of that hard shell is a soft area with a live blood supply and nerve endings called the quick. The quick extends part of the way down the center of the nail. Unfortunately, with dark nails it isn’t possible to see where the quick ends so that we can avoid cutting into it during a nail trim.
Because there are nerve endings involved, a cut through the quick is painful. And because there is an active blood supply, there will be bleeding, which is never a good thing with a parrot. Whenever your parrot bleeds it is essential to stop it right away. It is smart to always have a coagulant on hand such as styptic powder. In a pinch, flour or cornstarch will usually work and I have resorted to a scraping a bar of soap over a bleeding nail in the past.
Don’t let the nails get too long
As nails grow, so does the quick inside. When we allow the nails to get too long, it is tempting to simply cut off all the excess at one time. However, the longer the nail is, the more it increases the likelihood that we will cut into the quick. Long nails need to be trimmed back tiny bits at a time. The slight trimming encourages the quick to recede so that a little more can be trimmed, usually within a week, until they are the proper length.
The perfect nail length
You will want you bird’s nails to be as close to just right as possible all the time. Climbing accidents happen when they aren’t the proper length. Parrots lose their grip when nails are too short, so always resist the urge to cut nails shorter than they should be to delay the next trim. Long nails can get caught in the most surprising places and birds struggling to free themselves sometimes pull their nail off.
Your bird’s nails are the perfect length when they are just a hair above a flat surface they are standing on. In other words, if you were to get on eye level with the table top your bird is standing on, the nail would be only slightly above the surface of the table. (see diagram below)
Judging the right the place to make the nail cut, however, is tricky. If you were to look at your bird’s foot while it is perching, and try to estimate where to make the cut, you would always cut the nail much too short.
The pad on the toe joint closest to the nail is thicker than it is further back on the toe. When a bird’s foot is flat, the pressure on that pad forces the nail upward. Without the pad repositioning the nail, birds would struggle on a flat surface because their nails wouldn’t allow their foot to rest flatly and comfortably. The pressure is on the center of the foot when a bird is perched and the nail appears longer causing some people to misjudge how far to cut them back.
The only way to truly judge at what point the nail should be cut is by observing where the nail falls when the bird is on a flat surface. Keep that measurement in your mind’s eye and make the cut in that approximate location.
Clip or file?
I clip the big birds and file the small birds. It is a personal decision. My reasoning is that clipping is faster with the large birds. Neither of my cockatoos can refrain from trying to participate in the trimming process and before long there is always a curious beak wrapped around a file.
With my small birds, I find that a few file passes over their nails once a week keeps them in fine shape. Naturally, I have never attempted to use the big clippers on the small birds – the margin for error is enormous and with a small, wiggling bird, a toe could easily be taken off. I also do not use fingernail clippers with my small birds. They dull easily with use on fingernails and the blades are just too thick for their delicate nails. There is a lot of pinching and nails get split when fingernail clippers are used. (Dull clipper blades will have the same effect on the bigger birds.)
Whatever method you choose to use is fine as long as you get it done when it is needed and that you take steps to make it as pleasant an experience for your bird as nail clipping might allow. Clippers are scary to some birds, and peculiar things to the rest. Keep in mind that your bird is aware that you have cut away a piece of its nail, and in the wrong setting, that might be perceived as violent. Do your best to make it non-threatening. Good behavior should always be heavily rewarded with favorite snack foods following a successful nail trim.
Finally, be grateful you don’t have to deal with these nails:
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.