Health & Nutrition
Note: this article was written specifically for cockatiels. The basic principles will apply to many other species, but it is the owner's responsibility to find out what is appropriate to their bird and act accordingly.
Cockatiels’ toenails grow continuously, just as human fingernails do. Wild
cockatiels come in contact with a lot of rough surfaces during the course of
their daily life, which keeps the nails worn down to an appropriate length.
Life in a comfortable human home is usually much easier on the toenails, so
most pet birds need to have their nails clipped periodically.
A concrete perch in front of a food cup or exposure to some other rough surface will help wear the nails down naturally, but it probably won’t completely eliminate the need for nail clipping. Most of your bird’s perching should be done on other types of perches because nonstop contact with rough surfaces is bad for the feet. You can place clean rocks in the bottom of the cage or some other area where the bird likes to hang out to provide some natural-style abrasion. Use rocks that have a fairly rough surface, are not wobbly and don't tip over easily (to prevent pinching accidents) and are not easily chipped for grit-eating purposes.
It’s time for a trim if the bird’s toenails are getting caught in carpet or cloth, are so long that they interfere with the bird's ability to grip a perch or make the fleshy part of the toe lift off the ground when the bird stands on a flat surface, or are so sharp that it’s painful when the bird stands on your skin. If you don’t want to clip the bird’s toenails yourself, you can have it done professionally by an avian veterinarian. Some pet shops will also trim nails (and wing feathers too) for a fee, but the experience level and work quality of the store employees could be very good or very bad. So if you go this route, ask questions about previous experience before you let them work on your bird. One advantage of using a professional is that your bird will be annoyed at them, not at you.
It’s also possible to clip your bird’s toenails yourself, but it’s a little more complicated than cutting your own nails. Unlike human nails, a bird’s toenail has a blood vessel and nerve in it; this area is called the quick. When you clip the nail you have to avoid cutting into the quick because this would cause bleeding and pain.
To clip your bird’s toenails you will need the following supplies:
1. Nail clippers or scissors – equipment made for cutting human nails is OK. A nail file is also helpful for smoothing any rough edges. If you prefer, you can file the nails instead of cutting them but this will take longer than clipping.Wrap the small towel around the bird’s body so that the wings are pinned to the body and not very useful for flapping and wriggling. Be careful not to put pressure on the chest; birds don’t have a diaphragm and they can’t breathe if their chest can’t move up and down. It may be desirable to cover the bird’s head as well, since birds tend to calm down when it’s dark and it also makes it a lot harder for the bird to bite you. But be sure the bird is getting enough oxygen. If a second person is holding the bird and they have good bird-handling skills, it isn't necessary to cover the head. Instead this person can hold the bird lying on its back in the palm of their hand; the towel is optional, but if it's used it should be between the bird and the hand. The bird's neck is in the V between the person's index finger and middle finger. The fingers stretch the neck out slightly so the bird can't twist around and bite, but be careful not to strain the neck. The thumb and the remaining fingers gently restrain the wings and body.
2. Flour, cornstarch or styptic powder (Kwik Stop), to pack into the nail to stop the bleeding if you accidentally cut into the vein. Have this out and ready for immediate use.
3. A small towel or light cloth to restrain the bird and prevent it from biting you. It is very helpful to use two people during this procedure: one to hold the bird and the other to clip the nails. If another person isn’t available, you’ll have to find a way to keep the bird in a comfortable, stable position while you cut the nail. I fold up a big towel and tuck it into a box so that it makes a sort of cradle, then wrap the bird in a small towel and lay the bird on its back in the cradle. Done properly, this reduces the wriggling a lot.
In any case, leave the towel open enough that you can get hold of the bird’s feet. Hold the center of the bird's foot between your thumb and forefinger, as if the foot was perching on your finger; when you apply slight pressure with your thumb the toes will spread apart naturally.
Now you’re ready to clip. Hold the clippers/scissors with your dominant
hand and the foot with your other hand. Once again, the most important
thing is to avoid cutting into the vein that's in the nail. If your bird
has light-colored nails the vein will be easy to see in good light. If the
nails are dark you can't see the vein and will have to guess, but if you
just take the very tip of the nail it should be OK. There is frequently a
white “scuff line” near the tip of the toenail that serves as a good “cut
While you’re clipping the nail on one toe, be careful that you don’t nick the flesh of the other toes, which may be squirming around and sometimes getting into the danger zone. Half of the toes point in a direction that is very convenient for your dominant hand; the other half of the toes point in a less convenient direction, and it might be helpful to change your own position or the bird's position when you’re ready to do those toes.
If you accidentally nick the vein, pack the flour, cornstarch or Kwik Stop into the nail with your fingertip to stop the bleeding, or stick the bleeding toenail into the powder to get the same result. When the bleeding is under control, it may be desirable to stop, let your bird calm down, and finish the clipping some other time. Your bird’s heart beats faster when he/she is agitated, and this speeds up the flow of blood.
When the clipping is done, it’s a good time to do something nice for your bird so he/she will quickly forgive you for the manhandling that you just delivered. Tasty treats, sweet talking, and maybe a little head scritching will reassure your bird that you’re pretty nice even if you do get a little grabby sometimes.
The nail tips will be blunt for a few days after clipping so it will be harder for your bird to grip some surfaces. But don't worry, the nail tips will regain their sharpness before long.