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How To Trim Your Birds Nails: Bird Nails Tutorial

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bird nails

 

Do you have to trim bird nails?

One of the fun things about owning a pet bird is holding it, chatting with it, and letting it ride around on your shoulder.  That is until your bird's nails get long and sharp and dig into your skin.

Your bird probably doesn’t appreciate long sharp nails either.  Long nails make perching difficult and every time your bird has to scratch an itch the sharp nails can damage its skin.

Most avian vets will trim a bird's nails for a fee.  But, you can learn to trim most bird’s nails yourself. Wild birds naturally groom nails as they walk around on the ground,  climb over rocks, and on some branches. 

Captive birds need a little help keeping their nails groomed.

When should I trim my bird's nails?

If you notice that your bird's nails are too long, it's time to trim them. This parrot has well-groomed nails. As you can see, it's feet are flat on the  table surface.  If a bird's nails are too long, the tip of the toes point upward.  The long nail prevents the foot from laying flat.  This could cause joint pain.

Macaw with properly trimmed nails

You will also want to trim your bird's nails if you notice that it is having trouble perching and walking.   When a bird's nails grow they curve.The curved nail makes it so that the foot can't bend around the perch. Your bird's nails have gotten this long. It is best to have the veterinarian trim the nails. Then, going forward, you can easily trim off just the sharp pointy tip.

Often, a bird’s nails grow into a sharp, pointy tip.  If the nails are too sharp your bird will scratch its skin raw.

How do you trim a bird's nails at home?

Before you embark on trimming your bird’s nails it is best to have an avian vet or a vet tech show you how to do it properly. You will need to learn how to restrain your bird and how short to trim the nail.

Bird Nail Grooming Tools:

  1. Towel
  2. Styptic Powder
  3. Sharp cat claw scissors, a nail file or a battery operated pet nail trimmer.

 

 
  
 

 

Whenever you are trimming your bird's nails make sure that you have some styptic powder handy.  If you're not careful it is easy to cut into the nail quick. That's the blood vessel inside of each nail.  If the nail is trimmed too short it may bleed profusely. Styptic powder contained a blood clotting agent to stop the bleeding.

bird nail quick

I successfully have used nail files, cat claw trimmers, and battery operated  pet nail trimmers.I   prefer to use battery operated pet nail trimmers because my birds find them less traumatizing, they  file the nail down quickly, and because these devices cauterize the quick so that it doesn't bleed.

It is important that your bird is hand tamed and that it is comfortable having its feet handled before training it to tolerate nail filing leave. Plan on using positive reinforcement or clicker training to teach your bird to allow its feet to be handled. Melinda Johnson describes the training process in her book called clicker training for birds.

Not only does Johnson talk about how to teach your bird to willingly allow its feet to be handled, she also teaches you how to desensitize your bird to the grooming equipment.  Clicker training may sound complicated to the uninformed, but it works remarkably fast and it makes training fun for your bird.

 

If you choose to forgo clicker training, you will need to learn how to safely restrain your bird. If your bird puts up a fight with the nail trimming you may have to “towel” it to keep from getting bitten.  Toweling a bird can get tricky because they have air sacs distributed throughout their entire body cavity that can easily be crushed.

bird air sacs

Here is an image of the air sacs in a typical parrot. If you feel uncomfortable restraining your bird, you can teach your bird to lay on its back with its feet pointing upward so that you can gently trim the nails. 

Another way to safely trim your bird's nails is to simply do it with a fingernail file.  While this method may take longer to do it is definitely safer for the bird.

You can learn how to tell your bird in this blog post. [link to toweling your bird]   If you'd like to use a battery-operated rotary pet nail trimmer their grooming process will go much faster. 


People find that it is much easier to trim a bird's nails when it is restrained in a towel.  A loose bird may flap its wings making it impossible to trim the nails.  Depending on the size and comfort level of your bird, you may appreciate having a friend assist you. One person would restrain the bird while the second person would file the nail down.  Working in tandem is usually how it's done at the veterinarian's office.

Throughout the entire trimming process watch for signs that it is getting too stressed.  This might include panting for breath, bleeding or even loss of consciousness.  Remind yourself that a simple nail trim is not worth your bird’s life.  If your bird gets too agitated or stressed, just take it to a groomer.   A nail trim costs less than a bird toy.

Actual Trimming Process:If you have a friend assisting you, choose the designated trimmer.

The person doing the trimming  should try to get the bird to grasp their figure as though it were a perch.  Use your thumb to work the toe upward to expose the nail tip for trimming or filing. Error on the side of trimming too little off the nail tip.  Take your time and remain calm.  If you get anxious your bird will become agitated, too

Final tips: It is easiest to train a younger, un-traumatized bird to tolerate nail trims.  But, this bird “nails tutorial” can help you train most birds to accept nail trim. 

Even so, any bird that has been rehomed will appreciate the safety of having a trained professional trim its nails.  

Pro Tip: I rarely have to trim any of my bird's nails because I use sanded perches in the cage.  Sanded perches are like gentle nail files that trim the sharp edges off of toenails every time your bird perches on them. Sanded perches are different from cement perches. 

Cement perches are not recommended because they dry out the feet pads. Here is a good brand:

You might also like: How To Trim Bird Wing Feathers


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians.

With over 30 years experience, in a range of settings, she’s created thousands of successful behavior plans to help turn around challenging behavior.

Diane got parrot fever in the ‘90’s and founded BirdSupplies.com in 1998. Nowadays, BirdSupplies.com focuses solely on Science-backed Parrot Wellness with bird collars for feather plucking birds, nutritional supplements to support avian wellness, and a range of educational materials to support challenging bird behavior. Diane’s authored a number of books on supporting challenging behavior in birds.

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