When Beaks Go Bad

Jan 25, 2016 / General Care / Birds

[a parrot shows off its unique beak profile at Vet Med Open House]

Beaks are made of bone and keratin

There’s no such thing as a dentist for birds, but did you know that some macaws require orthodontia to correct a misalignment of their beaks? That’s just one of a host of problems that can beset beaks, according to Dr. Kenneth Welle, a board certified avian practitioner at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana and an expert on pet bird beak care.

Beaks come in almost as many sizes and shapes as birds themselves do, and each type of beak is suited to the natural history of that species. For example, birds of prey, such as hawk and owls, have a sharp, curved beak to tear flesh from bones, while pelicans have an extremely long beak with a pouch used to scoop up aquatic prey, which is then swallowed whole. Birds use their beaks not only for eating but also to manipulate objects and to engage in social behaviors.

Keep It Trimmed

[Dr. Kenneth Welle with a bird]

Dr. Kenneth Welle

Beaks are made of bone and keratin. Keratin, which is a component of human fingernails and hair, grows continuously in the beaks of birds. Just as our nails need trimming and our hair needs cutting, the beaks of our pet birds may need trimming.

“Birds in the wild have a variety of surfaces and foods to help wear down their beaks and keep them from growing too long. However, many birds in captivity need regular beak care to prevent overgrowth,” explains Dr. Welle, who heads the hospital’s wildlife and exotic animal medicine section.

An overgrown beak in a pet bird may interfere with the bird’s ability to eat, which could result in weight loss and other problems. If not corrected, the overgrowth can also progress to other beak deformities.

“We carefully file down the beak using a power rotary grinding tool or rasping tools for this procedure. Each edge of the upper and lower beak is examined and reshaped appropriately for the species,” Dr. Welle says.

When Things Go Bad

Sometimes overgrowth may be caused by a disease process rather than by normal growth.

“Malocclusion, which is when the upper and lower parts of the beak don’t align correctly, can cause an overgrown and improperly shaped beak,” explains Dr. Welle. Malocclusion can be caused by genetic abnormalities or injuries and is treated by trimming the beak and addressing any underlying conditions.

“A similar issue called scissor beak often happens in macaws. The upper beak, or maxilla, lays off to one side instead of fitting atop the lower beak, or mandible, thus the two parts do not meet when the beak is closed,” says Dr. Welle.

Scissor beak can be caused by genetic abnormalities, inappropriate incubation of the egg, or trauma. Managing scissor beak can include physical therapy, acrylic prosthesis, and sometimes orthodontic devices to get the beak to close appropriately.

Diet Plays a Role

“Nutritional imbalances, such as the bird not getting enough vitamin A, can lead to an overgrown beak as well,” says Dr. Welle. For this reason it is important to keep birds on an appropriate diet. “For pet birds, a formulated pelleted diet is best. A ratio of 4:1 of veggies to fruits can be fed, but there should be few carbohydrates provided.”

Seeds are often the main ingredient in store-bought bird treats, but seeds are empty calories for birds.

“Seeds should be offered sparingly, and can be used for training. The nuts and seeds these birds eat in the wild are not found in store-bought products,” says Dr. Welle.

Beak injuries such as fractures, punctures, or the tip of the beak breaking off can also occur and may lead to malocclusion.

“Each situation is different in beak injuries. Depending on the injury we may need to use wires and acrylic to repair the beak. If the tip is broken, it should be cauterized if there is bleeding and the bird should be given pain medication because this injury can be quite painful,” Dr. Welle says.

To help promote your bird’s beak health, be sure to start with a balanced diet and provide a variety of perches and toys, which can help to wear down the beak and prevent overgrowth. However, even with the best toys and perches, some birds still need regular beak trims. Regular check-ups with your bird’s veterinarian are recommended.

If you have any questions about pet bird beak care, please contact your local avian veterinarian.

By Melissa Giese