By Dr Phil Sacks, the Bird Vet Hospital -Melbourne
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We at The Bird Vet Hospital do not 'just' clip an overgrown beak and in an older bird as in the vast majority of cases the overgrowth is not caused by malocclusion but rather disease. Both veterinarians and bird owners you need to be aware of chronic health issues that directly affect the beak. The sudden onset of excessive beak growth, with or without excessive nail growth, is usually associated with disease. In many cases a degree of “malnutrition” is part of the syndrome and also occasionally a lack of environmental opportunity to wear down the beak contributes. Veterinarians and bird keepers are still simply clipping the beaks and not assessing the disease status. When the bird is finally presented to Bird Vet Hospital Melbourne for a second opinion or beak trim it is often too late to reverse the underlying disease.
Beak growth - beaks grow continuously throughout life. The Beak should grow and be worn down at equal rate. It takes about 9 months for the upper beak in a Macaw to grow out and be completely replaced, i.e., if the beak is damaged near the nostrils – the damaged part will grow outwards until it reached the tip of the beak in nine months.
Beak Maintenance – It is interesting that the shape of the break is maintained primarily by the lower beak grinding against the inner surface of the upper beak. This happens during chewing. Resting birds often grind the lower beak against the upper beak in a rasping side to side motion. This can also be a sign of contentment. The outer layers of the beak are also rubbed away by “wiping” the beak on perches and abrasive surfaces. This is one of the reasons smooth dowel perches are not appropriate for birds.
Beak Anatomy – the beak tissue is “laid” down on top of two bones that are equivalent to the jawbones mammals – the lower jaw bone (the mandible) and the upper jaw bone (the maxilla) . The beak is made up of a skin like material containing minerals and modifications making it hard similar to human nails or rhino horn. The beak has nerves in it and just like we humans can feel tooth ache, the beak and is quite sensitive. May be that is why so many parrots enjoy having their beak rubbed by humans. The beak also has a good blood supply.
To maintain a healthy beak – there needs to be a balance between beak formation and wear. The primary ‘raw materials” for beak production come from the liver via the blood. Thus a bird with systemic disease, especially the liver may have an abnormal beak. An older bird that has had a normal beak for many years that suddenly becomes overgrown – is “screaming” for help – “do not just clip my beak!”
Why do so many pet birds living in “the lap of luxury” get overgrown beaks? The answer is usually a high fat, low nutrient all seed diet that has been fed for many years. The high fat diet results in long term liver damage that can be permanent. . The liver becomes so full of fat that it can no longer function normally. (To illustrate this – you may have heard of Queens Elizabeth’s corgi who after years of having been fed on a diet of fillet steak –developed “rich man’s rickets.” Soft bones due to a calcium deficiency. The queen only gave her dogs “the best!?” ) Systemic disease results beak epithelium that forms abnormally, becomes brittle overgrows. The nails often also overgrow for the same reason.
Case 1 Abnormal beak from liver disease
Jimmy a 35 year old Sulphur crested cockatoo, had lived a healthy life according to his loving owners. He had never been sick. He ate his sunflower seeds very well especially the grey ones – his favorite. He was hardly offered anything else. Jimmy’s beak was fine, for 35 years. The owner started trimming the beak and it became more and more abnormal. The owner took Jimmy to a veterinarian for a beak trim. The veterinarian dutifully anaesthetized Jimmy did a great beak trim – and inadvertently harmed the old bonded pet. We saw Jimmy 3 days later he had not recovered from the procedure, he was not eating and had lost weight. Blood tests showed advanced severe liver disease. We put Jimmy onto fluids, nutritional and fluid support and an incubator to provide warmth. We got to Jimmy too late and were unable to save him. This story serves as a reminder that many overgrown beaks are caused by disease that needs to be treated in order to get the beak returning to normal.
Case 2 Dysfunctional lower beak
Bonnie, a 5 year old cockatiel, got his beak caught in a cage toy. The bottom beak split longitudinally and the beak bled profusely. On presentation Bonnie was in pain, unable to eat and appeared very sleepy as most sick birds do . The right bottom beak fragment was intact and still attached. The left bottom fragment was severely damaged over its attachment to the skin. Bonnie was given antibiotics pain relief and was crop fed to maintain her weight, calorie intake and hydration for the seven days that she spent in hospital, recuperating. She is now on diet of a budgie seed and Harrisons High Potency fine pellets. Bonnie is able to digest her food and maintain her weight in spite of her dysfunctional lower beak. Bennie’s beak will need regular trimming every 4 -5 weeks for the rest of her life.
Picture 2 Bonnie Note the very long lower beak almost reaching her eye!
Case 3: Damage to the upper beak
As a veterinarian certain patients become favorites and Anakin is one of them. Anakin a 6 year old cutie cockatiel was admitted after being attached by another bird. Her upper beak had holes in it and was damaged and infected, Her flight feathers and wings had also been mauled. Anakin required prolonged hospitalization while the upper beak slowly died, and fell off. During this time Anakin was crop fed and had her beak cleaned and disinfected daily. She refused all food and we were getting worried. One day I had her out on my shoulder and she begged for food and reluctantly I nursed her back to eating by feeding her from my mouth which is something we do not recommend. Anakin eventually made a full recovery. Her diet is Vetafarm crumble food and human food that her owner feeds her.
Picture 3 Anakin with a dysfunctional upper beak.