This Common Dog Food Ingredient Is As Gross As It Sounds

They had to do something with those feathers and intestines, right?

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Feb. 12 2024, Published 1:53 p.m. ET

A medium-sized dog eats from a dog bowl near a living room couch.
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As loving caretakers of our doggy companions, we only want the best for their diet, leading some dog parents to avoid brands featuring anything less than human-grade food. Unfortunately, dog parents are often engaged in a constant battle with having to interpret cryptic ingredients like "chicken meal" all the while ensuring they're supporting ethical dog food brands.

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What exactly is the difference between ingredients like chicken meal, chicken byproduct, and chicken byproduct meal? Keep reading as we explore what these ingredients means for your pup's health.

Four puppies eat food from their colorful white, green, and orange bowls.
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What is chicken meal in dog food?

According to pet food brand Purina, chicken meal is composed of chicken that has been rendered. Rendering, per PetMD, involves melting chicken carcasses (including skin, organs, beaks, blood, and bones) to separate the fat, extract the dried proteins, and remove toxic impurities.

Purina describes this ingredient as both healthful for your dog and safe for your dog to consume. However, pet food brand Side by Side Pet notes that the rendering process uses extreme heat to kill all germs, and the temperatures reduce the nutritional content of chicken meal.

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According to JustFoodForDogs, the word "meal" indicates the rendered chicken has been ground into a powder. Additionally, chicken meal is more cost-effective for consumers than human-grade chicken meat, and its shelf life in the form of dry kibble is substantially longer.

Although both brands confirm this amalgamated ingredient doesn't contain "feathers, feet, or intestines," it doesn't doesn't prevent chicken meal from being sourced from what JustFoodForDogs describes as "4D meats." This refers to the bodies of animals who were already dead, in the process of dying, whose body contained some disease, or were otherwise disabled.

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A black Great Dane puppy eats food from a dog bowl on the deck of a patio.
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What is chicken byproduct?

Whereas chicken meal contains the chicken carcass with meat, skin, and bones ground into a powder, chicken byproduct is basically an even grosser version.

According to the Indiana-based Roo's Holistic Pet Supplies, chicken byproduct contains a mixture of chicken intestines and their unborn eggs, as well as the neck and feet.

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Chicken byproduct may contain a small amount of feathers due to its production process — as opposed to a brand on the other end of the spectrum like Royal Canin, which utilizes feather meal as a prominent source of protein, according to Forbes.

A dog with a brown and white coat has its head submerged in its green food bowl.
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What is chicken byproduct meal?

Chicken byproduct meal is chicken byproduct that has been ground into a powder, per Roo's Holistic Pet Supplies.

Portland Pet Food Company elaborates that chicken byproduct meal typically contains chicken organs (including lungs, spleens, and livers), as well as the intestines and their contents.

All that said, chicken byproduct and chicken byproduct meal may not be tolerated by some dogs with varying gastrointestinal health needs.

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A white Lagotto Romagnolo puppy eats from a pink food bowl.
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Fortunately, there are plenty of dog foods without chicken and chicken byproducts.

If you don't want to feed your dog chicken meal and byproducts, there are plenty of other options.

There are some dog food brands that use human-grade meat; but there are also some that eschew animal byproducts altogether and formulate vegan-friendly dog food, which has a lower environmental footprint.

According to Rover, some pet parents feed their dog a vegan diet to relieve food allergies, and such a diet may incorporate grains, beans, carrots, and other ingredients.

All that said, the topic of which doggy diet is healthiest is a contentious one. Always talk to your dog's veterinarian and a certified behaviorist before switching your dog's diet.

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