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What Is Chicken Meal in Dog Food?

People often find themselves puzzled when reading pet food nutrition labels; some ingredients in commercial pet foods, such as ‘chicken meal’ and ‘chicken by-product meal’, are common yet poorly understood.

Dog owners want the best for their pets, and keeping them active and healthy is essential to pet ownership. Active bodies need to be fuelled by nutritious food, so providing high-quality food rich in nutrients is vital.

So what is chicken meal in dog food? In short, the answer is that; chicken meal is a powder-like, dried concentrate of ground chicken parts.

However, we should dig deeper to find out: is chicken meal bad or good for our pet's health.

How Is Chicken Meal Made, and What's in It?

The Process of Making Chicken Meal

Just as the name suggests, the chicken meal consists of chicken - or rather, various parts of the chicken. These chicken parts are dissolved in a long-lasting, dry rendering process that removes liquids and microorganisms. During this process, many of the nutrients present in the fresh chicken are also removed, negatively affecting the final nutritional value of the chicken meal.

After reaching a dry state, these chicken parts are ground down and turned into a powder concentrate suitable. This cooking process is designed to make dry dog food with a long shelf life. 

What's Inside Chicken Meal

Although chicken meal is made from real chicken, the parts of the chicken that end up in our pet’s food often come from the whole chicken; it isn't purely chicken muscle and usually contains parts unsuitable for human consumption.

While premium dog food brands base their chicken meal at least partly on chicken flesh, the feed may also contain; chicken skin and bones, but not feathers. 

In some cases, the chicken meal in dog food contains animal products prohibited by law for sale for human consumption. It's the so-called 4D meat from Dead, Dying, Diseased or Disabled animals. Bearing in mind such origin, the consumption of 4D meat comes with risk because we cannot be sure if they contain pharmaceuticals used in treating sick animals - and if any, at what concentration.

Chicken By-Product MealIs That the Same Thing?

Knowing the difference between 'chicken meal' and 'chicken by-product meal' is essential for owners. It allows you to make an informed decision about your pet's diet and better understand how to optimise your dog's health.

The meat industry tries to sell as much chicken meat as possible for human consumption—that is, at a higher price. But some parts are usually not used for this purpose, such as chicken heads, chicken necks, chicken feet, or features that are unusable for human food production, such as intestines and undeveloped eggs. These parts end up in lower-quality pet food, called chicken by-product meal.

By-Product meal in dog food is often undesirable—and is avoided by manufacturers of higher quality pet food—precisely because it uses meat sources of lower nutritional value. The prices of such meat are much lower on the market, but our dogs pay the actual cost and may compromise their health by consuming pet foods based on these lower-quality meat meals.

So Are Chicken Meal and Chicken By-Products Meal Allowed in My Dog's Diet?

To take a firm position that chicken meal is bad for our dogs would be wrong; chicken meal does contain proteins necessary for the development of our four-legged friends. However, this cooked then ground feed is not the healthiest solution.

When Is It Okay to Buy Dog Food Containing Chicken Meal?

If whole, fresh, and unprocessed food is not an option, dry food containing chicken meal doesn't have to be the worst-case scenario. Chicken meal has a high protein level, and the accompanying bone ingredient can be an important source of many minerals. The American National Academy of Sciences, in their report on the nutritional needs of dogs and cats, highlights the importance of minerals, calcium, and phosphorus, which are responsible for strong teeth and skeletal structure.

Therefore, the meal is not necessarily harmful to our pets. But when choosing processed food, it is preferable to avoid by-product meals due to the already mentioned questionable meat sources and low nutritional values.

But If Chicken Meal Is Dried Meat, My Dog Gets More Protein. Isn't That Desirable?

75% of fresh chicken meat contains water and fluids. Since chicken meal is dried and processed pieces of chicken, the protein concentration in the final kibble is high. But what makes pet food good quality is not the total amount of protein but the amount of digestible protein and other essential nutrients.

From the aspect of digestibility, fresh meat is the best source of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. When it comes to processed food, studies have shown (Bednar et al., 2000) that the digestibility of protein and amino acids was not different between chicken meal and chicken by-product meal. However, total tract protein digestibility was 6.74% lower for canines receiving the latter.

What To Avoid to Optimise our Dog's Health?

As already mentioned, chicken by-product meal is based on lower-quality chicken parts, usually those unsuitable for human consumption. Long-term use of food containing this ingredient doesn't meet the optimal needs of our pets.

In addition, all pet owners should be aware of one more thing when reading the nutrition label. Ingredients marked as "meat by-product" or "animal by-product" refer to animal parts of unknown origin, i.e. meat meals from undetermined protein or meat sources. Consumption of such kibble can cause digestive problems if your pet has a food intolerance to particular meat because it is impossible to determine the source of this meat meal.

How Do I Know If There’s Chicken Meal or Chicken By-Product Meal in My Dog’s Food?

All dog foods must have a prominent pet food nutrition label. If chicken meal (or any meat meal) is an ingredient in the recipe, it must be listed on the label. Usually, all the ingredients are listed on the back of the package.

If I Don't Want To Feed My Dog Products Containing Chicken Meal, What Are My Options?

Natural source whole foods are easier to digest, and our pets absorb the nutrients from these foods more easily. Therefore, the best food for your pet is high-quality, whole-ingredient protein meat.

The digestive system is strongly linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as 'rest & digest'; supplementing a healthy diet with bodywork that induces a state of relaxation, such as whole energy body balance for pets, is a great way to maintain or improve digestive health.

Here are some options alternative options to consider incorporating into your pet's wholesome diet.

Fresh, cooked chicken; has a high digestibility of all essential amino acids that dogs need to remain healthy and active regardless of age to have excellent joint function and a reduced risk of inflammation.

Beef can be a rich source of energy for our dogs. It is especially beneficial to occasionally feed them with beef hearts, the composition of which contributes to strengthening muscles, generating energy and increasing endurance.

A dog's diet of fresh meat often includes duck necks, which support the health and strength of bones and teeth.

Like humans, omega-3 acids are essential for healthy dogs. A rich source of omega-3s is salmon.

Final Thoughts on Chicken Meal in Pet Foods

The question "what is chicken meal in dog food" turns out to come with a complex answer.

Proper nutrition plays an irreplaceable role, which is why it's important to give dogs food rich in protein and other nutrients from proven sources that are easily digestible. Chicken meal is not necessarily harmful to dogs, but since it comes from parts of chicken of lower nutritional value, it is not the optimal solution for complete dog nutrition. Combining it with whole, fresh meat can increase the nutrient value of your pet's diet.

We always recommend talking to your veterinarian or a canine nutritionist to get individual advice that is right for your pet before embarking on a new diet.

However, when feeding processed food, it’s essential to check the nutrition label and be aware of the ingredients. Chicken by-product meal (from low-quality chicken parts) and meat by-product/animal by-product (because it's meat from an unknown source) should not be the first diet choice.

The bottom line is that we want to keep our pets happy and healthy. Everyone needs quality nutrition and regular activity to maintain good physical health, whether we have a puppy, an adult, or a senior dog. Healthy exercise complements a healthy diet; read about Canine Fitness Programs and Fitness for Older Dogs.

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