What is Chicken Meal in Dog Food? – Ingredients to Watch for When Shopping for Dog Food

As any veterinarian will tell you, providing your dog with a nutritious diet filled with high-quality ingredients is one of the best things you can do to maintain the dog’s overall health.

While it’s always important to seek out dog food with healthy ingredients, it’s equally important to understand what each ingredient on the list actually is. The more informed you are about dog food ingredients, the easier it will be to avoid foods containing unhealthy ingredients and nutritionally empty fillers.

Unfortunately, many dog food brands prioritize profits over quality by using low-quality ingredients. In numerous cases, dog food companies disguise these ingredients by labeling them with misleading names. That’s why it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with all common dog food ingredients.

Two dry dog food ingredients surrounded by confusion and controversy are chicken meal and chicken by-product meal.

labrador retriever dog eating dry food

How Can We Help?

If you’re concerned about the overall quality and nutritional content of your dog’s food, or if you want to know about specific ingredients to avoid when shopping for your pup’s food, we’re here to assist you!

To achieve this, we’ll provide comprehensive explanations about chicken meal and chicken by-product meal, including their production process, suitability for dogs, and the reasons behind their common use as primary ingredients by many dog food manufacturers.

Furthermore, we’ll address whether you should consider purchasing dog foods containing chicken meal, chicken by-product meal, or other types of meat meal.

Once we’ve covered all aspects of chicken and chicken by-product meals, we’ll also advise you on factors to consider when selecting the right food for your individual dog.

So, What is Chicken Meal?

If you’ve ever glanced at the ingredient list on a bag of dry dog food, chances are you’ve encountered the terms “chicken meal” or “chicken by-product meal.” Both are common ingredients in dog food, but despite their familiar sound, they’re not identical.

In simple terms, chicken meal is a highly rendered form of real chicken meat that’s dried and ground. It’s essentially concentrated protein, making it a healthy choice for your dog. However, the controversy surrounds chicken by-product meal, which often includes less desirable parts of the chicken.

While chicken meal typically contains chicken flesh and skin—ingredients recognized as healthy for most dogs—chicken by-product meal can include chicken bones, necks, feet, intestines, and other parts that many people consider undesirable.

The reality is that powdered chicken by-product meal uses parts of the chicken that humans typically don’t consume. In some cases, after the chicken has been processed and the parts suitable for human consumption have been removed, the remaining parts are ground up and dried to serve as an inexpensive protein source for dog food and other animal feeds.

How is Chicken Meal Actually Made?

While the exact method of producing chicken meal may vary among manufacturers, the basic process is fairly straightforward.

Essentially, the chicken is cooked and dehydrated using an industrial oven. To dry the chicken, manufacturers heat the ovens to extremely high temperatures and leave them on for long periods. This process separates the fat from the meat and removes any excess water.

The purpose of this process is to create a concentrated powder that is high in animal protein. Once the cooking and drying process is complete, the result is a powder that is unrecognizable from the original chicken parts. It almost resembles cornmeal, which is where the “meal” part of the name “chicken meal” actually comes from.

raw chicken meal for dog food isolated on white background

While the lengthy, high-temperature cooking and drying process helps eliminate any bacteria, viruses, and parasites that may have been present in the chicken parts, some believe it also impacts the nutritional profile of the original chicken parts. While the resulting chicken meal still contains high amounts of protein, many people believe it no longer retains the other important nutrients a dog would obtain if it consumed the unrendered chicken parts.

Since chicken by-product meal lacks the necessary nutrients to be a practical food source for dogs on its own, many dog food manufacturers add nutrients, coloring, and even artificial flavors to the chicken meal after the rendering process is complete. This process also contributes to the controversy surrounding chicken meal as a dog food ingredient.

Why Do Dog Food Manufacturers Use Chicken Meal?

Dried dog foods struggle with moisture. Unrendered protein contains plenty of moisture, making it impractical for long shelf life. A standard chicken breast contains about 75% moisture, which isn’t suitable for dried dog food.

Since animal proteins used in dog food must be dried anyway, many manufacturers opt for inexpensive protein sources like chicken by-product meal. By drying and grinding the less desirable chicken parts, manufacturers can keep costs low while adding significant protein to their dog foods.

Is Chicken Meal Good or Bad for Dogs?

Chicken meal is a good ingredient for dogs. The main reason why it is a reasonably healthy ingredient is that it is packed with protein. As you are likely aware, protein is an essential nutrient that plays a significant role in everything from muscle growth to maintaining a strong and healthy immune system. Just as protein is an essential nutrient for humans, it is also necessary for dogs.

Young dogs and puppies in particular need a significant amount of protein in their diets, as it helps support their physical growth.

While the rendering process can eliminate some of the nutrient profile of the uncooked chicken parts, chicken meal also contains a fairly significant amount of glucosamine. Glucosamine helps build cartilage and maintain joint health. Many vets recommend glucosamine supplements to older dogs.

Finally, chicken meal can also act as a reasonably good source of calcium, which is partially down to the fact that it can contain dried and powdered chicken bones and cartilage. Just as it is for humans, calcium is important for maintaining strong bones and a healthy digestive system.

Given how important it is that dogs receive high levels of protein and calcium in their diets, you can see why chicken meal can be a useful and fairly nutritious ingredient in dog food.

Chicken by-product meal, on the other hand, is not as good for dogs as chicken meal. Chicken meal has a lot of benefits because it comes from the best parts of the chicken. With chicken by-product meal, you don’t really know what you’re getting or what your dog is eating. Chicken by-product meal is loaded with protein, but it may not be the high-quality protein that you want to feed your dog.

Is Chicken Meal Safe for Dogs?

Both chicken meal and chicken by-product meal are generally safe for dogs. Despite using less desirable chicken parts, the rendering process eliminates harmful organisms.

However, some dogs may have allergies to chicken, which can extend to foods containing chicken meal. Additionally, if your dog dislikes the taste or smell of chicken, it may not enjoy foods with chicken meal.

What About Other Types of Meat Meal?

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, meat meal is a rendered product that must be sourced from unspoiled mammal tissue. The meal cannot contain hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach contents, or excessive amounts of blood. That is why chicken meal can be called a meat meal while chicken by-product meal cannot.

The rendering process must also destroy all disease-causing bacteria and leave behind a product that is high in protein.

While it sounds unappetizing to us, the truth is, the rendering process involved in creating various types of meat meal leaves behind a product that is fairly healthy for dogs. While chicken meal is certainly the most common type of meat meal you will find on a dog food ingredient label, you can also find dog foods that contain beef meal and pork meal. In both cases, the dog food would still be safe for your dog to consume.

So, Chicken Meal, Yes or No?

The truth is, deciding whether or not you want to provide your furry friend with dog food that contains chicken meal or chicken by-product meal is entirely up to you. This decision should be based on your own personal preferences and the recommendations of your veterinarian.

Chicken Meal is Safe

The main takeaway is the fact that chicken meal is safe for canine consumption. Chicken by-product meal does not use the same high-quality meat as chicken meal, but it is still safe. While it uses inexpensive parts of the chicken, the rendering process eliminates any unsafe bacteria and viruses that might otherwise harm your dog.

It is important to remember that, while the parts of the chicken used to make chicken by-product meal might not be appealing to us, dogs are far less picky eaters than humans. Industry regulators ensure that all chicken parts used when making chicken by-product meal are unspoiled and fit for consumption.

In many cases, dog food manufacturers will use unrendered animal proteins as the primary ingredient in their products but add chicken by-product meal as a supplementary ingredient to increase the overall protein content of the food. Again, this is safe and in most cases done as a way of keeping manufacturing costs at a reasonable level. By keeping manufacturing costs down, the brands can then offer the food at a more affordable retail price.

Potential Chicken Allergy Issues

While chicken and chicken by-product meals are safe for dogs to consume, some dogs have a sensitivity to chicken. If your dog is allergic to chicken, it might also struggle with dog foods that contain chicken meal. Chicken and chicken by-product meals contain the same types of protein that can trigger the allergy response when a dog with chicken sensitivity consumes unprocessed pieces of chicken meat.

Dogs also have flavor preferences. If your dog does not like the taste or smell of chicken, it might not like foods that contain chicken meal.

Your Personal Preferences

While it is very unlikely that chicken meal or chicken by-product meal will cause any significant health issues for your dog, some dog owners do not like the idea of giving their dog a highly-processed protein source. If the idea of giving your dog chicken by-product meal makes you feel uncomfortable, there are plenty of brands you can choose from that offer healthy and nutritious dog foods that do not contain any chicken by-product meal.

Again, whether or not you avoid chicken by-product meal as an ingredient in your dog’s food is completely up to you. If you would like to provide your dog with a healthy type of dog food that only contains unrendered meat, you certainly can, but be prepared to pay more of a premium price for these types of dog food.

How Should You Choose the Right Diet for Your Dog?

Choosing a healthy type of food can seem like a difficult task. With so many different brands out there, browsing the shelves of your local pet store can feel somewhat overwhelming.

One of the most important pieces of advice you can follow is to choose a type of dog food that is appropriate for your dog’s current life stage. You should also go out of your way to avoid any dog food that claims it is suitable for dogs of all life stages.

Dog foods are categorized according to life stage because dogs have different nutritional and caloric requirements as they age. For example, puppies need more calories, fat, and protein than senior dogs.

Consider your dog’s breed, as each one has unique caloric requirements because they vary in size and energy levels.

Why Does a Dog’s Dietary Requirements Differ with Age?

Young dogs are constantly growing, which is why they need more calories relative to their size each day than dogs that are fully grown. Simply put, a puppy’s body requires plenty of nutrients and calories to grow. Puppies also tend to be more hyper and active than older dogs, which also explains why they burn calories at a much higher rate than older dogs.

Old dogs need less protein and calories because they are less active and they are not growing. Due to the simple fact that they are less energetic, they do not need as much food. It is also important to restrict the amount of protein they get in their diet because older dogs are more likely to develop kidney issues. Senior dogs also require diets restricted in salt, as they are also more likely to suffer from heart disease and high blood pressure issues.

If your dog is pregnant or nursing, some veterinarians will even recommend the dog goes on a puppy diet, as they need more protein and calories to produce milk. In fact, in most cases, a pregnant dog cannot absorb enough calories from a standard diet.

Intact dogs, meaning those that are not neutered or spayed, usually need a diet slightly higher in calories, but this is something you can discuss with your veterinarian.

Final Words

You can always speak with your veterinarian if you have further questions about specific dog food ingredients. If you are unsure what type of food your dog should be eating, a veterinarian can also recommend a breed and life-stage appropriate food that will be suitable for your particular dog.

Remember, making sure your dog is provided with a healthy diet and getting an appropriate amount of exercise are two of the best things you can do to make sure your canine friend lives a happy and healthy life.

Some dog food manufacturers indeed label ingredients with misleading names. Ensure you are only providing your dog with a healthy diet simply by doing your research and asking your veterinarian if you have any questions.