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 is always important to look for dog food with healthy ingredients, it is just as important to know what every ingredient on the list actually is. The more informed you are about dog food ingredients, the easier it will be to avoid foods that contain unhealthy ingredients and nutritionally empty fillers.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of dog food brands that make more profits by using low-quality ingredients. In many cases, dog food companies will disguise these ingredients by labeling them with misleading names, which is why it is so important to familiarize yourself with all of the common dog food ingredients.

Two dry dog food ingredients with confusion and controversy surrounding them are chicken meal and chicken by-product meal.

labrador retriever dog eating dry food

How Can We Help?

If you are concerned about the overall quality and nutritional content of your dog’s food, or you want to know if there are certain ingredients you should look to avoid when you are out shopping for your pup’s food, we can help!

To achieve this, we will explain everything you need to know about chicken meal and chicken by-product meal, including how they are made, whether or not they are good for dogs, and why so many dog food manufacturers use them as a primary ingredient.

From there, we will also explain whether or not you should consider buying dog foods that contain chicken meal or chicken by-product meal and other types of meat meal.

Once we have explained everything you need to know about chicken and chicken by-product meals, we will even explain what you should consider when choosing a type of food to feed your specific dog.

So, What is Chicken Meal?

If you have ever scanned the ingredient list on the packaging of dried dog food, there is a good chance you have come across the term chicken meal or chicken by-product meal. Both are common dog food ingredients, and though they sound familiar, they are not the same.

In simple terms, chicken meal is a type of highly rendered real chicken meat that is dried and ground. It’s essentially dried and concentrated real protein and healthy for your dog. The controversy lies with chicken by-product meal, which often comes from less desirable parts of the animal.

While chicken meal contains chicken flesh and skin, which people recognize as healthy ingredients for most dogs, chicken by-product meal contains chicken bones, necks, feet, intestines, and other parts of the animal that most people view as undesirable.

The truth is, powdered chicken by-product meal uses parts of the chicken that we humans find unappealing. In some cases, after the chicken has been processed and the parts of the animal that are safe and desirable for human consumption have been removed, the remainder is ground up and dried to be used as an inexpensive protein source for dog food and other types of animal feed.

How is Chicken Meal Actually Made?

While the exact way the chicken meal is made will differ from one manufacturer to the next, 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 left 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 has the appearance of corn meal, 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 has the other important nutrients a dog would absorb if it ate the unrendered chicken parts.

Since chicken by-product meal lacks the 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 helps contribute to the controversy that surrounds chicken meal as a dog food ingredient.

Why Do Dog Food Manufacturers Use Chicken Meal?

Dried dog foods do not do well with moisture. Unrendered protein contains plenty of moisture which does not package well or allow the dog food to last for a long time on store shelves. A standard chicken breast, like what you would buy at a grocery store, contains about 75% moisture which, as you can imagine, is not practical for dried dog food.

Since the animal proteins used in dog food have to be dried anyways, many dog food manufacturers figure they might as well use inexpensive protein sources. These brands usually use chicken by-product meal. By drying up and grinding up the less desirable parts of the chicken, dog food companies can keep their manufacturing costs down while still adding a significant amount of bioavailable 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 almost always safe for dogs. While it might not use the most desirable parts of the chickens, chicken by-product meal is heated to a high enough temperature that any harmful organisms and viruses are eliminated during the manufacturing process.

While chicken by-product meal might not be something you want to feed your dog, it is safe for dogs to eat. It is unlikely that your dog will experience any serious negative health consequences from consuming food that contains chicken by-product 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.