What is Chicken Meal in Dog Food?

Last Updated: December 3, 2023

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dog eating chicken meal in dog food

As a dog owner, it's your responsibility to keep your canine companion healthy throughout their life.

In addition to taking them to the vet and ensuring they get plenty of exercise, the biggest thing that directly impacts your dog's health is the food they eat. Naturally, dog owners want what's best for their pups.

But with so many dog food manufacturers and formulas out there, deciphering ingredient lists can be a challenge. Most wholesome meats, fruits and vegetables are easy to understand. But there's one ingredient that causes tons of confusion among dog owners. We're talking about chicken meal.

Chicken meal is one of the most misunderstood commercial dog food industry ingredients. Some swear that it's unhealthy. 

But if you compare dog food products, you'll notice that many brands include it. Even high-quality foods with higher price tags sometimes have chicken meal.

So, what is it, and is it good for your dog?

The Lowdown on Chicken Meal

Let's clear up one basic fact: Chicken meal is not the same as chicken.

Chicken is a fantastic protein source. It's one of the most common in the pet food industry. The meat is affordable, abundant and easy to prepare. Almost every recognizable brand offers a chicken recipe.

When you see "chicken" on an ingredient list, it refers to a clean combination of chicken flesh and skin. It's the same thing you eat when preparing tasty meals for your family. Wholesome chicken includes meat and skin from a real animal carcass but contains nothing else like bones, feathers or entrails.

You want to see that at the top of an ingredient list. The higher it is on that list, the more abundant it is in the recipe.

So, where does chicken meal fall into the equation? Take a peek at your dog's current food. Even if chicken is the top ingredient, you may see chicken meal further down.

Chicken meal refers to rendered chicken meat that also includes bones. The presence of bones isn't the only difference. The process used to create a chicken meal differs greatly from that of regular chicken meat.

The chicken meat, skin and bones undergo dehydration and cooking cycles. Processors use high temperatures to cook the mix for long periods until the fat separates and the chicken parts have no moisture. Then, they grind everything up into a fine powder.

That's where the "meal" in chicken meal comes in.

The powder is then easily added to dog food formulas. Because it has a similar consistency to corn meal, chicken meal is a great addition that can enhance both the nutritional content and the food's texture.

Is Chicken Meal the Same as Chicken By-Product Meal?

Here's where the confusion surrounding chicken meal comes from.

Chicken meal is not the same as chicken by-product meal. While chicken meal contains flesh, skin and bones, by-product meals have other parts of the animal's carcass. That includes necks, organs, undeveloped eggs, feet, etc.

The term "by-products" refers to leftovers after the removal of all the usable parts of the chicken. Essentially, they're parts of the chicken that aren't fit for human consumption.

They go through the same processing steps as chicken meal, but adding those extra parts unsuitable for human consumption makes it a questionable ingredient.

Dog food formulas can contain by-products from any animal. However, cheaper brands use chicken by-product meals because of its affordability. It's a way to increase the protein content without raising the manufacturing costs.

The issue with chicken by-product meal is its inclusion of those extra bits. If you wouldn't consume chicken entrails and butchershop leftovers, why would you feed them to your dog?

By-product meals are one of the worst ingredients in a dog food formula. Not only does it have little nutritional value, but it can cause digestive issues and health problems.

The biggest concern for by-product meals is where the meat comes from and what's in it. With real chicken and chicken meal, you know what to expect. You can't say the same with by-product meal.

To make matters worse, by-products can come from some of the most unsavory sources imaginable! That includes 4D meats.

4D meat stands for dead, dying, diseased or disabled animals. The intense cooking and rendering process kills bacteria and viruses. But is that a risk you're willing to take?

Related Read: The Worst Dry Dog Foods… (7 Brands to Avoid)

Food recalls happen more often than most realize, and by-product meals can be a genuine issue for dog owners. You simply don't know what the by-product meal contains.

It can have diseased animals, meat full of hormones, chemicals and more. Despite the rendering process, there's still a risk.

Furthermore, chicken by-product meal is what nutritionists consider a "dead food." To kill pathogens and make the meal safe for dogs, processors must cook it so much that it also loses its nutritional content.

So, what do dog food manufacturers do? They add artificial nutrients to meet standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. That's another can of worms that can risk a dog's health.

Why is Chicken Meal so Common in Dog Food?

dog eating dry dog food that contains chicken meal

There are a few reasons why chicken meal is so common in the pet food industry.

The first is its low cost. Chicken meal is a much more affordable ingredient than real chicken meat. It helps manufacturers keep costs down, making dog food accessible to owners. That's a huge plus.

Chicken meal is still a protein source. Because it's affordable, dog food manufacturers can also use it to supplement real meat. The result is a high protein percentage that will help dogs thrive.

Another perk is its shelf stability. Unlike real chicken, chicken meal lasts much longer. Therefore, you can buy in bulk without worrying about the food going rancid.

Is Chicken Meal Safe?

Contrary to what you might have heard, chicken meal is a perfectly safe ingredient.

It boosts protein content and serves as a valuable source of minerals like calcium and glucosamine.

Remember: Chicken meal contains bones. You might have heard that feeding chicken bones to your dog is a big no-no due to its risk of splintering and compaction. But in chicken meal, those bones are ground up and safe for consumption. 

As a result, your dog can reap the benefits of eating bones without the risk.

Chicken meal is not the best protein source for dog food by any means. Because of the processing chicken meal undergoes, it has less nutritional value than pure meat. Ultimately, whole ingredients are best for your dog.

But as a supplementary protein, chicken meal is a great ingredient! It works well in high-quality formulas and can make what would otherwise cost a fortune far more affordable to the average dog owner. 

You can give your pup all the protein they need to stay healthy without the substantial costs. That's a win for everyone.

Don't let the controversy surrounding chicken by-product meal fool you. Chicken meal and chicken by-product meal are two different ingredients. By-products are what you want to avoid. But the standard chicken meal is perfectly fine. 

As long as it's not the primary protein source, there's no reason to shy away from chicken meal.

A Final Word

Of course, the best thing you can provide your dog is a clean diet full of whole ingredients. But let's face it: Buying those recipes can hurt your wallet!

Chicken meal makes dog food formulas more affordable than ever. Despite what you hear about chicken by-product meal, there's nothing wrong with chicken meal.

It's a great supplementary protein source that gives your dog some much-needed macronutrients and micronutrients. As a dog owner, it's always wise to scrutinize every formula you consider feeding your dog. 

What your pup consumes will directly impact their short- and long-term health. But you don't have to break the bank to give your dog everything it needs. Chicken meal is nothing to fear

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About the author 


Steve is a writer with over 10 years of experience in dog training and nutritiion.

His goal is to educate dog owners about the ins and outs of canine behavior as well as keeping up with the latest scientific research in the field.