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​You’ve probably heard that it’s important to check the ingredients on your pet food. But what exactly do these ingredients mean? What is “meal”? What exactly are “beef byproducts”? Today, we’re giving you a brief overview of all the most common ingredients you’ll find in dog and cat food – and whether or not they’re a good thing.

The following descriptions are based on the AAFCO definitions of each meat product:

-Beef: Refers to striated muscle tissue from cows and may contain bits and pieces of other tissue and parts that were stuck onto the muscle tissue during removal.

-Beef Byproducts: This is pretty much everything in the cow that isn’t horns, hair, teeth, and hooves. Typically, beef byproducts in pet food involve lungs, spleens, kidneys, brains, livers, blood, bones, and cleaned-out guts.

-Chicken: When you see “chicken” on pet food, it doesn’t typically refer to the finest quality breasts and drumsticks. Chicken refers to any part of a chicken that isn’t the feathers, feet, heads, and guts. On pet food, this can include chicken bones.

-Chicken Byproducts: Chicken byproducts include all parts of the chicken that aren’t “regular” chicken parts, with the exception of feathers. Typically, pet food manufacturers use this term to refer to heads, feet, guts, and other parts that sound better when you call them “chicken byproducts”.

-Meal: When you see “meal” on pet food labeling, it just means that it’s the dried up and ground down version of something. Nothing has really been changed from the non-meal version of that food, it’s just been dehydrated (the moisture and water was removed) and ground up.

-Digest: Animal digest is a common ingredient found in pet foods. When you see “animal digest” on your pet food, it’s referring to a “digest” produced by “the chemical or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean animal tissue that has not undergone decomposition.” That includes hair, horns, teeth, hooves, and feathers. Basically, it’s the parts of an animal that went through a digestion-like process. Manufacturers will typically make digest by treating animal products with heat, enzymes or acids.

-Meat Byproducts: This can refer to any combination of swine, sheep, goat, or cattle meat. It cannot refer to meat from outside those four varieties. Horsemeat, for example, needs to be labeled as horsemeat and horsemeat byproducts on pet food labeling.

It’s easy to be grossed out by the above food items. But remember: you’re not paying hundreds of dollars of month for dog food. You’re not buying your dog fancy meals and fresh, certified organic ingredients. Pet food is, understandably, held to lower standards than people food. Of course, there are plenty of higher-end pet food brands that emphasize healthy, natural, whole ingredients for better pet health.

Another thing to remember is that byproducts aren’t necessarily bad: you can find “byproducts” at world-class restaurants where they’re served for $400 a plate. Organ meats are dense nutrient sources and perfectly suited to your animal.

Of course, hooves, hair, and feathers are not adequate food sources, so make sure you take a careful look at your pet food’s labeling to make an education decision on your next purchase.