Pets: By-products in pet food aren’t such a bad thing

Q: I’m trying to select the ideal food for our two dogs, but we’re having trouble because so many brands seem to have by-products in them. I’m trying to make sure they get high-quality protein in their diet, but most pet foods don’t seem to care. The only ones I can find that don’t say “by-products” include confusing words like “meal.” Could you please clarify?

A: The whole idea behind so-called meat by-products isn’t a “nice” one. But then, neither is the truth behind sausages. And we eat those, too, right? (Well … some of us do, anyway.) Indeed, the entire concept of animal consumption –– not to mention animal slaughter –– is a “not-so-nice” one.

But back to by-products:

Strictly speaking, a by-product is a secondary product derived from a specific industrial process. It’s not the main item sought. Hence, the term by-products in the context of pet foods, at least those made in the United States, refers to anything that’s not the meat itself (aka, the muscle).

Here’s even more clarification on the issue, according to Purina’s website: “By-products … are simply parts of the animal that remain after meat is removed. They may include lungs, spleen, liver and kidneys.”

Yet the truth is that by-products also include other items, anything from the fairly inoffensive items listed above to the less palatable parts, including teats, tongues, feet, blood, bone, beaks, pelt and even heads, hooves, feathers, fetuses and entrails. Which many owners would prefer not to feed their pets.

But here’s the thing: None of these ingredients is inherently bad. Neither do they represent “lower quality protein.” I mean, what do you think wild animals eat when they consume whole prey, skin and all? Where do you think all those leftover chicken gizzards go when you eat fried legs and breasts at KFC?

Which is why I’ve come to believe by-products aren’t so bad, after all. Though I wish the industry had coined another, less mystifying term, it’s a necessary one I now think pet owners need to make peace with.

After all, eating human leftovers is how dogs and cats became domesticated in the first place. It’s also what makes pet food affordable.

Still, I recognize that not everyone is willing to feed non-“meat” protein. If that’s your POV, just be sure to stay away from foods that use euphemisms like “deboned” beef or chicken “meal.” Unless the label says “by-product free”… it’s probably not.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to