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Healthy Paws: Pet Food Part II, Reading an Ingredient List

Healthy Paws

Editor’s Note: Healthy Paws is a column sponsored and written by the owners of Clarendon Animal Care, a full-service, general practice veterinary clinic. The clinic is located 3000 10th Street N., Suite B. and can be reached at 703-997-9776.

Last week we started a series of discussions on interpreting pet food labels, starting with the importance of the AAFCO statement, a simple statement indicating 1) whether the food is complete and balanced, 2) what type of pet the food is for and 3) for what life stages the food is suited for.

One of the next big items to address is the ingredient list… Just like ingredient lists of foods designed for human consumption, items on the ingredient list are listed from most to least, by weight.  Items at the top of the list (major ingredients) should be clearly recognizable by name, while items towards the end of the list (minor ingredients) may include vitamins and minerals or preservatives and stabilizers and, as such, may have less commonly-identifiable names.

AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) set definitions for just what makes up these major ingredients, which are classified as either raw or rendered.  Despite the “raw” label, even raw products are cooked during the manufacturing process to destroy any harmful bacteria, while “rendered” products are cooked and then heated in order to remove most moisture and fat, leaving behind protein and minerals, which are then ground into a uniform size.  

An important side note here — truly raw diets cannot typically achieve AAFCO certification, but there are a few companies out there that have gone the extra step to ensure that they still meet the AAFCO guidelines for being nutritionally complete and balanced. However, we do not typically recommend feeding your pet a truly raw diet for public & patient health reasons. A great article on this topic from a veterinary nutritionist can be found here.


  • cooked during manufacturing process to kill harmful bacteria


  • skeletal muscle, tongue, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, with or without overlying sinew, nerve tissue, and fat
  • “meat” may be from cattle, pigs, sheep or goats
  • if from another species (i.e. venison, bison) must be specifically identified

Meat Byproducts

  • clean parts other than meat – i.e. lungs, spleen, liver, brain, kidneys, blood, bone, stomach and intestines freed of their contents, lungs
  • if from another species (i.e. venison, bison) must be specifically identified


  • flesh and skin, +/- bone, excluding feathers, head, feet, and entrails
  • may include the bone when ground (may be called deboned poultry if bone is removed)

Poultry Byproducts

  • heads, feet, cleaned  viscera, “giblets” (heart, gizzard, liver)


  • cooked and heated in order to remove most moisture and fat, leaving primarily protein and minerals, then ground into a uniform size (aka – ‘meal”)

Meat Meal

  • “mammalian tissues, excluding added blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, stomach and rumen contents…”
  • may be from animals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without indicating which species
  • must meet certain minimum requirements for crude protein, fat, fiber, phosphorous, and calcium

Meat and Bone Meal

  • Similar to meat meal, but can include bone in addition to whole carcasses
  • Also has minimum requirements for crude protein, fat, fiber, phosphorous, and calcium

Animal Byproduct Meal

  • definition designed to cover individual rendered animal tissues that do not meet the criteria set forth elsewhere
  • “may include whole carcasses, but often includes byproducts in excess of what would normally be found in meat meal and meat & bone meal”

Poultry Byproduct Meal

  • clean parts of the carcass such as necks, feet, eggs, intestines (excludes feathers)
  • Also has minimum requirements for crude protein, fat, fiber, phosphorous, and calcium
  • Similar to poultry byproducts, except in rendered form

Poultry Meal

  • Similar to poultry, but in rendered form
    • flesh and skin, +/- bone, excluding feathers, head, feet, and entrails

So, as you can see, some definitions/classifications that commonly get a bad rap — i.e. “byproducts” — are actually some of the most nutrient-rich portions of an animal. In fact, these are often the tissues an animal in the wild would go for first — liver, spleen, kidneys — as they tend to be much more nutrient dense than skeletal muscle.  Thus, it is important to keep an open mind when coming across the term “byproducts.”

Visit AAFCO and FDA for further information about food labels and ingredients.  

Have a question about animal nutrition? Clarendon Animal Care wants to help! Submit your question to [email protected]com and use “ARLnow” in the subject line. Look out for the answer in an upcoming column.

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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