Are By-Products in Pet Food Really That Bad?

In the world of commercial pet foods, marketing has become much more prominent as new brands emerge. From flashy Super Bowl ads to catchy slogans, the competition is fierce, and everyone is getting in on the ads, touting why a particular brand is better than others.

One common marketing tactic that pet owners and veterinarians are seeing more and more is ads highlighting the absence of animal by-products and questioning, "You wouldn't eat them, so why feed them to your pet?" That sounds like it makes sense, right? Except that those by-products are exactly what dogs and cats would be eating in the wild and they contain a lot of nutrients not found in other meats.

In this blog, I'll be covering exactly what by-products in pet food are and how they aren't actually as bad as most pet food commercials make them sound.

Bowls of dog kibble on floor. Dog Nutrition.

What Are By-Products in Pet Food?

To get started, let's address the elephant in the room: What even are by-products in pet food? While many pet food ads tout that their brand's product is free of them, they don't really do a great job of telling you what they are and why they aren't included in their brand's food in the first place.

Put simply, the term "by-product" refers to nutrients that are a by-product of producing meat for human consumption. Organs, bones, and other parts of the animal that are not typically consumed by humans are what most often make up the bulk of by-products. One common misconception about by-products is that they are waste, but that's far from the truth, as they're rich in essential nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Meat eaters like muscle meat for things like steaks and fillets.They aren't rushing out to get nice cuts of spleen, kidneys, and intestines. Ironically, these are the parts of the animals that carnivores consume first and foremost when taking down prey in the wild. The nice steak cuts that we love are often left for scavengers.

High vs. Low Quality By-Products in Pet Food

Due to these pet food ad campaigns and a lot of misinformation, many pet owners have been led to believe that by-products are harmful to their pets, but the reality is quite different. By-products provide a natural and highly digestible source of nutrients that can contribute to your pet's overall health. However, in order to get the best nutrition and digestion outcomes for your dog or cat, it's essential to learn to differentiate between high-quality and low-quality by-products and the food brands they are present in.

Contained within the organs not typically used for human consumption are very different nutrients than those found in muscle meat. One of the most important elements in these organs is something called taurine. This is a nutrient that many mammals need to maintain heart health. Without it, the heart muscle can become weak, leading to heart failure at a young age. Humans can produce taurine from other protein sources, but dogs and cats lack this ability. As such, it MUST be part of their diet. So, where does taurine come from in the pet foods that don't contain organ meat?

Typically, it is an additive derived from artificial means. So, when you are buying a by-product-free pet food, you are paying for human-grade, nutritionally deficient meat and chemical additives. Most studies show these diets to cost three to four times as much as naturally-derived diets. Meaning, you're spending more while getting less nutritional value for your pet – something no pet owner wants to hear!

Cat eating dry kibble from bowl.

Choose Your Pet’s Food Wisely

So, does this mean that pet food without by-products, and ultimately organ meat, will cause malnourishment? Unfortunately, it could be, and you should choose diets wisely to prevent any adverse effects on your pet's health.

As I have said in past articles, the pet food industry doesn't have a lot of oversight, and it only needs to meet some basic requirements to meet regulatory standards. While most pet food manufacturers make honest attempts at this with only the best intentions, they don't always hit the mark, which ultimately ends up putting pets' health at risk.

When researching what food is best for your pet, I recommend trying to find a brand of food that was designed and tested by veterinary nutritionists. Typically, they will have statements that they followed the safety guidelines set out by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the national organization charged with setting pet food safety standards. The AAFCO website is a great resource for selecting the right diet for your pet. Also, as I always say, reaching out to your veterinarian for opinions or advice is always welcome at our offices.

When In Doubt, Work With Your Veterinarian

While reputable veterinarians will clarify that by-products in pet food are not inherently bad, it's highly unlikely that it'll be the last time that pet food ad campaigns contribute to misconceptions about pet nutrition. With that being said, it's crucial for pet owners to remember that your vet is here to help; if you have any questions or concerns about your dog or cat's diet, they should be the first person you talk to.

When sourced from high-quality suppliers and included as part of a balanced diet, by-products can provide valuable nutrients that contribute to your pet's overall health and well-being. As responsible and caring pet owners, it's essential to prioritize quality and choose pet foods that not only meet regulatory standards, but also offer optimal nutrition to support long and healthy lives for our pets.

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This information was first seen on Duxbury Animal Hospital.

Contributing DVM