Should You Avoid Byproducts in Cat Food?
Many pet websites and even some veterinarians recommend premium cat food brands that don’t use “questionable” ingredients such as meat byproducts and meat meals. Just googling the term ‘meat by products’ will send you down a rabbit hole of (mis)information on what “actually” goes into your cat’s food. But are byproducts really that bad?
In this article, we cover everything you ever wanted to know about byproducts in cat food, including what does and what doesn’t go into meat byproducts, how they’re used in cat food, and whether they’re bad for your pet.
What Are Byproducts in Cat Food?
Meat by-products consist of organ meats and entrails. Basically, they are edible parts – other than muscle meat –derived from animal carcasses. Here is the definition from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO for short):
“Meat by-products is the non-rendered, clean parts, other than meat, derived from slaughtered mammals. It includes, but is not limited to, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents. It does not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs. It shall be suitable for use in animal feed..”
As you can see, meat by-products, by legal definition, cannot include any “questionable” ingredients, as some alarmists would have you believe. In fact, meat byproducts have more nutrients than muscle meat! How is this possible, you ask? While high in protein, muscle meat such as chicken breast doesn’t contain much micro-nutrients, while chicken byproduct is high in taurine, vitamin A and D, zinc and copper, as well as protein.
What about meat meals? They are the same as meat byproducts except they come in a rendered form, meaning without fat and water. Basically, meat meals are a concentrated mix of protein and minerals that come from slaughtered mammals but don’t include muscle meats.
Now, we realize that many people still find the definition of both meat byproducts and meat meals gross. I mean, who eats spleen, brain and blood?! Many countries do, actually. In fact, offal – or organ meats – are incredibly nutritious and healthy as they’re rich in various nutrients, such as B vitamins, A, D, E and K vitamins, minerals like folate, copper, zinc, iron and many more.
Still find byproducts and meals disgusting? You may not like the AAFCO’s definition of pure meat then either:
“Meat is the clean flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle which is skeletal or that part which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart or in the esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the flesh. It shall be suitable for animal food.”
Truth be told, the whole “slaughtered mammals” thing is what really freaks people out. Whether it’s muscle meat, spleen or brain doesn’t matter that much – it all comes from one and the same source: a dead animal. While being grossed out by dead things is understandable from a human perspective, do bear in mind that your cat is not human – she or he is an obligate carnivore who subsists on a diet consisting mainly of animal meat.
What Byproducts Are Not
Did you know that some people believe that hair, hooves, feces and road kill (among other things) go into meat by-products? Yes, there are a number of websites that spread this type of misinformation, and some of them are quite popular! Thankfully, there are also plenty of trustworthy sources that present facts about pet foods, including meat by-products and meat meals. The AAFCO itself states that:
“Meat by-products … [do] not include hair, horns, teeth and hoofs.”
To expand upon this, by-products do not contain:
- Any hide or hide trimmings
- Manure and intestinal contents
- Floor sweepings, trash or dirt.
Simply put, the regulatory definition of meat by-products specifically excludes these and other ingredients that are not parts of the carcass. So, if you see a website claiming that road kill, hair and dirt can be found in byproducts, rest assured they are not aware of the laws. Either that, or they’re purposely lying to you (often so they can sell you their “superior” food!).
Are Byproducts Bad for Your Pet?
Now that we know what goes into meat by-products as well as what doesn’t, it’s time we tackle the most important question: are by-products bad for your cat?
Long story short, they are not. Long story long? Buckle up.
In the wild, there is no such thing as waste. When feral cats hunt, they eat absolutely everything they can – muscle meats and organs and bones and skin and viscera… everything. No feral or wild cat would willingly limit itself to eating muscle meat only! Consuming almost everything an animal carcass has to offer ensures that cats get everything they need from their prey, including protein, fat, a little bit of carbohydrates, and of course all vitamins, minerals and other micronuntrients needed for feline optimal health. In fact, wild cats often feed on its prey’s organs first precisely because they’re much richer in nutrients than lean meat is! Organs such as kidneys, spleen and heart contain all fantastic nutrients a cat needs for its health, including vitamin A, taurine, copper, zinc and more.
So, it’s clear that our preference for meat over organs, and by extension by-products, is simply cultural. One only needs to travel abroad and see how other nations eat – in France, for example, liver is a delicacy (foie gras), and so are intestines (tripes a la mode de Caen); in Germany, beef liver (leberklosse) is super-popular, as is spleen sausage (milzwurst). The truth is, offal or organs are delicious if you give them a chance and are no worse than lean meats the Americans are obsessed with. And this goes for humans! Cats don’t need the extra side dishes, spices and fancy butters to enjoy organs – they eat them on their own just fine!
So what is the issue with meat by products in cat food? On paper, there truly is none. In reality… there may be some.
Evaluating the Quality of Byproducts
The problem with byproducts in pet food is the lack of quality evaluation. In other words, it’s extremely difficult for a consumer to know the quality of the organs that a manufacturer puts in pet food. Basically, the issue comes down to this:
- Not knowing how the animal was fed
- Not knowing how the animal was treated
- Not knowing how the meat and byproducts were preserved.
There is simply no way a consumer can answer these questions by reading the ingredient lists on a cat food. For instance, if your kitty’s food lists meat by-products on its ingredient list, how do you know which byproducts are those? Are they from chicken, pork or beef?
Thankfully, you can navigate this issue by choosing to:
- Purchase foods made by reputable manufacturers
- Buy foods that contain named byproducts only.
Of course, you’ll want to take your kitty’s response to food into account as well. If you’re buying cheap cat food but your pet seems to be thriving, there’s no need to switch to another brand! Listen to your cat first and foremost. You can evaluate your kitty’s response to the food you’re giving them by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are they excited to eat when you serve the food? If they’re not and are barely touching it, switch to another brand.
- Do they seem energized during the day? If not, they may be lacking in certain nutrients.
- Is their digestion functioning well? If their stool is solid it’s good, if it’s runny, it’s not.
- Is their skin and coat healthy and shiny? If it’s dull and itchy, the food may contain too little fatty acids.
Our Advice on Meat Byproducts in Cat Food
At Very Happy Kitty, we don’t believe in fearmongering and conspiracies about the pet industry. As with everything in life, there are good things and bad things about the cat market as well. Commercial cat foods certainly have numerous pros (provide all the nutrients, are easy to feed, most are budget-friendly, etc.), but they can also have quite a few cons. That’s why it’s crucial you do your own research before spending money and putting your kitty’s health into someone else’s hands. Because after all, every pet food manufacturer wants to make money first and foremost and some would (and do!) go to great lengths to do just that. Thankfully, there are also plenty of brands that care about the quality of ingredients they use in their formulas, so you don’t have to dig super-deep to find healthy cat food.
- Reputable brands
- Foods that contain named by-products
- Foods that list by-products as secondary, third or fourth on their ingredient list, not first.
Still not convinced byproducts are safe for your cat? Here is another thing to thing about: the sustainability of pet food. We’re already slaughtering millions of chickens, pigs and cows daily so they can provide food for us – are we really going to let their perfectly healthy organs and other bits go to waste simply because we find it icky? Feeding byproducts to our cats is not only safe and healthy, it’s necessary for a better environment.
6 Things Your Vet Wants You to Know About Cat Food, pets.webmd.com
Don’t be bothered by by-products, vetnutrition.tufts.edu