When you are pouring kibble into your dog’s bowl, do you ever stop to think what parts of the animal are used before the food turns to small, brown pellets? When you read the ingredient list on the bag you will see chicken is used- but does that mean the entire chicken, such as feet, necks, wings and all? The short answer, yes! Let me dive into why this is important.
When I first started working in the pet industry, I made sure to inform just about every pet parent to stay away from pet foods that contain the word “byproducts”. Although I still stand by this to an extent, I wish I would have known at the time to clarify the difference between processed, cheap byproducts used in most pet foods versus fresh, raw byproducts that actually have nutritional benefits. But what are byproducts anyhow? AAFCO defines byproducts as what is left over after the intended product has been made. In the case of animal feeds, including pet foods, it’s often the excess materials left over after processing human foods. To paint a picture, let’s take two totally different foods (both with byproducts) and compare them.
Example A) Whole Grain Corn, Chicken By-Product Meal, Flaxseed, Soybean Mill Run, Brewers Rice, Soybean Meal, Pork Fat, Powdered Cellulose, Chicken Liver Flavor, Fish Oil, Lactic Acid, Potassium Chloride, L-Lysine, Calcium Carbonate, Iodized Salt, etc.
Both of these meals contain byproducts. The only difference is that in example B, you can see which byproducts are being used (fresh, raw chicken feet is one example). For example A, you are only told “chicken byproduct meal” and there is no other actual meat listed or visible. While there are a few problems with this, perhaps the most disturbing reality is that “byproduct meal” can be cheap, 4D leftover remnants of the carcass extruded at extremely high temperatures, and used in place of real meat. This is why we pet parents proclaim that most byproducts are bad. Personally, I would feel a lot better purchasing dog food that specified what actual byproduct ingredients are being used.
Now that we know what byproducts really mean, let’s talk about the importance of fresh byproducts in a dog’s diet. Specifically, I would like to cover hide (raw skin), fur/feathers, and feet.
Hide (Skin). No, I am not referring to traditional rawhide that you find bleached white on most pet store shelves with a warning sticker. I am referring to fresh, unprocessed, raw skin, which happens to be the largest organ in both humans and dogs. Found in the skin is collagen, which is the most abundant protein in the body-- it quite literally holds the entire body together and gives it structure and strength. But when you take such a nutritious organ and ruin it with harsh processing and chemicals that have caused obstructions and even death, no pet parent will want to feed or believe that skin in its unprocessed form can make a great addition in their pet’s diet. In addition to collagen, elastin is a protein that is also found in the skin that allows the tissues in the body to resume their shape after stretching/contracting. Think of your dog who has sensitive skin or allergies and scratches themselves and immediately bleeds-- they are lacking elastin! Last but not least you have keratin, which is the main protein in your skin and helps with barrier protection. If your dog’s skin is compromised, you could feed raw skin to assure your dog is receiving the important proteins of elastin, collagen, and keratin.
Fur and feathers. When I talk to pet parents about the benefits of feeding their dogs fur-on ears, wings or even whole prey birds like quail or guinea fowl, I almost always get a horrified look. They follow my advice up until I add “don’t forget to keep the fur on!” and then I swear they question the entire consultation they had with me. I get it though-- ingredients on bags of kibble don’t dare show you if they use feathers or fur, but why not? What is everyone so afraid of? The richest sources of manganese are found in fur and feathers! Manganese is required for the development and maintenance of healthy ligaments. Fur is also an excellent source of fiber and helps clean your pup’s digestive tract. It’s even mentally stimulating for dogs as they learn a fur-on treat it isn’t just a toy, and figure out how to eat them! Just like the rest of the animal carcass that is thrown into a vat of “byproducts” keeping the fur in the food has a lot of nutritional benefits that don’t need to be hidden - it’s a shame to see pet food companies shy away from being real with consumers.
Feet. One of the most versatile byproducts there is! What I mean by that is, feet are great to feed as a treat, fed as edible bone in a DIY raw meal, or thrown in a crockpot to make a gelatinous bone broth. Like fur and feathers, feet are one of the best ways to get manganese in the diet-- and like skin, feet also contain collagen. But the nutrients don’t stop there! Feet contain calcium, glucosamine, and chondroitin which helps keep hips, joints, teeth, and bones strong and healthy. Feet are a great treat to feed your dog when you want to introduce edible bone in the diet. They are easy to hold, pliable, and can fit in food stuffable toys if your dog is a bit of a gulper. Don’t worry, you won’t need to give the foot a manicure if you see the nails are still on. The nails are safe to feed and packed with a calcium punch!
Whether it’s hide, feet, or fur-on items like lamb ears, pig ears, or whole prey, these all make for nutritious chews. If you are a DIY raw feeder, they can be calculated into your meals as well, or given as a meal replacement depending on the size of your dog and how active they are.
I know that you may be grossed out when you see items like these and that you feel a lot more comfortable feeding ground muscle meat than other parts of the animal. When you think about it though, it’s so much waste to the lives of these animals who give their lives to feed humans and dogs. We should be insisting that all parts of the animal are used and not wasted. Just because fresh byproducts aren’t talked about enough doesn’t mean it should shape how you look at these incredibly nutritious parts of the animal that actually should be fed to dogs. By opening up to this style of feeding, you create less waste and get to feed your dog more instinctually! In addition, dogs aren’t the only ones who eat byproducts! A lot of humans eat the skin of animals, feet, ears, tongue, brains, and more! A lot of these are considered delicacies around the world.