If you spend enough time perusing the dog food aisle of your local pet store, you’ll notice that there are quite a few options when it comes to protein sources.
It seems like you can find a dog food that features just about any type of meat known to man, but which one is the best? Is there one you should feed your dog and one you should avoid?
As it turns out, meat sources vary wildly in terms of nutritional value. Also, some are much more expensive than others, and some are simply hard to find.
In the guide below, we’ll walk you through the meats that are most commonly found in dog foods, so you can decide on the best one for your particular pup.
The Top 18 Meats for Dogs
Chicken is likely the most common meat in dog food and for good reason: It’s high in protein, low in saturated fat, and eminently affordable. Also, just about every dog on the planet loves it, so you shouldn’t have any issues convincing your dog to wolf down a chicken-based food.
It’s important to note that “chicken” on a dog food label means that it’s made with lean meat; it’s also sometimes called “lean chicken,” “deboned chicken,” or something similar. This is not the same thing as chicken meal or chicken by-products.
To make chicken meal, they take all the parts of the bird — except feathers, blood, claws, and beaks — and render it together before letting it dry. This sounds gross, but it’s full of important nutrients that aren’t found in lean cuts of meat. However, the meat usually isn’t as high-quality as the lean cuts.
Chicken by-products, on the other hand, are the non-meat portions of the animal. This can sometimes include internal organs, but it can also mean that it comes from “4-D” meat. 4-D meat is meat that comes from dying, diseased, disabled, or dead animals. You can’t tell the difference simply from looking at the label.
Ultimately, chicken is one of the best possible proteins that you can feed your dog, but you should do your research to make sure the poultry you’re giving your pup is up to your standards.
Beef is the second most popular meat in dog food. It’s full of protein and dogs love it, but it’s more expensive than chicken.
In addition to a large amount of protein, beef has all the healthy fats that your dog needs. It does tend to be excessively fatty, though, so it may not be best for overweight dogs.
The quality of the beef can vary wildly depending on the cut used to make it, not to mention the quality of animals that it’s taken from. Most labels won’t tell you which cut is used to make their kibble, but it’s generally safe to say that the more expensive the food, the choicer the cut.
Beef is also lacking in many important carbohydrates. As a result, you should make sure that any beef-based food you buy has plenty of high-quality fruits and veggies to round out the nutritional profile.
Beef is excellent for dogs and it’s easy to find in kibble. However, you should expect to pay a little bit extra for it, and don’t expect your dog to be able to live on cow alone.
Pork is a fairly common meat, making it easy to find a quality pork-based kibble. The price can vary depending on the overall quality of the food, as well as what else is in it, but it should usually be more expensive than chicken.
You’ll find about as much protein in pork as you will in chicken or beef, but it contains way more fat. If the manufacturer doesn’t trim it, the kibble will be packed with both healthy and unhealthy fats; if they do, you can expect to pay more because there will have been so much meat wasted.
Pork can be fairly salty as well, so it’s not ideal for overweight dogs or those with diabetes. Also, if you’re feeding them pork as part of a raw diet, make absolutely sure you cook it because it can contain parasites.
Most dogs love the taste of pork, but it’s a bit more polarizing than beef or chicken. The meat has a different texture and density, which can affect the taste of the kibble. It also tends to be tougher than other cuts of meat.
There’s nothing wrong with feeding your dog pork, per se; they should enjoy it, and it can give them all of the nutrition they need. However, you may be able to get more nutrition for less money by sticking with chicken or beef.
Fish is a common meat in dog foods, and salmon is the typical type of fish used. It’s low in fat and high in protein; however, the biggest advantage salmon offers is that it’s packed with omega fatty acids.
This is important for everything from brain health to developing a strong immune system. It also improves coat quality and skin health.
Salmon is also easy for most dogs to tolerate, making it a great choice for allergy-stricken pups. It should never be fed to a dog raw, though, as it can cause salmon poisoning disease, which can be fatal for dogs. Also, not all dogs care for the taste.
While salmon is one of the best possible foods that you can feed your dog, there is a downside: It’s expensive, at least relative to chicken and beef. Also, there are environmental concerns about salmon harvesting, and the meat quality can vary depending on where the fish was caught.
If you can afford to feed your dog salmon (and if they’ll eat it), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better food for them.
Most non-salmon fish-based food is made using whitefish. Whitefish isn’t a species of fish; rather, it’s a catch-all term used to distinguish these fish from oily fish, like salmon. Typically, the type of fish used in whitefish food is cod, whiting, or haddock.
You won’t find many whitefish-based kibbles out there, so your selection will be limited right off the bat. What foods you do find will often have another protein source in addition to the whitefish (often salmon).
Like salmon, whitefish is high in protein, loaded with omega fatty acids, and good for dogs with food allergies. However, it tends to be even more expensive.
If you’re feeding your dog a raw diet and want to incorporate whitefish, make sure to cook it first and be absolutely certain that it’s been completely deboned. Small fish bones can wreak havoc on your dog’s digestive tract or get lodged in their throats.
Whitefish is an excellent protein source for dogs, but finding a suitable food can be a hassle. Ultimately, there’s little reason to choose whitefish over salmon if you want a fish-based food.
You’ll rarely, if ever, see tilapia used as part of a commercial kibble. However, it’s a popular protein in raw food diets, as it’s affordable and sold in just about every grocery store.
It’s also easy to prepare, so making it the cornerstone of your dog’s raw diet shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. It’s something of a 50/50 shot whether your dog will eat it, though.
Like with all fish, make sure to cook it before serving and be thorough about deboning it.
Tilapia is extraordinarily lean and packed with protein, making it one of the best bang-for-your-buck foods on the planet. It’s extremely low in calories, making it a good choice for dogs that need to lose a pound or two.
If you’re getting into the raw food trend, tilapia’s about as good of a meat as you can find to feed your dog. However, if you care at all about convenience, you’ll probably want to skip it in favor of something a little easier to find.
Turkey is often seen as a substitute for chicken, as it has a remarkably similar nutritional profile. However, turkey may be easier for some dogs to tolerate, but it’s harder to find as a standalone protein source.
Most commercial dog foods that use turkey pair it with at least one other protein source; ironically, that protein is often chicken. If you look hard enough, however, you should be able to find one that only uses turkey.
Turkey should be fully cooked before being served, as it can carry salmonella and other microbes. You should also be careful about feeding your dog processed turkey, as it’s usually full of salt and other additives that aren’t healthy for mutts.
Turkey and chicken are somewhat interchangeable; however, turkey’s a tad bit more expensive and can be harder to find. As a result, we’d recommend sticking with chicken unless your dog has an allergy (or you have another compelling reason for avoiding the bird).
If your dog seems to turn their nose up at everything you offer them, duck may be the perfect way to tempt them. Most pups think that it’s absolutely delicious, so picky dogs should wolf it right down.
However, it doesn’t have as much protein as other meats, and it’s loaded with fat. If your dog needs to lose some weight, duck probably isn’t the best choice.
It’s also fairly expensive and difficult to find. You almost certainly won’t find a purely duck-based commercial kibble; almost all of them are paired with other protein sources (usually other birds, like chicken and turkey).
Due to its limitations, we’d recommend skipping duck unless you have an especially picky dog on your hands.
Lamb is another relatively rare meat source, but it’s low in calories and high in protein, and most dogs love it. As a matter of fact, it has more protein on a pound-for-pound basis than beef.
Like beef, lamb doesn’t have all the nutrients that your dog needs on its own. You’ll need to make sure the kibble has a wide variety of nutritional support from the other ingredients, most notably, the fruits and vegetables.
At one point, it was rumored that lamb is hypoallergenic for dogs, but that’s not true. However, it’s still good for dogs with food allergies, as most pooches have never been exposed to it.
Lamb is a good change-of-pace option compared to the more common meat sources, but you will likely have to pay more for it. Also, it may be harder to find a top-notch kibble with lamb as the primary ingredient.
Bison is a protein that’s becoming popular in high-end foods. It’s much like beef, except leaner, so most dogs will eat it without complaint. It has slightly more protein as well, which is why it often replaces beef in more expensive kibbles.
You’ll find bison in many limited-ingredient foods, as it’s good for animals with food allergies.
As you might expect, given its relative rarity, bison is considerably more expensive than most other meats. The good news is that most bison-based foods are extremely high quality, so you shouldn’t expect to see a bunch of cheap fillers and additives in them. You may have to shop at specialty pet stores in order to find these foods, though.
If the price isn’t too daunting, bison is one of the best meats that you can feed your pup.
Goat-based commercial kibbles are extremely rare, but the meat is often used in raw food diets. That’s because it boasts a tremendous amount of protein and almost no fat — it’s even leaner and more protein-packed than tilapia.
It may be difficult to find in grocery stores, but many butcher shops and ethnic food stores carry it, as it’s a popular meat in other parts of the world.
However, goat has an extremely strong flavor, and many dogs don’t care for it. If you can find it and your pup will eat it, though, it’s an amazing protein source.
Another meat that’s not commonly found in commercial kibbles, ostrich has roughly as much protein as beef, but it has far less fat and calories. As a result, it’s a great choice for overweight dogs switching to raw diets.
The difficulty lies in finding a steady and affordable source of ostrich meat. You’ll likely need to discover a specialty butcher or online retailer to get a steady supply of the stuff.
Quail is an extremely gamey bird, and that can make it difficult for some dogs to tolerate (although they do better with it than people do).
It’s not often found in kibble, and it can be difficult to track down at butcher shops and grocery stores, but the birds are a popular target for hunters. If you bring some of this meat home, your dog will appreciate it if you share.
The problem with quail is finding enough to feed it to your dog regularly. If you can track down a reliable supplier, though, it’s a wonderful, protein-rich food for pups.
Alligator is becoming more common for both dogs and humans alike. It’s close to duck, although less fatty. Like duck, it’s often paired with other meats, especially in specialty foods. Those kibbles are almost always quite expensive, though.
Most dogs will eat alligator if given the chance — which is the problem. You may want to start your dog on something easier to find, rather than having to switch them to a new diet if your supply dries up.
Another meat that’s becoming more ubiquitous in commercial kibbles, kangaroo is lean and has as much protein as beef. It’s also easy for dogs to tolerate, making it a good choice for dogs with food sensitivities.
As you might expect, most kangaroo meat comes from Australia, so expect it to be on the pricey side. It’s also difficult to find in grocery stores or butcher shops.
Like quail, pheasant is hard to find commercially, but many hunters may have access to it. If you can find it, it will make a great protein source for your dog.
It’s like a turbocharged version of chicken, as it has more protein and healthy fat than its more common cousin. However, it may not be ideal for pudgy pups.
If you’re having trouble tracking down pheasant, look for kibbles with “game bird” recipes. These typically have a mix of birds inside, and pheasant is usually one of them.
Rabbit has as much protein as chicken, and many dogs love the taste. It’s also easier to find than other “exotic” meats.
In fact, there are quite a few high-end kibbles with rabbit in the recipe, although they usually have other meats in them as well. You can find rabbit in nearly every butcher shop too, and it’s a popular target for hunters.
18. Organ Meats
Many people balk at feeding their dog organ meats because of the “ick” factor, but they’re full of important vitamins and minerals not found in leaner cuts. Many organ meats come from cows, and beef hearts, livers, and stomachs are all popular.
Organ meats are such a valuable source of nutrients that many kibbles include them already; they’re just labeled “meal.” Protein meals involve taking all the non-lean cuts of meat and mixing them; it’s not much fun to think about, but it can be an important source of nutrition for your pup.
If you’re getting organ meats from your butcher, you should understand up front that many dogs don’t care for the taste. You may have to experiment a bit to find some that your pooch will tolerate.
Which Meat Is Best for Your Dog?
There isn’t really a definitive answer to the “best” meat for dogs. Much will depend on factors like your dog’s weight and health, your budget, and your access to specialty foods.
However, don’t convince yourself that exotic and hard-to-find meats are better than old standbys like chicken and beef. Those foods are popular for a reason, and they can be important parts of healthy, balanced diets.
As a matter of fact, we’d recommend keeping things simple unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. You can save yourself a great deal of money and hassle by sticking with a chicken- or beef-based food, and your dog will likely love them just as much as a high-end meat imported from a faraway locale.
You can then use all the money you’ve saved to buy your dog more treats and toys. Everyone’s a winner!
Featured Image Credit: Phil Stev, Shutterstock