Ferret Nutrition for Complete Newbies
where to start
ingredient quality
don't panic
Ferret Food FAQ
why feed a mix of foods?
Intermediate Topics
ferretone, oil treats, and vitamin A & D toxicity
why some cat foods are ferret-suitable
the wild polecat's diet
links to other ferret charts

Ingredient Quality Basics:
A Crash Course for Complete Newbies

*the following is a combination of my advice/opinions and solid fact.  I've written it very simply and even given it silly illustrations it so that it's as easy to understand as possible.  I encourage you to continue reading an learning from many sources :)

Jump to a Section:
#1: Naming the source
#2: Real meat VS by-products VS digests
#3: Meat VS meat meals


The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) makes official definitions for the ingredients that are used in pet foods. Pet food companies have to follow the rules of these definitions.
This page will help you learn how to tell good quality ingredients for ferrets from bad ones, by understanding the most relevant definitions.

#1: Naming the source

Most people consider specifically named meats and fats to be the highest quality.
examples: chicken, lamb, beef, turkey, duck, salmon, venison, veal, chicken meal, lamb meal, chicken fat, herring oil, etc.

Meats and fats with unspecific sources are usually considered low quality. With these ingredients we don't know what species they came from (at the worst they could be things like rats, pidgeons, roadkill, cats, dogs, etc), and they are not required to be properly slaughtered (ie, they could be from diseased or already dead animals).
They can also be using different animals in each batch of food, so we lose consistancy.

Poultry is ANY kind of bird.
examples: poultry, poultry meal, poultry fat

Fish can be ANY species of fish.
examples: fish, fish meal, fish oil

Meat or Animal is about as vague as it gets.
examples: meat meal, meat and bone meal, liver, animal meal, animal fat

#2: Real meat VS by-products VS digests

Real meat-You probably already have a good idea of what meat is. In pet food, meat ingredients like 'chicken' or 'beef' are ONLY allowed to contain:
-the skin, fat, and vessels that are attached to that flesh
-bone (only what's naturally attached to the meat, no extras allowed)

This would be what most of a polecat's (ferret's ancestor) diet is made up of. Meat is pretty digestible, isn't heavily processed, and has more strict quality rules.

Meat by-products are lower quality leftovers from human food processing. In general they are cheaper and less digestible than real meat. By-products can be made up of:
-undeveloped eggs
-intestines (drained out)
stomach (drained out)

They can NOT be made up of: feathers, hair, horns, teeth and hooves.

Now, ferrets 'in the wild' would have eaten some of these things. The fact that they come from human leftovers or that they're not body muscle meat doesn't make them harmful, BUT...

The problem is that many pet food companies like to replace muscle meat with by-products to save money. Ferrets are designed to be eating mostly muscle meats, and by-products should probably only make up a small portion of their diet.

You probably also noticed how long that list was. With by-products, you never know exactly what parts you're going to get...or if they're going to be completely different in the next batch of food (ie. does this company or this particular batch use nothing but blood and chicken feet?). Basically, by-product ingredients are allowed to have quality and constancy problems, so lots of people just prefer to avoid them all together.

Meat digest is tissue that's been put through heat, chemicals, and/or enzymes to form a concentrated flavor. It's been too heavily processed to be very nutritious. Digests are usually liquids or powders added as natural flavoring.

#3: Meat VS meat meals

This is a very difficult topic because everyone has a different opinion on it.
I will give you very the basics:

(see above definition)
examples: chicken, poultry, lamb, beef, turkey, duck, fish, salmon, etc.

-it's in a less processed, more natural state
-it sometimes has higher quality standards.  Mammals are required to be properly slaughtered, but but poultry is not.
-it's mostly water (60-80%), and not much protein (10-20%). When it's weighed to decide where it belongs on the ingredient list, it's very heavy (from the water) and gets put higher on the list than it should belong. That water is drained out in the kibble-making process and, you aren't left with much meat material.
-there is a pyhsical limit to how much can go into dry pet food. The maximum is about 35% meat (weighed with the water still in) and any more than that would gum up the machines that make the kibble.

Meat Meal
Is a dry, processed version of meat. It uses the same parts as 'meat' ingredients, but it is already cooked and dried before being added to pet food.
examples: chicken meal, poultry meal, lamb meal, beef meal, turkey meal, duck meal, fish meal, salmon meal, etc.

-it's mostly protein (50%-70%), and not much water(5-10%).
-there isn't a limit to how much can be added to the food.
-it's been more processed.
-it has medium quality standards: by-products like feet and intestines aren't allowed, but animals for meal are not required to be properly slaughtered (ie, they could be from diseased or already dead animals)

My personal opinion is that the pros and cons balance out, and I look for foods that have BOTH. I appreciate meat meals, since I know that if a food doesn't have at least some meat meal in it, it will be made of mostly vegetables (which would make it pretty unsuitable for ferrets).

Here are some links if you want to do any more reading on this topic:

Excellent detailed "meat vs meat meal" information: Dog Food Project
Propaganda example of a pro-meat meal argument: Canidae
Propaganda example of a anti-meat meal argument: Halo Pet


-Official AAFCO ingredient definitions sourced from various websites
-Various feed ingredient supplier websites