Coconut oil: helpful or harmful

Coconut oil is a go-to remedy for pet parents everywhere, from everything to skin conditions, dietary upsets and anti-inflammatory supplements. It’s become so popular, it’s even included in some commercial pet foods and is regularly labelled as a “superfood”. But is coconut oil actually beneficial to your pet? And if so, what does the evidence say about the use of coconut oil as a nutritional supplement?

What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from mature coconuts and is high in medium-chain triglycerides and saturated fats. Coconut oil is 100% fat with 80-90% being saturated fat. Of that, 47% is lauric acid, with a smaller portion being myristic acid and palmitic acid. It contains no fibre, and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

What is coconut oil used for, and why?
A quick Google search will tell you coconut oil is a miracle product, and supposedly can be used to:

– soothe dry itchy skin
– soothe an upset stomach
– brushing teeth and reducing bad breath
– improve coat condition
– slow cognitive dysfunction
– reduce allergies
– increase energy levels

However, most of these claims are severely lacking in evidence and many are completely anecdotal – in fact some of them are outright false. Unfortunately, given the popularity of this ingredient in human nutrition, this has been extrapolated to pet health despite lacking in animal studies to back up the so-called benefits of coconut oil. Plus, many of the studies showing benefits of coconut oil are actually referring to a specially formulated 100% medium-chain triglyceride version that doesn’t contain lauric acid, not the regular store-bought versions of coconut oil, therefore the benefits discovered in these studies cannot be applied to commercially available coconut oil.

What does the evidence say?
While the studies in pets are very limited, I’ve dug up what I could find and reported my conclusions here.

Lauric acid isn’t your friend
While coconut oil is touted as “anti-inflammatory” and “soothing to the gut”, it’s anything but – lauric acid, along with palmitic acid have been shown to actually irritate the gut lining and cause inflammation, rather than alleviate it. Given most of the composition of coconut oil is these two fatty acids, it’s likely to cause more problems than it solves. Coconut oil can also give pets diarrhea, so I wouldn’t use it to “soothe the gut”. 

However, lauric acid has been shown to penetrate the hair shaft better than other fatty acids, so coconut oil can be used topically (not orally) to improve the appearance of the pet’s coat. 

Cholesterol, obesity and fatty plaques oh my!
1 tbs of coconut oil is 121kcal – the average 10kg dog’s daily caloric intake is approximately 600kcal per day, so when you think about the huge impact this many extra calories that this could be adding to your pet’s diet, you’re heading for a very overweight pet. Even worse, some websites recommend up to 2 tbs a day! Coconut oil being fed to dogs has also been shown to damage red blood cells, elevate cholesterol, and cause fatty plagues on the liver.

It works…just as well as everything else:
One study was performed comparing the antimicrobial properties of MCT oil to a chlorhexidine and xylitol containing dental formula, and found no significant differences between the two. So while the oil won’t make the pet’s dental health any better than other dental products on the market, it will have some impact. However, we need to remember this one of the studies that has used a 100% MCT oil, not a standard coconut oil, so a regular product from the store isn’t going to have the safe efficacy as a dental product (or a 100% MCT oil).

Epilepsy and cognitive function: A recent study showed benefits in reducing seizure activity and improvements in the cognitive function of older dogs in a MCT supplemented diet. While this sounds fantastic, again it is referring to 100% MCT oil as we discussed above, not straight coconut oil from the store; the pet’s were fed an enriched, balanced diet using the specially formulated MCT oil (not coconut oil) which made up 9% of the entire diet. So again, this is promising research but we cannot extrapolate the results of this study to regular coconut oil – because feeding coconut oil as 9% of the pet’s diet is more likely going to do significant harm than good.

So should I use coconut oil?
In short, it’s probably not worth the money. There are better products and better sources of essential fatty acids that are cheaper, have more studies supporting their use and are more effective than coconut oil.

Do you use coconut oil in your pet’s diet? Did this post change your mind? Share your thoughts below!