Coconut oil – magic…..or meh?


Coconut oil is over-rated. Kinda like New Year’s Eve – supposed to be magic, but in reality, not that great, and overpriced.

No, it isn’t terrible. There is a small niche of animals that truly can benefit. For the majority of problems, however, there are much better options out there.

Let’s break it down:

First thing we need to learn is which kinds of fats are beneficial. Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acids, or PUFA’s have been popular among both physicians and veterinarians for years. The fatty acids that vets often recommend are Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and these are both types of PUFA’s.

An example of an Omega 6 fatty acid is linoleic acid. This is considered an essential nutrient for dogs and cats, as their bodies are unable to synthesize it. However, the good news is that the typical diet fed to dogs or cats is high in omega 6 fatty acids, so we really don’t have to worry about supplementing those. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, sesame oil, olive oil,  and canola oil, to name a few.

The Omega 3 fatty acids we vets often recommend are DHA and EPA. These have been demonstrated in many studies across the globe to help with cardiovascular disease, arthritis, skin inflammation, kidney disease, and even brain function. They are often found in fish oil, and a related PUFA, called ALA, can be in flax seed oil as well. Veterinarians have been recommending Omega 3 fatty acids in pets for years. Several studies over the past 15 years have documented proven benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids! Sure, more are needed, but safety is well established.

OK, so let’s get some Omega-3 fatty acids! Since the internet seems to think coconut oil can treat so many diseases, it must have lots of Omega 3 fatty acids, right?

coconut oil, omega fatty acid
Three kinds of fats people give to pets.

Nope. Coconut oil is 0% omega 3. Zilch. Nada.

So that’s a bummer. How about omega 6 fatty acids?

Well, coconut oil is 2% Linoleic acid, which is an omega 6 fatty acid.

That’s kinda lame. What on earth IS in coconut oil then?

Coconut oil contains MCT’s – Medium Chain Triglycerides. What do these do? They do not share any characteristics of PUFA’s, unfortunately. They are in a separate class altogether.

The good thing MCT’s can do is be rapidly absorbed by the body. So if you have an emaciated or starved animal and want to get some calories into it, then MCT’s would be a good option. The medical indication for MCT supplementation is in animals with a specific intestinal disease (diagnosed via biopsy most often) that makes it difficult for them to absorb fat. Since the MCT’s are so well absorbed by the intestine, they are a good option for a fat that will actually get into the animal. Coconut oil is VERY high in calorie, and if fed on a regular basis, will cause weight gain if calories are not cut elsewhere. However, if you’re using it to treat an underfed or underweight animal, then this is less of a concern.

The bad news is, they can also irritate the pancreas! Portions must be controlled and accurately measured. If a pet is prone to pancreatitis, I would never consider giving it coconut oil! This goes for all miniature schnauzers as well. That breed is the poster child for pancreatitis, so don’t chance it. In cats, coconut oil dosed inappropriately can cause fatty liver disease.

Coconut oil can also cause flatulence, bloating, and diarrhea if given in larger-than- needed quantities. And a little goes a long way!

dog and coconut oil
Reggie models the coconut oil. It’s even organic!

OK, so maybe feeding coconut oil to your pet isn’t really all that great. How about using it topically (rubbing it on their skin)?

Currently, there are no well designed published studies touting the effects of coconut oil as a topical moisturizer, anti-bacterial, what have you. That’s not to say it’s BAD for your pet. It is greasy, and I personally wouldn’t want to slather my dog and then have him climb into bed with me. Maybe I’m just a diva.

Some veterinarians who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine are beginning to use coconut oil topically. These veterinarians recommend oral fish oil (back to those omega 3’s!) for itchy skin, but have used coconut oil on the skin with some success.  Other holistic veterinarians are using coconut oil orally for gastro-intestinal upset. The ones I talked to emphasized SMALL amounts and easing them in gradually. For this reason, I would only suggest feeding coconut oil under the advice of a veterinarian, and one trained in Traditional Chinese medicine.

So is coconut oil all bad? Not at all! There is a place for it, just like everything else. And yes, some holistic vets are using it and learning as they go!

However, Omega 3 fatty acids can do a LOT more for your pet than MCT’s can. So let’s let the coconut oil fad go by and bust out some fish oil!