Coconut oil for dogs and when to use it

It seems like every other week, there’s a new ‘super food’ that we – and our dogs – should be adding to our diets. And I’m sure you’ve heard the many claims about the health benefits of coconut oil too. Everywhere we look; someone is singing its praises. So, what’s in coconut oil, and how might it help improve your dog’s overall health.

What is coconut oil?  

Coconut oil comes from the meat of the coconut plant. Harvested from the coconut palm, fresh or dried coconut meat (called copra) is pressed and compressed by one of two methods:

  • Hydrogenation – a process, which involves treatment with hydrogen, to reduce / saturate organic compounds and can extend shelf life.
  • Cold press – the oil is pressed without the use of heat, which can help retain nutrients. This method tends to produce a product lower in trans-fats.

The resulting product is 100% fat, of which 80-90% is saturated fat, and predominantly, a type of saturated fat known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are often considered a ‘good’ fat and they’re used as a source of fuel and energy first rather than stored as body fat.

The types of MCT in coconut oil include palmitic acid (9.5%), myristic acid (16%) and predominantly lauric acid (48%), which has been described as having anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

It’s worth noting that the scientific community has extensively debated if lauric acid is in fact an MCT. Researchers have suggested it behaves more similarly to a long-chain triglyceride (LCT). This is important because long-chain triglycerides are absorbed more slowly and metabolized differently.

In terms of other nutrients that coconut oil can provide your dog, there aren’t that many. It contains no cholesterol or fiber and only minute traces of minerals, plant sterols and vitamins. Similarly, it doesn’t contain any omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acids.

So, given that it doesn’t act as a good source of essential or additional nutrients, and that the primary function of its main component (MCTs) is to provide energy, what’s the big deal about coconut oil, why is it heralded is a wonder treatment for ailing dogs, and is there any evidence to support these claims?

Coconut oil, the wonder oil – fact or fiction?

The proposed health benefits of coconut oil vary depending on whether its administered orally (ie your dog ingests the oil) or topically (ie the oil is administered externally).

Orally administered coconut oil:

When it comes to the supposed health benefits of coconut oil, the larger, bolder claims tend to be made relating to when it’s administered orally. Some of the proposed benefits of feeding your dog coconut oil include:

Use in Gastrointestinal Disorders

MCTs are believed to help improve digestion and act as a treatment for digestive disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In turn, as coconut oil is primarily composed of MCTs, it is believed to aid with digestion and digestive disorders.

This theory comes from the fact that once ingested and digested, MCTs travel to the liver where they are processed and immediately used as a source of energy. They do not require bile or pancreatic enzymes for digestion and absorption. This is why MCTs, even though they are “fats” have unique properties which has lead to great interest in their use in the management of digestive disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and pancreatitis.

In turn, as coconut oil is primarily composed of MCTs, dog owners are often told to use coconut oil to aid gastrointestinal disorders.

However, depending on the circumstance, excessive intake of coconut oil may worsen fat malabsorption due to the lauric acid content. As I mentioned above, this is because that compared to other MCTs, lauric acid is the slowest to metabolize.

So, although MCTs possess unique characteristics, it is not considered to be a panacea, particularly in dogs with conditions like IBS and pancreatitis. Small quantities might be ok to reduce fat malabsorption and to serve as a source of calories, but you don’t want to overdo it.

Treating cancer:

You may have heard that coconut oil can help prevent, treat, or even cure cancer. But is this true?

We’ve discussed before how cancer isn’t just one disease; how it’s actually many different, complex diseases which all requires careful, specialised treatment. And about how the quacks out there, who tout false claims about one ‘single thing’ (eg cannabis) being a cure for these diseases, should be ignored.

Given all of this, it should be no surprise to hear that coconut oil is not a cure for cancer in dogs. Or any animal for that matter.

Supporting weight loss

Another proposed benefit of including coconut oil in your dog’s diet is that it can help with weight loss. Several studies in humans and rodents have confirmed the potential of medium-chain fatty acids to reduce fat mass but unfortunately the evidence in dogs to support this is sketchy at best.

One study that added coconut oil to dog food to see if it would help them loose weight found that dogs on the diet with coconut oil lost less weight and had more body fat than dogs on diets with other sources of fat.

One of the reasons weight gain occurs is when dogs consume more calories than they use. Coconut oil adds calories to your dog’s diet, about 116 calories per tablespoon, which is why it will likely not aid weight loss if it’s not used with a calorie-controlled diet and physical activity.

Topically administered coconut oil:

In the case of topically used coconut oil – that is, where you use the oil externally, outside of your dog’s body (eg on their skin) – there health claims are perhaps smaller than those made regarding orally administered oil. And crucially, have more evidence to support that there may be some truth to them. The proposed health benefits of topic coconut oil include:

Improving appearance of skin and coat:

There is pretty strong evidence to suggest that coconut oil does improve the overall condition of your dog’s skin and coat. It’s been shown to be useful in treating dry, itchy skin, eczema and hot spots, as well as bites and stings. At the same time, it’s been shown to help improve the overall gloss, shine and condition of dogs’ fur.

Acting as a treatment for allergens and mites:

Another suggested benefit of using coconut oil topically is that it can help with ectoparasites, like fleas, lice, mites and ticks. It’s also proposed to be a good treatment for dogs with mange and to be a soothing balm for dogs who have an allergic reaction / allergens.

There is some evidence to support these claims, however it’s not very strong and should be interpreted with caution. For these reasons, it’s still important to speak to your vet if your dog has an allergic reaction or any ectoparasites.

What’s the verdict?

So, what does all of this mean? What’s the verdict on coconut oil? In short, while there is evidence that coconut oil has beneficial topical uses and, for some dogs, including it in their diet in moderation can be better than other oils, it’s not a magic cure-all.

It is also important to note that many of the studies of the health benefits of medium-chain fatty acids have been conducted with manufactured oils derived in part from coconut oil or other plant oils — that don’t contain lauric acid. It is therefore important not to draw conclusions about the benefits of coconut oil based on studies with oils called medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils.

I hope you found this blog interesting. If you have any questions or would like help selecting an appropriate consultation for your dog please feel free to contact us: