One of the recent health trends in pet nutrition is buying coconut oil for dogs. The benefits of coconut oil for humans have been lauded for many decades. It has also become a subject of many debates.
Nonetheless, humans have been enjoying a variety of uses for coconut oil: everything from maintaining healthy hair and skin to helping regulate metabolism and improve cardiovascular health.
But can dogs eat coconut oil? Does canine physiology allow coconut oil to benefit their health, too? More importantly, what does science has to say about the benefits of coconut oil for dogs?
There’s some credible evidence to support the health claims of this now popular oil. This article will take a look at all the unfounded claims and the proven benefits of coconut oil for dogs, and whether you should incorporate this oil in your pet’s diet or not.
What is Coconut Oil?
The main nutrient in coconut oil are saturated fats (90% of calories), of which about 50% are lauric acid. Another part of these fats (about 20%) are made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
This number of saturated fats makes coconut oil a perfect oil for high-heat cooking (1). It’s a myth that saturated fats are bad. This has been debunked many times already (2, 3, 4). On top of that, unrefined coconut oil does not contain any trans fats (the bad ones).
Why did coconut oil receive a bad reputation?
A few decades ago, poorly structured studies resulted in labeling coconut oil totally bad. Their biggest argument was that it may cause heart problems and other cardiovascular diseases. However, the problem with the design of initial studies was them using refined hydrogenated oil (copra oil) containing trans fats.
Further research has disputed many of the negative claims towards coconut oil.
The truth is that hydrogenated oils have very little to do with organic, unrefined virgin coconut oil which is the main product sold today. So it’s not bad. But what about the health benefits of coconut oil?
Coconut oil benefits for humans
First of all, we’ve seen that some populations with high consumption of coconut oil had good/better health and were at no risk of cardiovascular diseases (5, 6). While the MCTs take up only around 20% of space in coconut oil’s caloric profile, a more abundant lauric acid can also provide many health benefits (7).
It has been shown that lauric acid helps to kill bacteria and viruses in the body, thus making coconut oil effective against infections (8, 9, 10). In animal studies, unrefined virgin coconut oil reduced levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and increased levels of HDL cholesterol (the good one) (7, 11, 12).
Summary: Coconut oil is a healthy edible oil. It received a bad rap initially which has since been disputed. There are multiple proven health benefits of coconut oil in humans.
Coconut Oil for Dogs’ Weight Loss
Now let’s take a look at the side effects and benefits of coconut oil for dogs.
Aside from potential improvements of cardiovascular health, another known claim about coconut oil is its ability to help regulate metabolism and become an effective tool for weight loss.
Pitfalls of using coconut oil for canine weight loss
Unfortunately, research on coconut oil and dogs is seriously lacking, but some data is available.
When coconut oil (CNO) is introduced to low fat commercial dog food diet, or made part of a low-fat cholesterol-free diet, it was shown to elevate serum cholesterol and phospholipids when compared to a CNO-free low-fat diet (20, 21, 22, 23).
This means that a dogs’ cholesterol levels (both LDL and HDL) not only increase, but fat molecules are also more easily transported through the body.
The spike in both levels was most noticeable during the initial days of implementation and grew as the level of coconut oil was increased (24). It seems that a coconut oil focused diet is ineffective for weight loss in canines.
Further research showed that compared to dogs consuming a diet of unsaturated long chain fatty acids, dogs fed coconut oil typically experience a lower body weight reduction, while maintaining a higher fat mass (25). Not only this type of diet hinder weight loss but it may actually promote weight gain in dogs.
On the extreme end of the spectrum, a cholesterol and coconut oil heavy diet may lead to atherogenesis, the development of fatty plaques in the canine’s arteries.
Here’s some evidence: after a mere 3 days of giving coconut oil to dogs, red cell cholesterol/phospholipid levels shot through the roof, while membrane fluidity plummeted. This was followed by the development of several abnormalities in liver function (26).
Atherogenesis leads to atherosclerosis in dogs, the clogging of the arteries by fatty deposits. Moreover, after a couple of days on a diet rich in coconut oil, blood flow in dogs may decrease not only because of the clogged arteries but also because of the thickening of the blood itself.
Positive results when combining with other nutrients
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to benefits of coconut oil for dogs and weight loss. Evidence shows that when a dog is fed food containing coconut oil and then supplemented with L-carnitine, lipoic acid, lysine, leucine and fiber, canine is shown to lose weight and have improvements in body condition (27).
It is important to note that this was observed during the weight-maintenance phase and that the improved energy metabolism is attributed more to the overall composition of the food rather than a single ingredient.
On the same vein of thought, dog food with coconut oil, fish oil and L-carnitine have demonstrated an ability to offset the effects of aging (28). Such a diet increases the serum levels of lauric and myristic fatty acids and decreases concentrations of serum fatty acids (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and arachidonate.
What this all means is that pet owners need to diversify what they feed dogs and to ensure that pets receive a healthy dose of “good fats” and other nutrients along with coconut oil.
Summary: Evidence isn’t strong enough to show that coconut oil can help dogs lose weight. In fact, some research shows that dogs may even gain weight on a coconut oil heavy diet. Other adverse effects are possible, but further research is needed.
Other Applications of Coconut Oil for Dogs
Weight loss isn’t the only selling point of coconut oil. There are other potential side effects and health benefits of coconut oil for dogs, so let’s take a look at its different applications.
Coconut oil for dogs’ skin and hair
Fortunately, this trend seems to also hold true when it comes to dogs. Canines with very little hair or those that are constantly exposed to dry, arid heat can benefit from a liberal application of coconut oil.
There’s evidence that coconut oil can help clear up eczema, dry skin, bites and stings (31).
Coconut oil possesses antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties (8, 9, 10]. It’s used to treat yeast, fungal infections and bacterial infestation, but further research is needed (32).
Issues with dog’s odorant detection
It’s possible that too much coconut oil can mess with the dog’s sense of smell. A study observed that consistently giving coconut oil for dogs has led to a decrease in odorant-detecting capabilities in working dogs (33).
The group believes that the high volume of saturated fats in coconut oil may be disrupting the function of the canines’ olfactory system. As with the rest of the studies, further research is needed for a more conclusive assessment.
Coconut oil for parasites in dogs
Multiple sources claim that coconut oil can help with parasite problems in dogs. So far, there’s been only one study with 60 canines evaluating the effectiveness of dog shampoos with coconut oil against ectoparasites (34).
The results have shown coconut oil dog shampoos to be economical and effective against ectoparasites in dogs (fleas, ticks, lice and mites). However, the study isn’t well-designed and there seems to be a strong bias in the group.
Coconut oil and mange mites in dogs
Further into the parasites area, it’s been claimed that coconut oil can help with mange in dogs and specifically mange mites. The same research group from the above citation has conducted a study with 15 dogs to test the effectiveness of coconut oil soaps against mange in dogs (35).
Unsurprisingly, this study found coconut oil soap to be effective against mites. I would advise to remain skeptical of these last two papers. Further research is required.
Summary: Coconut oil may indeed help with infections, wound healing, dry skin, bites and fungi in dogs, but more research is needed. On the downside, coconut oil may lead to a decrease in dog’s odorant-detecting capabilities.
Unfounded Claims About Coconut Oil for Dogs
By now, based on weak evidence, we know that the main reason owners may wish to include coconut oil in a dog’s diet is to potentially help with weight loss, improve cardiovascular health and fight infections.
The problem we have today is that many sources create unsubstantiated claims for the health benefits of coconut oil, thus further driving the community of skeptics to discredit this product.
Here are some of the unproven statements on the benefits of coconut oil for dogs:
- Coconut oil helps with allergies in dogs
- Coconut oil deodorizes coats of dogs
- Coconut oil helps with canine diabetes
- Coconut oil helps with canine cancer
- Coconut oil helps with canine thyroid disease
- Coconut oil improves digestion in dogs
- Coconut oil eliminates coughing in dogs
- Coconut oil cures IBD and digestive disorders
- Coconut oil eliminates bad breath in dogs
- Coconut oil promotes thyroid functions in dogs
- Coconut oil increases energy levels in dogs
- Coconut oil helps with canine arthritis
- Coconut oil helps with periodontal disease in dogs
In reality, there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to any of these claims.
But at the end of the day, even if most of the health benefits of coconut oil are not proven, it still remains one of the healthiest oils out there, and a top choice for cooking either for yourself or your pet. Why not enjoy some coconut oil and take it for what it is?
Why spread the rumors?
So if there’s no reason to claim any of the above benefits of coconut oil, why do so?
First, similarly to many other fads in nutrition, coconut oil is a big business. A multitude of online sources writing about coconut oil, both for humans and animals, are usually natural health websites that are selling holistic products, with coconut oil among them.
Second, this can sometimes come from good intentions. Improperly breaking down studies or basing everything on single-case anecdotal evidence is where a lot of false claims on the health benefits and side effects of products such as coconut oil are born.
It’s advisable to stay skeptical and wait for better designed coconut oil studies in the future.
Summary: Many websites selling coconut oil products spread rumors about the benefits of coconut oil for dogs, majority of which are completely false.
Is Coconut Oil Safe for Dogs to Use?
Unfortunately, we have yet to see any controlled trials on the safety of coconut oil for dogs. However, when given in regular doses and with an otherwise balanced diet, there have been no reported side effects of coconut oil in dogs or humans.
So is coconut oil bad for dogs? Not at all. When given in normal doses, coconut oil seems to be entirely safe for dogs to consume or use topically.
Potential minor adverse effects from orally supplying too much coconut oil for dogs may include usual gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and vomiting.
Summary: Coconut oil is likely safe for dogs when given in normal doses alongside a healthy, balanced diet.
How Much Coconut Oil for Dogs is Needed?
We’ve concluded that there’s little reason to give coconut oil to dogs. However, many owners may still want to know how much coconut oil for dogs is safe or recommended.
Since there’s a lack of research on giving coconut oil to dogs, it’s difficult to find a sweet spot of how much coconut oil would produce the most optimum results for dog’s health.
Certain sources suggest the following oral servings initially:
- For puppies: 1/4 teaspoon of coconut oil
- For adult dogs: 1 teaspoon of coconut oil
If no side effects are observed after 2 weeks, the oral dosage can be increased to:
- 1 teaspoon of coconut oil per 10 lbs of dog’s body weight
Remember that there’s little basis for these doses, and it’s highly advisable to consult with a veterinarian before administering any amount of coconut oil for dogs in your household.
Topical administration will vary depending on the reason why coconut oil is used.
Take Home Message
Many of coconut oil health benefits hold true for people, but not dogs. However, coconut oil remains a top healthy oil choice in cooking for yourself or dogs. Coconut oil seems to be entirely safe for dogs in proper doses. Based on weak evidence, it may provide a few health benefits when administered orally or topically.
Starting slow with small dosages is best while observing for signs of negative, allergic reactions. Do have a goal in mind when giving dogs coconut oil as it will dictate the administration protocol.
Beware that a diet primarily composed of coconut oil run the risk of causing great harm to the animal. It’s important to give coconut oil to dogs only alongside a healthy and balanced diet.