When the latest health craze coconut oil started making itself known I was confused. The only knowledge I had about coconut oil was from when I was a child. We used to have this popcorn making contraption that went on the stove and you always started with a gob of coconut oil before you put in the popcorn kernels. It made the best popcorn ever. That was until we became aware of polyunsaturated fats and the health concerns surrounding them. We then switched to vegetable oil, but the popcorn was not the same so the contraption got scrapped and we got an air popper.
In the last year there has been a surge in the number of veterinary patients that are either being supplemented or having ailments “treated”(notice I put that in quotations) with coconut oil. Over the last few months I have observed that at least two clients report daily that they are supplementing their pets with coconut oil. I always ask what the coconut oil is for and I am finding the responses disheartening. It seems that our new social media information highway may be leading us astray.
So what is coconut oil? Much like olive oil is made from olives and canola oil is made from canola, coconut oil is the fat extracts from coconuts and is a solid at room temperature. It is loaded with energy at 890 calories/100g. It is really high in polyunsaturated fats. It is used in biodiesel in warm climates, baking, soap production, and as a skin moisturizer.
It you do a google search and look at the benefits it is reported to help with about every ailment (glaucoma – HIV/AIDS treatment). If you were to perform a pubmed search looking for scientific literature to back those claims up you would be left wanting.
So why are people using it on their pets. Many people will use it to treat for dry and itchy skin. While coconut oil would be useful for dry and itchy skin most of our pets have itchy skin for other reasons. Allergies, Fleas, and lice top the list. Coconut oil is unfortunately not helpful with any of those.
The most common reason I hear about coconut oil use in pets is as a top dressing on their food to help with skin and hair coat. When we talk about oils and skin and hair coat we would be looking for oils high in omega 3&6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, the amount of those fatty acids in coconut oil is almost negligible. There are many other oils that are much better. We carry several products designed for just this reason and they contain a mixture of different oils so that the ratio of omega 3 to 6 fatty acids is just right for skin health. Unfortunately, no one oil meets this criteria.
80% of the veterinary patients I see are overweight. Supplementing these pets with an energy dense fat on top of their diet is not helpful especially when the supplement will not help achieve the intended goal. So now supplementing with coconut oil has the possibility of doing harm.
I do see dogs and cats that present for ear and skin infections where the owner has been topically “treating” the infection with coconut oil. Coconut oil does not have antibacterial or anti-inflammatory properties and would not be helpful. It would not be harmful either as topical coconut oil is benign. The harm comes when an owner believes the information available on the internet to the many touted uses of coconut oil and delays proper treatment of these infections hoping that the coconut oil will be an all-natural fix. In the mean time, the pet may suffer.
I understand the desire for natural or alternative treatments to Western medications. At the Sylvan Lake Veterinary Clinic, we do our best to support this desire. Since we practice evidence medicine our recommendations must have scientific backing that the treatment will produce the desired effect. As I walk around the clinic I see a lot of these products; glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis, Liver support supplements that include milk thistle, anxiety supplements that include colostrum and our therapeutic laser that helps with pain and inflammation. Dr. Jameson offers acupuncture and laser therapy in conjunction with western pain medications for some of our major surgeries. I can find published studies in peer reviewed journals that show the benefit of using these therapies.
The pet food and supplement market is huge. Many companies are trying to get into this market and some will use fear based marketing and others will use fraudulent marketing. This is compounded by the fact that there is little to no regulation on this marketplace and one can say that their coconut oil will help with ear or skin infections without fear of any repercussions.
Now I don’t want to be a complete Negative Nancy when it comes to coconut oil. Coconut oil is the most available oil that is high in medium chained triglycerides(MCT). MCT’s have been shown to be helpful with geriatric cognitive function. There are now diets available that have MCT’s from coconut oil added to them for just this reason. There is evidence that MCT’s can be helpful for some dogs with epilepsy. The problem is supplementing with coconut oil and not unbalancing the diet can be tricky. Less than 10 % of calories can come from oils and since coconut oil is so calorie dense this is difficult especially in small dogs. My current recommendation would be to use a balanced diet that already contains these medium chained triglycerides. Currently I can only think of one food available, but I would not be surprised if there are others on the market shortly.
In summary, I am not coconuts over coconut oil. I feel that the information available on the internet is often misleading people as to the uses and benefits of this oil. Whenever an owner wants to try an alternative therapy I strongly recommend talking with one of our medical professionals first. It doesn’t cost anything and some human supplements can cause harm in our veterinary patients.