Healthcare and nutrition fads are an unfortunate fact of life. People are always looking for miracle cures and for clear, defined villains they can blame for illness and try to avoid. The media contributes to the process of fads coming and going by ignoring subtlety, nuance, and uncertainty in scientific research and presenting every new study as a dramatic paradigm shift that replaces existing error with absolute truth. The slow, halting, progress in real knowledge brought about in fits and starts by the scientific process and the community of science over time is still real progress, and it has yielded true revolutionary improvements in health. But it is harder to understand and to narrate and less emotionally satisfying than quick-well-quick schemes and medical bogeymen that we can blame for all our ills.
Healthcare fads in humans readily make the transition to fads among pet owners. Even though human health problems, and their causes and solutions, are often quite different from the health problems our pets experience, people naturally tend to think that if something is good or bad for them it must be similarly good or bad for their pets. Often, even when there is some real scientific evidence for the benefits or risks of some healthcare practice in people, there is little or no evidence to support claims about these practices applied to our pets. Extrapolation from people to pets is inevitable, but it is also very risky.
One fad that has been going on for a few years now in human nutrition, and which is being touted for pets as well by proponents of alternative medicine, is the use of coconut oil to prevent or treat a wide variety of health problems. Some sites, including the ever-unreliable Dogs Naturally Magazine, claim coconut oil can prevent or treat skin disease, allergies, gastrointestinal problems, infections, diabetes, and cancer, and can even help with weight loss. Let’s have a look at this supposed “superfood” and what it can or can’t do for us and our pets.
What Is It?
Coconut oil comes, not surprisingly, from coconuts. Conventionally, it has been produced from dried coconut meat through a process that often includes hydrogenation, however sites promoting coconut oil for health often prefer “virgin” oil obtained through cold pressing of fresh coconut. Coconut oil consists primarily of saturated fats, mostly a fat called lauric acid. These fats range from long-chain to medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). It does not contain trans-fats.
The types of fat in coconut oil are the center of discussions about its health effects. At one time, it was considered the worst type of dietary fat because saturated fats had been generally linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). As the evidence has accumulated and been refined, however, it has turned out that different kinds of saturated fats have different potential health effects. Trans fats and long-chain fatty acids appear to elevate the type of cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins) which increase CVD risk. Other fats, such as medium-chain triglycerides, seem to increase high-density lipoproteins, which may be protective against CVD. Many foods once considered likely to increase CVD risk, such as nuts and avocados, are now believed to be neutral or even possibly protective with regard to CVD.
Some of the fats in coconut oil are MCTs, and this is the foundation for most claims about the potential health benefits of coconut oil. However, only about 15-20% of the fats in coconut oil are true MCTs, and the effects of the most prevalent, lauric acid, on cholesterol are the subject of debate.
Most of the claims about health effects in humans for coconut oil focus on prevention of heart disease, treatment of diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, and beneficial effects on weight loss. However, all kinds of other dramatic claims are easily found. In pets, CVD is a far different and generally less common entity, so the claims are more general, focusing especially on skin health, gastrointestinal health, and infections, though some vets claim they have cured cancers with it.
Does It Work?
The evidence for beneficial effects from coconut oil in humans is almost all indirect. Studies looking at MCTs in the diet show some potential benefits, and the proponents of coconut oil then extrapolate to assume that this product must have these benefits because it contains MCTs. This is a tenuous type of extrapolation at best. Claims for coconut oil are also often supported mostly by in vitro or lab animal research, which unfortunately can only prove an effect is possible, not that it will actually, reliably, and safely be seen in human patients.
One excellent summary of the existing research summarizes the evidence this way:
Coconut oil is not a cure-all. Research supporting claims of its role in preventing, reducing risk for, or curing HIV/AIDS, diabetes, thyroid disease, or Alzheimer’s disease is sparse or non-existent. There is little evidence to suggest it has a significant effect on inflammation or bacterial infection when consumed in food. And the pre-clinical research in cancer is mixed. Considerable research is needed to determine whether such claims may one day be substantiated. Further research may also help to clarify the potentially beneficial effect of coconut oil on HDL cholesterol levels and waist circumference. In order to reduce cardiovascular disease risk through diet, it will be necessary to determine the appropriate balance of dietary fatty acids that will favorably affect a range of cardiovascular risk factors. It is possible to include coconut oil in a healthful diet. Rather than focus on the saturated fat content of this single food ingredient, it is important to acknowledge that coconut oil contains a blend of fatty acids and other nutrients. It should not replace a significant amount of other plant oils in the diet. Those who enjoy the flavor of coconut oil may consider using it in place of butter or shortening, or paired with other cooking oils. Coconut oil can be one of a wide variety of plant-based foods that are included to support health and wellness, keeping in mind that only small amounts should be consumed.
As usual, there is almost no research available in dogs and cats, and the claims made for coconut oil in these species are extrapolated from human medicine, where we have seen the evidence is not strong to begin with. One study that added coconut oil to dog food to see if it would help with weight loss 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. Another study looked at various fats, including coconut oil, and exercise and how they affected the odorant detecting ability of dogs. It isn’t clear this has any clinical relevance to anything, but in any case the dogs getting the coconut oil seemed to have some decline in odorant detecting ability.
Some research has suggested that coconut oil shampoo may be effective against some common parasites in dogs. Another study indicated effectiveness against mange mites. However, both studies were conducted by the same research group with a strong bias in favor of such “natural” treatments and without some key controls for bias, so they need to be replicated to confirm these findings.
There is no clinical research of any kind showing a significant benefit from dietary or topical coconut oil in the prevention or treatment of any significant health problem.
Is It Safe?
No significant short-term risks have been identified for dietary coconut oil in humans in reasonable quantities, though diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems have been reported. Long-term safety and effect on obesity, CVD< and other health risks hasn’t been determined.
Similar gastrointestinal symptoms have been reported in dogs, and there are anecdotal reports of more serious problems such as pancreatitis. There is no controlled research evidence investigating the safety of coconut oil in dogs and cats.
There are some theoretical reasons to think the types of fat found in non-hydrogenated coconut oil might have health benefits in humans, but there is no conclusive research to support this. There is virtually no research on coconut oil in dogs and cats, apart from some studies looking at topical use for treatment of parasites. Therefore, the health effects, both risks and benefits, are unknown and supported only by unreliable anecdotal evidence.
Makes wonderful apple crumble, though (apple crisp for the transpontines).
I’ve also found coconut oil helpful in combing the knots out my daughter’s hair when we ran out of spray conditioner. Also tasty when used with roasted potatoes.
Thanks for this. I know they like the taste, the scent discrimination is very interesting though! How about another biggie: bovine colostrum?
Perhaps you need to look at the people who have used it for almost two decades and the testimonials from those pet owners. The study also has to start looking at whether the diet consists of GMO or non GMO foods as the effects of GMO foods is not known at this time.
Perhaps you could consider some of the reasons why testimonials and uncontrolled experience doesn’t actually help us much to understand whether things work or not.
A few things to think about:
Don’t Believe your Eyes (or Your Brain)
Medical Miracles: Should We Believe?
Alternative medicine and placebo effects in pets
Placebo effects in epileptic dogs
Medical Practices Once Widely Accepted that Proved Ineffective or Harmful when Studied Scientifically
How about another biggie: bovine colostrum?>>>> a previous head of the florida state medical veterinary board sells and promotes the stuff on the internet. Just what we need, regulatory agencys run by quacks who should be regulated from selling unproven medical care by the agency they head.
It appears Hill’s and Purina are formulating diets based on unscientific data. I would expect more from them.
Several of the Hill’s weight loss foods include coconut oil and Hill’s says on their website “Fatty acids from coconut oil help dogs lose weight.” http://www.hillspet.com/products/ib-canine-adult-slim-and-healthy-chicken-barley-dry.html
Purina is touting coconut oil for a healthy brain in senior dogs. “The first phase centred on developing neuron-targeted nutrition with a blend of nutrients sourced from vegetable oils, such as coconut oil, and was focused on improving memory function in older dogs.” http://www.nestle.com/media/newsandfeatures/purina-brain-protection-blend-for-aging-pets
Can we assume then that Hills and Purina are using unscientific data when discussing the benefits of coconut oil and formulating diets based on that unscientific data?
It’s not that the data is unscientific. There is scientific evidence suggesting some possible benefits. The problem is that the companies are taking this weak, suggestive evidence and using it to support claims of actual clinical benefits, which haven’t been proven. They are making claims that are plausible but haven’t yet been adequately validated. Of course, in vet med the evidence is often les in quantity and quality than we would like, and we do have to take action anyway. But with stem cells and nutraceuticals and other plausible but unproven interventions, we need to be careful about the claims we make so that they don’t go beyond the available evidence. Sadly, I think this is a case or marketing outstripping science.
Bovine colostrum? Yet another cruel and unnecessary exploitation of this unfortunate species?
And the effect of GMO foods is pretty well known…the effects of turning one’s back on their promise is well known, too: ask the banana farmers in Uganda who are desperate to salvage their livelihoods by getting their hands on disease-resistant GMO bananas but cannot because the legislation (forced on countries by – for a change – the rich in Europe and the US) can’t be passed quick enough.
Thanks for sharing this information! It seems like it might take a few years to know if coconut oil is truly beneficial in pets’ health.
I asked for this, and you posted it on my birthday 😀 Ironically my (initially pro) coconut oil for pets article was edited today for Hubpages, now I can link to this post and provide some quotations.
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My dog has a skin irritation from chafing against his harness in sand and saltwater, and I wanted to see if putting coconut oil on it would be helpful–or at least safe–to soothe and lubricate the irritation until it can heal. I seem to have stumbled into a whole world of wacky theories I didn’t even know existed! I guess the takeaway is that if he ingests a little of it by licking, at least it won’t kill him.
Thanks for the article! Most ‘evidence’ i have come across seems anecdotal at best and the idea of giving an animal vast amounts of dietary fats without any proven benefits makes me more than just uneasy. The possibility of inducing pancreatitis and CVD were my biggest concerns so im glad i finally found an article that addressed it!
I’m sure there are no studies done about it, but is there any experience in practice for using coconut oil topically for relief associated with canine atopic dermatitis? There is at least one study done concerning using coconut oil for skin conditions in humans (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15724344).
I’m primarily looking for something to help manage acute symptoms when my dog has flare-ups and management of dry skin. Seeing as coconut oil is used by people for similar conditions and is edible for dogs, I was hoping for some guidance (or alternatives) as to whether or not it may be safe to use on my pup.
No research on topical coconut oil for atopy in dogs that I am aware of, and I have never heard of anyone using it this way. I doubt it has any significant dangers used this way, but in general topical therapies have been underwhelming for this condition, so I would be surprised if it had dramatic benefits either.
As much as I want to believe that coconut oil causes anosmia in dogs to prove how stupid this coconut oil fad is. I regrettably have to inform you the study you cited on that was of poor quality. The diets were mixed and the p value for the coconut oil relationship was 0.1 but for some reason was erroneously interpreted as significant. Unless that was a typo, most science studies consider a p value < 0.05 as significant.
Thanks for the update. DO you have a link to the original study I can look at?
You should check who is doing any of the research that is done on any natural solution. Many times all the research we read about on any of this stuff is being done by either a lab owned by, or has a connection to, a drug company or a university or college that has been funded by drug companies. Any research should be determine if it is coming from a true lab that is funded by donations or by independent groups of unbiased & unconnected individuals.
The drug industry does NOT want any natural or holistic substance to get any positive feedback.
The issue of funding bias is far more complicated than just “drug companies are bad.” Industry funded research is more likely to find conclusions favorable to industry, but this holds as much for supplement and herbal remedy companies as for conventional pharmaceutical companies. And Big Pharma does want “natural” substances to get positive results because they sell a lot of them. The supplement industry is worth billions, and pharmas are very involved in it.
There are also many sources of bias other than financial. Ideological bias is a huge problem. Nobody sets out to do a study to disprove their own beliefs, so people almost always find what they want to find unless they are meticulous about their research methods for controlling bias. Most “holistic” medicine research is done by true believers and done with lousy controls for bias, so the positive results are not surprising and rarely reliable. Cultural bias is also an issue. Several reviews have found, for example, that some countries almost never publish any negative research, which means the positive research published there is more a reflection of cultural bias than the positive effects of the treatments studied.
If you accept coconut oil is helpful because you believe the positive research or the anecdotes but choose to doubt or reject any negative research, then you are simply selecting evidence to support your existing beliefs, and that is just as biased as anything pharma does.
I know this post is super old, but I did want to add in case it helps someone. I had a dog who developed a hot spot due (we think) to a soy allergy after we switched his food brand. The vet treated him with steroids, which gave him diabetes. After this the dog lived for 5 years on insulin and a home made diet, but once or twice a year the hot spot would return. We found that trimming the fur around it and treating it topically with coconut oil DEFINITELY cleared the spot up quickly, and was more effective than the toxic oral steroids prescribed by the vet. The dog also got small amounts of coconut oil in his food when he seemed itchy. I’m not sure if it helped with itchy skin, but it didn’t hurt. Living from age 10-15 in a diabetic dog is amazing, and diabetes didn’t kill him in the end – cancer did.
Well, I wouldn’t call 1 year “super old” 🙂
Unfortunately, observations like this seem very convincing, but they are not reliable predictors of whether or not a treatment work. There seem to support pretty much everything, even things we can show don’t actually work. Here is some more discussion (and a little humor) to illustrate why:
Why Anecdotes Can’t Be Trusted
You say that anecdotes can’t be trusted, yet turn around and use anecdotal reports as your only “evidence” of risks to feeding dogs coconut oil. Excuse me for saying so, but your position seems hypocritical on its face.
Nope. Anecdotes are not proof because they are a low-level of evidence subject to bias and error. If I were to say, “Coconut oil kills dogs!” and had only an anecdote to demonstrate this, I would be using anecdote as my main source of evidence, and this would not justify such a strong conclusion. Here’s what I actually said:
Notice how I mention that there are only anecdotes and while this suggests the possibility of risks we cannot know for sure since we don’t have controlled research? This is how anecdotes should be used, to suggest a hypothesis which then can only be confirmed or rejected on the basis of better evidence. It’s also not even close to what you are accusing me of doing.
I agree. Why haven’t studied been done on coconut oil to treat dermatitis in dogs?! Nothing was working and my dog was miserable so I added this and she no longer scratches all day and all night. Maybe placebo works on dogs too!
Placebos don’t “work” on anybody, they just fool us into thinking something we’ve done is responsible for the changes we see. There is evidence for fish oil and allergic dermatitis, but not for coconut oil, and the type of fatty acids it contains are unlikely to have the same anti-inflammatory effects, so while it’s great your pet is doing better that isn’t proof that coconut oil is the reason why.
Here is more about why anecdotes don’t tell us the real story.
Why Anecdotes Can’t Be Trusted
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