From oils and treats to shampoos and balms, the humble coconut is making its way into a lot of pet products. How does this popular tropical food benefit your dog or cat’s health?
In recent years, the world has been discovering the health benefits of the coconut – not just for themselves, but for their dogs and cats too. And cracked open, a coconut’s nutritional profile certainly looks good. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, raw coconut pulp or “meat” is an excellent source of potassium, iron, fiber, magnesium and vitamin C. The water harvested from young coconuts is a ready source of electrolytes and enzymes, while the oil has a variety of health-giving applications. And more and more people are sharing these benefits with their dogs and cats.
Health benefits of coconut oil
According to veterinarian Dr. W. Jean Dodds and canine nutritionist Diana Laverdure, co-authors of Canine Nutrigenomics, dogs and cats can particularly benefit from coconut oil.
The therapeutic qualities of coconut oil appear to stem from its abundance of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The authors reference several studies, in which the findings suggested that MCTs break down more quickly in the bloodstream than regular fats, thereby delivering an accessible supply of non-carbohydrate energy. The research also indicates that MCTs help the body and brain utilize Omega 3 fatty acids more efficiently, and that MCTs can easily traverse the blood-brain barrier.
“The therapeutic qualities of coconut oil appear to stem from its abundance of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).”
- One specific pet-based study (Pan et al, 2010) supplemented the diets of 24 beagles with 5.5% MCT. The dogs, ranging in age from seven to 11, demonstrated measurable improvements in learning-related tasks after just two weeks, and even greater improvement after one month. It therefore appears that MCTs may help support an aging animal’s brain by supplying an alternative source of usable energy.
- Veterinarian Dr. Elizabeth Cutright, a founding consultant at Healthier Pets Naturally, says coconut oil offers other benefits as well. “We know that coconut oil is a healthy fat that exhibits anti-inflammatory properties,” she explains. “It has the potential to help support cell membranes, enhance skin and coat condition, aid in hormone balance, and support healthy thyroid function. Used as one component of a whole diet health protocol, it can also help support digestion and fat-soluble nutrient absorption.”
- Dr. Cutright also points to literature that highlights coconut oil’s antimicrobial effects, particularly against yeast. Former University of Maryland biochemist and dietary fats researcher Mary Enig, PhD, has specifically pointed to coconut oil’s high lauric acid content; her writings explain that this saturated fatty acid is used by the body to make a monoglyceride called monolaurin, which helps infants resist viral, bacterial or protozoal infections. Coconut oil is also high in caprylic acid, known for its antifungal properties.
Recently, the American Heart Association (AHA) updated its advice on saturated fat, which represents roughly 80% of the fat found in coconut oil. Based on its data review, the AHA maintains that saturated fat can raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Interestingly, the association only appears to have considered a somewhat limited subset of the 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews illustrating no well-defined link between heart disease and saturated fat intake. However, it’s still worth recognizing that coconut oil isn’t a cure-all for either people or pets.
“I find that people often think coconut oil is some sort of panacea, which it’s not,” says Dr. Cutright. She stresses that coconut in any form tends to offer the best therapeutic benefits when it’s combined with a healthful whole food approach.
When using the oil, says Dr. Cutright, “the biggest risk factor I see is either diarrhea, or in severe cases, pancreatitis. I haven’t seen cholesterol increases, but a few doctors feel they have witnessed this and/or weight gain – especially in cats.” While several studies appear to show that coconut oil’s lauric acid helps increase “good” HDL cholesterol, the extra fat consumption could pose a problem for certain pets.
To help minimize any risk, Dr. Cutright strongly recommends feeding coconut oil in lower doses. She also suggests adjusting the overall diet to account for the higher caloric intake resulting from coconut oil consumption.
“I personally use 1/8 teaspoon for cats and small dogs, once daily,” she explains. “For medium to large dogs, I use ¼ to ½ teaspoon daily. For giant dogs, I use ½ to 1 teaspoon daily, or 1/8 teaspoon per ten pounds of body weight.”
While coconut consumption is generally considered safe and healthy for pets, as with anything else, talk to your integrative or holistic veterinarian before introducing it to your dog or cat’s diet, and watch closely for allergic skin reactions, loose stools or other undesirable reactions. Used in moderation, however, in conjunction with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle, coconut can be a beneficial addition to your pet’s wellness regime.
You can find an extensive range of coconut-based products for pets. Some are edible, others topical.
Both Dr. Cutright and Dr. Dodds suggest choosing unrefined (virgin) cold-pressed coconut oil. This helps avoid possible pesticide contamination, while preserving optimum nutritional value. One product example is Wilderness Family Naturals Cherished Friends Coconut Oil. Cold-pressed organic coconut oil is also available in many grocery and health food stores.
Some companies dehydrate coconut meat into easily stored chips that make tasty training treats and food toppers. Coconut treats also help promote a healthy coat. CocoTherapy Organic Coconut Chips are a good choice. The company also offers coconut oil for dogs.
Coconut-enriched shampoo may help soothe minor skin irritation and promote softer coats. Coconut Clean Organic Dog Shampoo also includes neem plus a blend of essential oils to help discourage fleas and ticks. For cats, adding a drop of liquefied coconut oil to a natural shampoo can sometimes enhance its moisturizing benefits.
Certain non-toxic paw moisturizing balms are formulated with coconut oil to naturally protect your dog’s feet against snow, ice and salt. One choice is Muttluks Pawmagik Balm. Dr. Cutright notes that applying coconut oil topically may encourage some pets to lick it off. “In those cases, try playing with the dog following application to help distract his attention.”
Cats and coconut
Many cat owners wonder if coconut is safe for their feline friends. The short answer seems to be “yes”, although at least one report suggests that certain cats have an aversion to it.
As part of one study, researchers fed young healthy felines purified diets containing either hydrogenated coconut oil or MCTs. Recorded food intake appeared lower, and the cats lost weight. When the MCT content was enhanced, cats refused the food after one tasting.
“Several integrative vets have gone on record stating their preference for organic dairy butter over coconut oil with cats,” says Dr. Cutright. “Certain cats seem to prefer it taste-wise, and have fewer reactions. Veterinarian Dr. Richard Palmquist finds that it really helps older cats who have a hard time keeping on weight, or who struggle with stomach sensitivity.”