Coconut Oil – The Science Behind Its Many Benefits
The modern pet food market provides pet owners with a wide variety of supplements for dogs and cats. With so many brands of supplement to choose from, it can be difficult knowing which one is right for your pet. One supplement that has been gaining popularity in both the human and pet food market in recent years is Coconut oil. This supplement boasts a long list of potential health benefits. These include; being antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and even slowing the deterioration of the brain in older pets.
At Thoughtful Pets, we have researched these claims to find the science behind the marketing of coconut oil, and to see what benefits it truly offers pets.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat composed of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs)1. Saturated fats are often considered to be unhealthy and are believed to be the cause of cholesterol build-up in arteries often resulting in heart disease. While high amounts of saturated fat can cause health issues, controlled amounts of certain saturated fats are a beneficial source of energy and essential fatty acids2.
As coconut oil is made-up of MCTs, it is easily absorbed and utilised by the body and does not build-up as fat in the arteries or soft tissue3. When MCTs enter the body, they are absorbed through the mesenteric capillaries, a collection of blood vessels that feed directly to the intestines4. This ensures that the fatty acids are absorbed quickly and efficiently from the intestines to the liver5. Therefore, coconut oil is not harmful to your pet’s health in the way that other saturated fats may be.
The MCTs that make-up coconut oil are: lauric acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, and linoleic acid6. Out of these fatty acids, lauric acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, and palmitic acid have proven beneficial properties.
Lauric acid is the most prevalent fatty acid, making up roughly 50% of coconut oil composition7. It has proven antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Once absorbed, lauric acid is known to attack and breaks down the protective outer layer of foreign bodies8. This renders the foreign body useless as it is unable to perform normal functions that allow it to replicate and increase infection. In human studies, lauric acid has been known to aid in the treatment of stomach viruses9 and skin infections10. When applied directly to the skin, coconut oil is a natural antiseptic and can protect the skin from infection and help with the disinfection of wounds and cuts11. Coconut oil can also help decrease and prevent gingivitis and the build-up of plaque12. This can be especially beneficial for senior pets, pets that do not tolerate their teeth being brushed regularly, or breeds that are more susceptible to dental disease (e.g. toy breeds of dog, short-nosed breeds such as pugs or Persian cats).
Caprylic acid is known to have properties beneficial to the brain and neurological conditions. In 2012, a study was conducted with mice diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The study found that mice that were administered caprylic acid “showed significant improvement” and suffered less damage to the neurons in the spinal cord13. This suggests that coconut oil can have a positive effect on pets suffering from neurological disorders or brain deterioration caused by old age.
This is supported further by another study conducted in 201014. It was found that adding MCTs into the diet of elderly dogs improved cognitive function, learning ability, and focus. It is theorised that the fatty acids provide the brain with an alternative energy source, and this is important for senior dogs as they may struggle to metabolise energy from their food sources as they age15.
Capric acid, much like lauric acid, is proven to have antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties16,17. It works in the same way as lauric acid, breaking down the outer layers of the virus, bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens. It is especially effective against yeast-based diseases, which appear in dogs and cats as either skin or ear infections. Capric acid effectively breaks down the outer membranes of the yeast cells in the body, helping to control the infection18. This can be especially beneficial for dogs or cats with reoccurring infections caused by allergies.
Studies have further shown that when coconut oil is applied to the skin of dogs diagnosed with sarcoptic mange it has a 98% success rate in curing the disease and preventing reoccurring infection19. This is due to the fatty acids present in the oil being absorbed into the skin and surrounding tissues.
Palmitic acid has been proven to be effective against viruses and bacteria in the same way as lauric and capric acid. It is especially effective against streptococcus20, a bacterial infection that in dogs and cats causes coughing, pneumonia, septicaemia, arthritis, and internal organ infections21. Palmitic acid is also highly effective against staphylococcus22, commonly known as a staph infection. Staph infections can affect both dogs and cats, and can also be transmitted to humans.
As well as having proven medical properties, palmitic acid is vital when fed alongside other fats. Its presence in your pet’s body allows fats to be absorbed more easily and quickly23. This results in the beneficial fatty acids in coconut oil working more effectively, and can also aid digestion and weight loss, as the body can utilise excess fat rather than store it24.
Coconut oil as a whole is found to be beneficial to diabetic animals. Studies on diabetes have shown that diabetic rats fed a coconut oil solution composed of 10 ml/kg body weight showed improvements in insulin production that allowed them to manage the disease more effectively25. It is believed that the positive effects coconut oil has on diabetes is due to an increase in antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants can help decrease the damage caused by diabetes and as a result, can decrease the chance of further complications forming as a result26.
It should be noted that coconut oil does contain small amounts of linoleic acid, an average of 1.2%27. We have discussed the effects of linoleic acid in a previous article, “Omega 3 and 6 Essential Fatty Acids: The Good, The Bad And The Harmful“. As it is only present in small amounts, it should cause no issues to dogs as they can process small amounts of this fatty acid. Cats cannot utilise any linoleic acid, so its presence in coconut oil has no benefit. As it is an omega-6 fatty acid, please ensure your pet’s diet contains suitable omega-3 fatty acids to balance the use of coconut oil as a supplement.
Although coconut oil appears to have overall benefits for your pet, we would not recommend it for dogs or cats with a diagnosed liver disease. This is due to the facts that all fats, whether they are saturated or unsaturated, are broken down and utilised by the liver. Therefore, if your dog or cat has a damaged liver, introducing higher levels of fats into their diet could cause further complications, regardless of other potential benefits. If you are in any doubt you should seek veterinary guidance.
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