Karen Helton Rhodes, DVM, Dip. ACVD Canine Skin Solutions, Inc.
Terri Bonenberger, DVM, Dip.ACVD www.HealthySkin4Dogs.com
Coconut oil supplementation seems to be the current trending fad in both human and veterinary medicine. Health care, nutrition/diets, and nutritional supplement fads are an unfortunate fact of life! The miracle cure is always right around the corner!
The media tends to capture these trends and perpetuate them with “soft science”. At best, most of these trends are harmless even though they may not be beneficial. At other times, trends can be dangerous.
I do not want to imply that beneficial discoveries have not been made by the exploitation of “popular soft science”. The problem is that it is very difficult for the consumer to know when they are being sold snake oil and when there is actually some real medical advantage. Many products are perfectly safe yet not medically effective! A prime example is the web product DERMagic which makes broad sweeping medical claims with no active ingredients or scientific data to support such claims. Many of my patients have fallen victim to these questionable internet claims! Media and marketing can make wood shavings appear to be the next great therapeutic breakthrough! Some of the popular canine nutritional supplements that are advertised heavily via television and radio fall squarely into this category. As veterinarians, we spend a large portion of our time during examinations debunking some of these popular myths.
So, let’s focus on coconut oil. Is it valuable or is it “snake oil”? This fad started in the human arena and then spread to the pet industry. We must all remember, “what is good for you is not always what is good for your dog”! Coconut oil is reported to prevent and treat a wide variety of health problems. Unfortunately, there is very little scientific data to support those claims. Medically unreliable sites (such as Dogs Naturally Magazine) make the claim that coconut oil can treat skin disease, allergies, gastrointestinal problems, infections, diabetes, cancer and quite surprisingly weight loss! These same arbitrary claims are made in popular human nutrition sites. Coconut oil is being called a “superfood” in some non-refereed articles. Physicians are battling the same misinformation as veterinarians!
The excessive number of beneficial claims makes it quite unbelievable!!
Even with a lack of scientific data could coconut oil be beneficial? The short answer is maybe. Coconut oil is derived from coconuts via cold pressing of the fruit or by hydrogenation (dried coconut). It is high in saturated fats that range from long-chain to medium chain triglycerides (MCT). Saturated fats have, historically, been associated with cardiovascular disease in people. Typically the long-chain triglycerides in the saturated fats have been considered to be the ones that increase cardiac risk. Medium-chain triglycerides may actually be protective. As such, foods (nuts and avocados) with high MCT are now considered to have some cardiac benefits! As we are all well aware, the data is constantly changing as to health benefits associated with specific nutritional components! It is hard to keep current!
Cardiac Claims: Coconut oil primarily entered the spotlight due to the high concentration of MCTs in the supplement. Much of the human medical community was initially focused on cardiac benefits. Unfortunately, the evidence of any beneficial effect in human medicine is indirect. Also, cardiac disease in dogs is vastly different in etiology from that noted in people. Extrapolation of data (even soft data) should not be applied to our canine patients.
Skin and Allergy: Claims then arose regarding benefits for the skin and other organ systems. Those claims are completely unsubstantiated clinically. The rationale is the fact that coconut oil contains dietary fatty acids. It is well known that essential fatty acids are important in a variety of organ systems, including the skin. Unfortunately, I have seen NO benefit from coconut oil in any of my allergy patients that are being fed coconut oil in their diet. I am still hopeful for topical moisturizing applications!
Weight Gain Rather Than Weight Loss : Weight gain is a large problem in both canine and human patients receiving coconut oil. Dogs fed coconut oil lost less weight and had more body fat than dogs on diets with other sources of fat. Physician’s claim that their patients using regular coconut oil supplementation experienced marked weight gain. So, it appears that the claim that coconut oil aids in weight loss is not only unsubstantiated….but wrong!
Is Coconut Oil Safe? Other than weight gain, yes it appears to be very safe. The most frequently reported problem has been diarrhea and anecdotal suggestions of pancreatitis.
How About Topically Applied Coconut Oil? This is likely where much of the future focus on coconut oil in veterinary medicine will be rooted. It may be an effective emollient to be used in combination with other medically active ingredients.
A recent list appeared in Dogster Magazine with “The top 10 reasons to add coconut oil to your dog’s diet” (article by Julia Szabo; the author references her own blogs as documentation)
1. improves overall skin health, clears eczema, flea allergies, contact dermatitis and itchy skin……NO proof
2. moisturizes the skin and makes the coat gleam…….Yes, likely
3. promotes healing of cuts, wounds, hotspots, bites, stings…..NO proof
4. antifungal & antibacterial; reduces dog odor…….NO proof
5. prevents and treats yeast infections……NO proof
6. improve digestion and nutrient absorption…….NO proof
7. reduces or eliminates dog breath……..NO proof
8. helps prevent diabetes……….NO proof
9. reduces weight/ improves arhtritis……….NO, the exact opposite, coconut oil causes weight gain!
10. excellent for brain health……NO proof
Unfortunately, none of the author’s claims can be substantiated or scientifically documented. Coconut oil is a current trend with volumes of misinformation being perpetuated by such articles as the one that was featured in Dogster Magazine.
Another article touting the benefits of coconut oil was written by Wellness Mama @ wellnessmama.com. This author repeats many of the same claims as those that appeared in Dogster but, once again, they are unsupported by scientific information. Wellness Mama makes a statement that “many vets and researchers today are recommending the regular use of coconut oil for dogs….”. That statement is vastly untrue, as veterinarians and nutritionists are advising against the oral supplementation of coconut oil due to the high fat content and associated weight gain. This author also states that you can ward off fleas by “brushing with coconut oil every few weeks”. There is absolutely no factual basis for this statement!
Of special interest to dermatologists is the proposed use of coconut oil and other lauric oils, as well as oregano, in the treatment of staphylococcal bacterial infections. In an older article from 10 years ago, one researcher evaluated the antimicrobial properties of these ingredients “in vitro”. That means that the studies were done in a laboratory and NOT in an animal or person. That type of study would be called “in vivo”. There was a very limited study also done in mice (“in vivo”). Laboratory testing did find that coconut oil exhibited antimicrobial properties BUT that data cannot be extrapolated to infer that coconut oil (or oregano) is an excellent treatment for staphylococcal infections as many bloggers have stated. That is simply too far to stretch the data. Internet bloggers making statements such as “It is now clear and scientifically validated that the inclusion of coconut oil in the diet could and should be utilized for its preventative and healing properties” (quoted from Westin A. Price Foundation) based on this research is ludicrous and misleading to the public.
There are numerous articles and books stating the beneficial effects on coconut oil. Documentation of proof is sparce, as much of the evidence stated as “proof” is rather circuitous and does not satisfy a direct “cause and effect”. Numerous anecdotal testimonials are used as “proof”. That type of science leads us down a slippery slope!
I wish I could tell you that coconut oil is the magical supplement that we have all been waiting for! Unfortunately, the rampant claims do not live up to scrutiny. It does not appear to be “harmful” (except for weight gain) but does NOT deliver on promises.