Dear Dr. Thompson: I read that coconut oil is good for a dog's coat and breath and have been giving our 55-pound golden retriever mix five teaspoons of coconut oil per day mixed in with his food. He likes the flavor and acts fine, but I began to wonder if there is any potential medical risk. Thanks for your advice.
Coconut oil has been advocated for any number of conditions in people, and to lesser extent animals. The oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, which contribute to being very calorie dense, but its health benefits have not been fully quantified in pets. For people, it has been studied as a topical therapy for dry skin and anecdotally suggested as a supplement for Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Healthy oil supplements often are recommended for pets with dry skin or inflammatory disease conditions, but those are for the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. A healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids can help decrease the number of inflammatory mediators in unhealthy skin. Many pet foods are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, but do not have high levels of omega-3, so supplementation is often prescribed.
However, all oils are not created equal and some have excessive levels of the pro-inflammatory omega-6. There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which is found in plant-based oils like flax seed or canola, and eicosapentoic acids (EPA) and docosahexanoic acids (DHEA) from fatty fish oils. The human body can convert some ALA to DHEA and EPA, but dogs are not as efficient, so DHEA and EPA-rich fish oils are generally recommended as supplements. They can come in liquid form or capsules and most dogs need between 500 mg and 1,000 mg per day. Since most pet foods already contain high levels of omega-6, oils like safflower, soybean, and cottonseed should be avoided.
There are some reports of coconut oil causing diarrhea from the amount of fat. High-fat diets also can trigger pancreatic inflammation in some dogs that are susceptible, but generally it is safe in moderate amounts.
My main concern with the amount of oil you are supplementing is the number of extra calories you are adding to his diet. One teaspoon contains approximately 39 calories, so you are giving him the equivalent of a glazed doughnut each day. For a breed that is prone to carrying a few extra pounds, the added calories could be disastrous. In my opinion, a more beneficial and lower calorie choice would be fish oil or an omega-3 supplement.
Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.
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