Coconut oil is celebrated by dog owners for its amazing health-boosting properties. Heck, we’ve even posted here on DNM about how great it is.
But I have to admit … I’ve never really given coconut oil to my own dogs.
My gut told me it wasn’t quite right.
Now I’m glad I listened to my gut. Because new research says your dog’s gut probably doesn’t like coconut oil either.
What Are MCTs?
Let’s start with the benefits of coconut oil … or rather a fraction of the coconut oil called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Fats are essentially chains of carbon atoms. And they’re classified into short, medium and long chain triglycerides (or fatty acids) by the number of carbon atoms they contain:
- Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) contain fewer than 6 carbon atoms.
- Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) contain 6 to 12 carbon atoms.
- Long chain triglycerides (LCTs) contain more than 12 carbon atoms.
Your dog doesn’t get SCFAs from his diet … they’re made by beneficial bacteria that live in his gut. MCTs and LCTs come from the foods he eats … but he mainly eats LCTs.
MCTs are found mainly in dairy products, palm and coconut oil. MCTs include these common fats:
- Caproic acid (6 carbon atoms)
- Caprylic acid (8 carbon atoms)
- Capric acid (10 carbon atoms)
- Lauric Acid (12 carbon atoms)
Let’s look at MCTs in more detail since these are the reason most owners give their dogs coconut oil.
The Health Benefits Of MCTs
There are a lot of benefits to feeding your dog MCT. MCTs can:
- Fuel the brain
- Form ketones that improve cognitive function in older dogs
- Reduce the number and severity of seizures
- Help with weight loss
- Lower blood sugar levels
- Reduce chronic inflammation
- Antimicrobial and antibacterial
Plus, one thing that makes MCTs uniquely beneficial is the way they’re digested …
Most fats your dog eats are LCTs (more than 12 carbon atoms). Because the chains of carbon atoms are longer, they take longer to break down in the digestive tract. And this requires more effort.
LCTs need the pancreas to release an enzyme called lipase for their digestion. Once they’re broken down, they need special proteins to escort them through the the cells lining the digestive tract (enterocytes). Once they’re through the intestinal wall cells, they move to the lymphatic system, where they’re transported to the thoracic duct by the heart … and they finally land in your dog’s blood.
Once in the blood, most LCTs are stored as fat, although some may travel to the liver to be converted for energy.
MCTs are digested differently than LCTs.
Once MCTs are broken down by lipase, they can freely cross into the circulation through the enterocytes. They travel directly into the blood and go straight to the liver. The liver then quickly converts them to ketones.
The liver can use ketones to fuel its own cells, help it detox or digest other foods. And the rest of the ketones go back into the blood where they’re used for fuel in the brain and the body.
Unlike LCTS, MCTs are often used by the body as fuel and are much less likely to be stored as fat. This is why MCTs are a great addition for dogs … you get the benefits without the extra calories. Since more than half of dogs are considered obese today, that’s a significant benefit.
But what about coconut oil? How much of these beneficial MCTs does it contain?
How Much MCT Is In Coconut Oil?
The amount of MCT in coconut oil depends on what you consider an MCT …
On average, coconut oil is about 2/3 MCTs. But half of that amount is lauric acid. And researchers say that’s a potential problem …
With 12 carbon atoms, lauric acid is officially considered an MCT.
But lauric acid doesn’t behave like a MCT. And it has a sordid past …
Why Lauric Acid Is Different Than MCTs
Lauric acid uses the same metabolic pathways as LCTs, not MCTs … and probably ends up dumped into fat stores like LCTs.
So lauric acid, with its 12 carbon atoms, is fundamentally different than MCTs.
Veterinarian and PhD Melinda Culver explains:
“Somewhere around the ’70s, if you start to look through the literature, you’ll see that there’s kind of a change in how some of these academics and researchers are naming [MCTs]. They’ve kind of snuck the 12 in there and they called that a medium chain. Right about the time where coconut oil and palm oil were making a big push in the industry.”
So even though coconut oil is advertised as high in MCTs… half of them are lauric acid. So it’s hard to call coconut oil a good source of MCTs if you’re after their health benefits.
But why not just give your dog larger amounts of coconut oil to get the healthy pluses from MCTs?
There’s one very compelling reason …
Coconut Oil Contains Saturated Fats
While coconut oil does contain MCTs, it has a distinct disadvantage … it’s high in saturated fat. In fact, it’s over 80% saturated fat. In comparison, butter is 63% and pork lard is just 39% saturated fat.
And this is a problem for some scientists …
In 2018, a Youtube video attacking coconut oil went viral. Coconut oil supporters rallied to defend it after Karin Michels, an epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, cautioned that the high amounts of saturated fats in coconut oil posed a risk to human health.She said coconut oil was “pure poison” and “one of the worst things you can eat.” The backlash was instant and her speech was watched over a million times on Youtube.
Frank Sacks, the lead author of advisory at Harvard Chan School of Public Health, said he was shocked by the backlash from this recommendation. The fact that coconut oil isn’t good for you shouldn’t be news he said.
“It’s been touted as healthy. But the science for this opinion is not there at all,” says Sacks. “In fact, the science says that coconut oil, which has mostly saturated fatty acids, raises your LDL cholesterol, which is linked with increased risk for heart disease.”
But what about dogs?
Do they suffer the same health risks as humans do when they eat saturated fats? In order to know the answer to that, you have to know what metabolic endotoxemia is …
The only thing that lies between your dog’s intestinal contents and his blood is essentially a single layer of epithelial cells. Ordinarily, this works just fine … the cell membranes decide what gets transported into the blood (food and vitamins) and what should stay in the intestine (toxins and bacteria).
But sometimes the spaces between these cells (or enterocytes) can widen … this is called leaky gut. When those gaps between the enterocytes widen, the cells no longer have any control over what travels out of the gut and into the bloodstream. So undigested food particles, viruses and bacteria can all enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc with your dog’s health.
Your dog’s immune system will try to attack all of these invaders, including the undigested food … and this is often the cause of food sensitivities in dogs. Chronic, low-grade inflammation follows and this drives most chronic diseases in dogs.
Leaky gut is further complicated by endotoxins. The cell walls of some species of bacteria in your dog’s gut (gram-negative bacteria) contain lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS is an endotoxin that can cause an immune reaction in your dog … and more low-grade inflammation.
If your dog has leaky gut, LPS can leak between the inflamed enterocytes. It then enters the blood, travels to the organs, and spreads the endotoxins throughout the body.
But LPS can enter your dog’s circulation even if he doesn’t have leaky gut …
LPS can be carried directly through the enterocytes and into the circulation, along with the fats from his diet, in little vesicles called chylomicrons.
When there are enough endotoxins to cause chronic inflammation, the condition is called metabolic endotoxemia. And metabolic endotoxemia is linked to a plethora of health conditions, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and more.
Here’s where coconut oil fits in …
Coconut Oil, Dogs And Inflammation
Newer research shows that coconut oil is inflammatory and can cause leaky gut. In fact, the ASPCA advises owners not to give their dogs coconut oil because it can irritate the gut lining. contain oils that may cause stomach upset, loose stools or diarrhea.
Research also says coconut oil can also increase both the amount and the toxicity of LPS. This is why researchers say it’s a potentially dangerous addition to your dog’s diet (and to yours).
Here are some of the research and the problems it says coconut oil can cause in your dog:
Coconut Oil Is High In Fat
Coconut oil is high in fat. Studies show that a high fat diet feeds species of bacteria that cause inflammation in the gut (leaky gut). And it causes the species of bacteria that contain toxic LPS to grow.
Coconut Oil Is Rich In Saturated Fats
Coconut oil is 80% saturated fat. Research shows saturated fatty acids cause inflammation in the gut, leading to leaky gut.
A 2018 study in Nutrients showed that lauric acid (which makes up about half of coconut oil) increases inflammation more than any other saturated fatty acid. Palmitic acid (also found in coconut oil) had the same effect.
Lauric acid is also antibacterial. While that’s viewed as a benefit, researchers say lauric acid can kill the gram-negative bacteria that have LPS in their membranes. The LPS can then travel through enterocytes with the dietary fats and circulate through the body.
Even without leaky gut.
LPS Uses Saturated Fats
LPS has tails called Lipid-A. These tails can either be made from saturated fats (like lauric or myristic acid) or from polyunsaturated fats.
When the Lipid-A tail of LPS is made of saturated fats, research shows the LPS is pro-inflammatory. This is the LPS that can trigger metabolic endotoxemia and low-grade inflammation in your dog. When the Lipid-A tail is made of polyunsaturated fats, research shows the inflammation stops.
So if your dog eats a diet rich in saturated fats, and especially lauric acid, he’ll produce more toxic LPS … and there will be more inflammation. If he eats more fish or fish oil, he’ll produce LPS that reduces inflammation.
This 2013 study shows that the types of fat your dog eats can either increase or decrease the amount of endotoxins (LPS) in his blood. While fish oils reduced the amount of endotoxin, coconut oil increased the amount.
Should Dogs Eat Coconut Oil?
More and more holistic vets are saying no to coconut oil for dogs.
Dr Jean Hofve says “There is no good physiologic reason to feed coconut oil to pets, and little research to support the claims made for it. Most of the purported benefits of coconut oil are not unique. Many other fats will do the same, but are safer and healthier.”
Dr Patricia Jordan cautions “Coconut oil contains fatty acids that contribute to the development of inflammation via LPS. In two studies, coconut oil seemed to create the most toxic form of LPS. The LPS triggers cytokines like interleukin-1 and 6 as well as interferons … and these cytokines are all involved in chronic inflammation.”
And research microbiologist Kiran Kirshnan from Microbiome Labs will soon be publishing research that shows that the LCTs in coconut oil cause more LPS to be released … and cause more LPS to pass through the gut lining.
And this research was done in dogs.
“We are increasing the amount of endotoxins that are appearing in the circulatory system after a meal that has a fat like a coconut oil” says Kiran. “There’s some really good published studies that show of all the oils they tested, even vegetable oils … coconut oil was the most toxigenic. It increased this endotoxemia/leaky gut far more than any other of the oils tested.”
Given all the negatives when it comes to coconut oil and gut health, why is coconut oil so popular for dogs (and their humans)?
“The coconut industry – or some other industry – is promoting coconut oil” says Sacks. “People are gullible and will listen to advertising, especially when it comes to foods.”
Maybe this is why I’ve never given in to the coconut oil hype.
Kicking The Coconut Oil Habit
If you still want to give your dogs the benefits of coconut oil, without the downside, you can give your dog MCT oil. It’s most often extracted from coconut oil.
MCT oil can also come from palm oil … you’ll want to avoid that since it’s not kind to the planet. And if you heed the advice of researchers, you’ll want to avoid MCT oil that contains lauric acid.
If you give your dog MCT, start with a small amount .. about 1/8 tsp for small dogs. MCT can cause diarrhea if you give too much, so start slow and save your rugs.
As for coconut oil, I won’t give it to my own dogs.
But what about the research that says coconut oil improves your dog’s health and skin conditions?
A 2016 review looked at coconut oil research to date and came to this conclusion:
“Due to a lack of large, well‐controlled human studies published in peer‐reviewed journals demonstrating clear health benefits of coconut oil, frequent use of coconut oil should not be advised. So, if you spot coconut oil high up the ingredient list, think twice before eating the product on a regular basis.”