Healthy or Harmful? The Debate Over Coconut Oil for Dogs

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 11 min read

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Coconut 🥥 oil is one of many different natural substances that, in recent years, has gone from a niche product to a trending supplement to widespread ingredient.

It's been well studied and has been found to have numerous health benefits for people, and pet parents 💑 the world over have taken to using it on their dogs🐶 as well.

But since there are limited studies on the consumption of coconut oil in dogs, several questions remain🤔.

For starters, is it safe to give your dog coconut oil? also, is it safe to assume dogs 🐕 will have the same benefits as seen in human trials? We’ll answer these questions and more, so let’s get started.

As usual, If you’re looking for more trustworthy and research-based dog parent education content, you in the right place. I’ve sprinkled some great related articles 📚throughout the post. Enjoy!

What Makes Coconut Oil Special?

The coconut has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for around 4,000 years, so while it’s just gaining public recognition, it’s been in use for centuries.

One of the key ingredients in coconut oil that is linked to the benefits seen in human trials is the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) which are made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA).

MCTs are a type of saturated fat, which we’ve always been told is bad for heart health, but MCTs seem to be special. Unlike other fats that just get stored in the human body, MCTs are filtered through the liver and then used for energy, making them less likely to be stored.

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Based on how the human body processes MCT oil (which is typically derived from coconuts) many human studies and a few pet studies have shown there are multiple benefits, and we’ll dive into those next.

Now, before you rush to the grocery store or online to buy the first coconut oil you find, here’s a word of caution, most studies of its benefits are based on coconut oil made of 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which is NOT the same as regular commercially available coconut oil.

Many of the health claims for coconut oil are based on studies that used a special formulation of coconut oil made of 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This is not the coconut oil available on supermarket shelves.” - Harvard Medical School

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Now, this is not to say that the coconut oil you buy at the grocery store is bad for you or doesn’t come with health benefits, not at all.

The point here is to clarify that the health benefits reported from specially constructed MCT coconut oil cannot be applied to regular coconut oil. While MCT oils and coconut oil may be related the results of the studies only apply to MCT oils.

Potential Benefits of Coconut Oil for Dogs

Some touted health benefits of coconut oil range from reducing belly fat, to strengthening the immune system, to preventing heart disease, to helping with neurological disorders.

However, since most studies on coconut oil have been conducted on people, it’s hard to say if your pup will experience the same benefits, but we’ll outline the potential benefits in humans and how coconut oil is being used with dogs.

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Using Coconut Oil for Skin Problems

The first, and one of the most common, uses for coconut oil in people and in dogs is for skin problems. In particular, people use coconut oil to treat a variety of skin conditions like eczema, xerosis, psoriasis, and a range of different skin infections and rashes.

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There's some science to back this up. Coconut oil has antibacterial properties, which means it can help fight off the bacteria that cause certain skin problems.

“It (coconut oil) also kills the causes of fungal infections such as candida, ringworm, athlete’s foot, thrush, jock itch, and diaper rash. It kills viruses having a lipid coating, such as herpes, HIV, hepatitis C, influenza, and mononucleosis.” - A. G. Gopala Krishna - The American Oil Chemists' Society

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It also has anti-inflammatory properties, so it can potentially reduce irritation and redness, as well as the inflammation that surrounds injuries. It's hydrating, as well.

Most of these effects are observed in people, not dogs, but that's going to be a common refrain.

Most people frown upon animal testing, and pet supplements don't get a lot of funding or attention from the medical community at large.

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What few studies there are for dogs tend to be limited in scope, performed by a single vet or school, and may have issues that make them less viable.

Using Coconut Oil to Improve Your Dog's Coat

Another common use of coconut oil is for hair and fur. In people, some folks like to use a little bit of coconut oil as a hair conditioner or even as a replacement for some harsher shampoos.

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In dogs, though, brushing a little bit of coconut oil into their fur coat may be able to improve the quality of that coat.

Specifically, coconut oil may keep your fur baby's coat shinier and healthier, as well as make it more resilient to damage from the sun, heat, humidity, washing, and other sources of environmental damage.

The reason here is because of some compounds in the coconut oil. A chemical called lauric acid, which is a fatty acid and the primary fatty acid in coconut oil, is uniquely chemically capable of penetrating the shaft of hair (which usually repels various chemicals.)

Many shampoos and conditioners apply a layer of coating to the outside of hair, but lauric acid can get into the hair to repair it from the inside.

“Coconut oil has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of lauric acid’s low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft” The American Oil Chemistry’s Society

And since we’re talking about hair, just a reminder, you should never use human shampoo on dogs.

Using Coconut Oil to Repel Pests

Dogs are prone to all kinds of critters trying to make a home in their fur, on their skin, in their ears, and elsewhere.

You know them; broadly called "ectoparasites," they include critters and nasties like ticks, fleas, and mites.

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So, what does coconut oil have to do with these?

A study done by the USDA Agriculture and Research Service showed compounds derived from coconut oil can repel fleas and ticks and it even outperformed Deet.

“…scientists identified specific coconut oil fatty acids that have strong repellency and long-lasting effectiveness against multiple insects—mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies and bed bugs”…Against bed bugs and ticks, DEET lost its effectiveness after about three days, while the coconut oil compound lasted for about two weeks.”USDA, ARS

What’s important to note from this study, is that the repellant is derived from coconut oil, so slathering your dog with coconut oil before going on a hike isn’t going to add protection.

“Coconut oil itself is not a repellent” - Junwei (Jerry) Zhu, Entomologist, USDA, ARS

On top of the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits of coconut oil, it can also help wound healing.

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If your fur baby has fleas, has been bitten by ticks, or has mites (including mange mites), coconut oil can help your fur baby heal after the pests are gone.

Using Coconut Oil for Epilepsy

When given orally, coconut oil has been shown to be well tolerated and palatable, but it’s more than just a treat. And this is one area where a few small studies have been completed to show benefits for dogs.

A study published in 2020 showed dogs with idiopathic epilepsy had a significant decrease in seizure frequency when fed MCT as a dietary supplement.

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It’s important to note a coconut oil supplement may not help all dogs with idiopathic epilepsy, but it’s worth asking your veterinarian if you should try it with your pup.

Other Potential Benefits of Coconut Oil

There are many other claimed benefits of coconut oil, that may or may not hold true in people or in pups.

Important to consider here is that like with many other foods, over time, coconut oil is one of those foods that has gone from superfood to toxic to superfood again. I know, it can be confusing.

Even the scientific community seems to be split. Some believe that coconut oil benefits may be exaggerated. Some research suggests that many of the touted benefits are not exclusive to coconut oil and that other alternative fats will get the same benefits while being safer and healthier.

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As noted earlier, many studies on coconut oil are done in vitro, i.e. in a Petri dish with compounds isolated from coconut oil, which isn’t the same thing as consuming virgin coconut oil orally or transdermally.

With that in mind, some other potential benefits of coconut oil include:

  • Moisturize dry, cracked skin.
  • Aid in digestion.
  • Reduced inflammation.
  • Reduced bad breath.
  • Reduced weight. One study in 2015, showed a diet with coconut oil and other compounds resulted in weight loss and improved body condition in some of the participating dogs.
  • Increased energy.
  • Improved function of an aging brain.

Are There Risks to Using Coconut Oil on Dogs?

Balancing out the potential benefits of coconut oil, we also have to look at the potential drawbacks.

The first drawback to using coconut oil with your dog is that it's high in calories and high in cholesterol.

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The high calorie content means that if you're giving your dog some of the oil to eat every day, you need to adjust their diet to account for the additional intake of calories.

Otherwise, you risk your dog becoming overweight, and while many of us may love an adorable chonker, it's not healthy. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to try to address one issue while creating another.

The cholesterol in coconut oil isn't uniformly good cholesterol, either. A study posted on science direct has shown even short term use of coconut oil can lead to an increase in bad cholesterol and cause plaques to form in the arteries, potentially giving your dog similar kinds of health issues we people get when we have bad, fatty diets. This condition is known as hyperlipidemia.

"Hyperlipidemia refers to elevated levels of lipids (fats) in the bloodstream. The term is typically used to refer to elevated levels of triglycerides or cholesterol." | VCA Animal Hospitals

The second major drawback is that, as a fatty oil, your dog will probably need to adapt to eating it.

Too much of it at once can increase the incidence of, shall we say, digestive distress. Oil is a laxative, after all, and you don't necessarily want to have your dog leaking around the house.

A third drawback is that it may affect your dog’s sense of smell. A study published in 2003 showed that saturated fat may reduce the ability for a dog to detect and identify scents. Since dogs rely heavily on their noses to communicate and read the world around them, this can be a pretty significant impact on their life.

Of course, this is more of a concern in working dogs than it is in leisure dogs and other pets. A dog raised as a tracker of any kind has greater need of a working nose than a purse puppy, right?

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And, of course, there's always the risk of an allergic reaction or sensitivity. Any time you give or use anything new with your dog, be it a new food, a new shampoo, or a new kind of health supplement, you want to test a small amount of it first.

This goes for both things they eat and things you rub into their coats; any allergic reaction is cause to immediately discontinue using it and potentially even take them to the vet to make sure they aren't in any danger.

How to Use Coconut Oil for Your Dog

There are, generally, two different ways you can use coconut oil to benefit your dog.

The first is as a dietary supplement. When going with this method, you want to make sure you're using a virgin, ideally USDA certified organic coconut oil for the best, healthiest effects.

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Coconut oil comes in two different presentations, one that is solid at room temperature and one that is liquid. Most pet parents opt for the solid version as it’s generally easier to give to your pup.

All you do is give your fur baby a little bit of coconut oil to eat each day. You can give it once a day or twice a day, but generally no more than twice. If your fur baby is already overweight, limit it to once a day. The same goes for small breeds and smaller dogs.

How much should you give your fur baby? Not much, at least to start. Begin with small amounts, usually around a quarter teaspoon for small dogs or up to a max of one tablespoon for larger and giant breeds.

Give this amount once and observe them to make sure they don't have an adverse reaction to it. If they're fine, give them the same amount each day for a couple of weeks.

“A good starting dose is ¼ teaspoon daily for small dogs up 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon daily for big dogs.” –

If your pup isn’t receptive to licking the coconut oil off the spook, measure out the oil and mix it with their food instead. You can use it to dampen your fur baby's dry food, or mix a bit in with some kind of wet food for them.

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Again, make sure to keep in mind that the oil has calories, so reduce their normal food by an equivalent amount so you don't contribute to canine obesity.

The second way to administer coconut oil to your dog is by applying it topically.

Just take a small amount of the oil, dab it around your fur baby's coat, and brush it through. Direct application of coconut oil, particularly after a bath, can be a good way to rehydrate, refresh, and restore their fur coat.

You want to avoid putting too much into their coat, though. You don't want dog-shaped grease stains on your furniture!

The Bottom Line

There's a lot of debate over coconut oil for dogs. Mostly, it comes down to a debate over whether or not you’ll actually get the benefits of the claims you hear about.

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Like with everything you try with your pup, always get the opinion of your vet. The side effects are often minimal, but then, so are the benefits, depending on how you measure them. Some people see a lot of impact, while others see almost nothing at all.

Really, what it comes down to is deciding whether or not you want to give it a try with your fur baby. If you do, do a short test and make sure the oil won't react with their skin or tummy, and from there, you can start your ramp-up.

Do you supplement your pup with coconut oil? Orally or topically? Have you noticed any benefits since using it? Leave a note below in the comments to share your experience.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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