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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Can Coconut Oil Help Symptoms of Canine Cognitive Disorder?

October 11, 2013 / (3) comments

I am leery of anything that has the appearance of being the newest nutritional fad. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about … the latest berry, grain, or other food that is touted as being a “superfood” only to fall off everyone’s radar screen a few months later (usually once people realize they’re wasting their money).

Unfortunately, dog nutrition is not immune to these sorts of trends either. I’m naturally skeptical when I hear that a nutritional supplement can “cure” (or at least significantly improve) a disease that has thus far been resistant to treatment. This was my frame of mind when I started researching the use of coconut oil in the treatment of canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD).

First some background information. CCD is very similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people. Dogs diagnosed with CCD typically have altered behavior, can become anxious, have lapses in housetraining, become restless and wander (sometimes getting “stuck” in corners), and have altered sleep patterns. We do not know the cause of CCD; some evidence exists supporting several theories including:

  • neurotransmitters in the brain might break down more rapidly than normal
  • the build-up of free radicals might damage brain tissue
  • infection with prions (abnormal proteins like those that cause “mad cow” disease) destroys brain tissue
  • a decline or change in energy metabolism within the brain

It is this last point that has led some veterinarians to recommend using coconut oil as a dietary supplement for dogs with CCD, primarily because similar suggestions are sometimes given to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As Dr. Michael Rafii, Director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at UC San Diego’s Perlman Ambulatory Care Center and Assistant Professor of Neurosciences at UC San Diego puts it:

Coconut oil has medium chain triglycerides [MCT], which are a good source of energy, in the form of ketone bodies … MCTs are converted in the liver into ketones, which can be used by the brain as fuel; they are a more immediate source of energy than other fats…

The theory behind coconut oil’s potential use in AD [Alzheimer’s disease] is that ketones might provide an alternative energy source for brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose as a result of Alzheimer’s disease pathology.

However, there are no studies yet to support this.

In addition, it should be kept in mind that coconut oil is quite high in calories — 115 calories per tablespoon. That can add up when doses are 4 to 8 tablespoons or more a day. Large amounts can also cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough data to support the idea of using coconut oil to treat AD. It is impossible for us to know whether coconut oil has any beneficial effect in Alzheimer’s disease until a randomized, double blind clinical trial is conducted.

All of this is directly referable to the current situation surrounding the use of coconut oil in dogs with CCD. We simply don’t have any evidence whether or not it is effective or safe (I worry about weight gain, adverse GI effects, and triggering pancreatitis). I’ve heard some anecdotal reports of dogs with cognitive dysfunction seeming to improve when started on coconut oil, and others where it just made the patients fat. I suppose it might be categorized as “worth a try” if it is used in moderation with an appropriate reduction in dietary fat from other sources, but unfortunately coconut oil doesn’t yet appear to be a panacea for dogs with CCD.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Alzheimer’s Disease Information Network. ADIN Monthly E-News. Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, July 2012, No. 44.

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  3

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  • Anecdotal Reports
    10/11/2013 05:40pm

    Dr Coates, this is one time where the lack of actual science seems to be a flaw in the system, not a lack of the coconut oil producing some very noticable results according to some fairly frequent news reports. One very recent report, (within the past few days), showed a doctor mentioning that they were indeed finally paying attention and that a study has been initiated. I hadn't been able to find any solid data either, but didn't have the comprehensive website you have furnished with your article. It will be interesting reading. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    After just skimming the article I see that it is also recommended that the brain be kept focused on a purpose, and I imagine that would apply to dogs, too. We have a number of dog walkers that go through our area on a daily basis and I see little interaction between human and dog with some of the older ones. Your article, and the one you used as a reference have made me think that humans should be giving ongoing commands to their pets to keep minds engaged rather than just plodding along the same old route with the same old bored look on everyone's face.

    Thanks for writing the article.

  • 10/11/2013 05:51pm

    Here is a link to the report I mentioned above. Very interesting report:

  • Popcorn!
    10/11/2013 08:40pm

    Isn't it a coconut oil faux butter that's used on theater popcorn that, for awhile, wasn't used because it was so bad for us humans? (They eventually went back to it because (1) it tastes so much better and (2) sales were falling dramatically.) This makes me think that theater popcorn might end up being a GOOD thing.

    Seriously though, sometimes seemingly unrelated things can do wonders. Anyone who has seen "Lorenzo's Oil" will probably agree.