If you're a long-time reader of our blog, you'll know that not all saturated fats are the same. Why? Because saturated fats are processed differently by the body depending on the length of the carbon chains in their fatty acids.
You may have read other articles that state that coconut oil is bad for pets as it's primarily made of saturated fats. But the truth is that saturated fats are commonly misunderstood. In this post, we'll dive into the science and explain why dogs and cats were designed by nature to thrive on diets rich in saturated fats.
What Are Saturated Fats?
Fats are classified by their molecular structure (or the number of carbon atoms in their chain). All fats are composed of molecules known as triglycerides – chemical compounds composed of three individual molecules called fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule.
Fatty acids are made of chains of carbon atoms and can be distinguished by the length of their carbon chains. When a chain of carbon atoms is fully connected with hydrogen atoms, it is considered a saturated fat. Simply put, this means that it is "saturated" with hydrogen atoms.
Saturated fats are classified into two primary categories: Long-chain fats (long-chain triglycerides) and short and medium-chain fats (short-chain and medium-chain triglycerides). Both the length of the carbon chain of the fatty acid and the degree of hydrogen saturation determine the fatty acid’s properties and their effects on health.
What's the Difference Between LCFAs and MCFAs?
Long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) like beef and butter have carbon chains that are 14 atoms or longer. By comparison, medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) such as coconut oil and palm oil have carbon chains that are up to 12 atoms long.
Because of their long carbon chain length, LCFAs are difficult for the body to metabolize as they go through a longer, more complex pathway to be broken down. This means that they can put a lot of strain on the digestive system and internal organs such as the liver and pancreas. LCFAs are also often stored as fat, increasing the risk of health problems such as obesity and heart disease.
Unlike LCFAs, MCFAs are broken down rapidly thanks to their shorter chain length. When consumed, they go straight to the liver where they can be used as an efficient fuel source or turned into ketones.
In the article, Digestion and Absorption of Food Fats, world-renowned lipid expert, Dr. Mary Enig, PhD states:
"The digestion of regular fats and oils, which are usually long-chain triglycerides, requires bile acids as well as lipases. In adults this digestion usually starts in the small intestine and is done with the aid of lipases and bile acids. Short- and medium-chain fatty acids from fats such as milk fat or coconut oil or palm kernel oil are broken off from the triglycerides without the need for bile acids. They are then shuttled directly to the liver through the portal artery without the use of chylomicrons." (1)
Why Saturated Fat Is NOT Bad for Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats are carnivores. As a result, they are biologically designed to process protein and fats efficiently. By nature, they have more good cholesterol than bad cholesterol, no matter what types of fat they eat.
Unlike humans who may develop coronary artery diseases, heart attacks, or strokes as a result of eating long-chain saturated fats (NOT medium-chain saturated fats), dogs and cats are physiologically resistant to atherosclerosis, high lipid blood levels, and high blood pressure.
In his article for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Facilitative and Functional Fats in Diets of Cats and Dogs, Dr. John Bauer, DVM., PhD., explains:
"Although the concept of good and bad fats is appropriate for human health, dogs and cats are able to consume both types of fats in their diets without undue risk of coronary artery diseases, heart attacks, or strokes to which humans succumb. The simplified reason for this is that they have more good cholesterol (HDL) than bad cholesterol (LDL) to begin with, no matter what types of fat they consume. Second, in contrast to humans, dogs and cats typically are resistant to the development of hypercholesterolemia and atherosclerosis, even when they consume amounts of dietary fat that would typically turn human blood into sludge.
The fact that good cholesterol concentrations are higher than the concentrations of bad cholesterol is part of the mechanism that protects them from cardiac diseases that may affect humans. In addition, although saturated fats (and possibly trans fats) may cause modest increases in blood cholesterol concentrations in dogs, these dietary components do not appear to impart any increased risk of arterial diseases in dogs, which is in contrast to their effects in humans.
Thus, it is not advantageous to classify the various types of fats as good or bad in dogs or cats, although definitive data for cats (other than the fact that cats have high HDL cholesterol concentrations) have not been obtained. In view of these metabolic differences, it is proposed that the types of dietary fats for dogs and cats should be classified as functional or facilitative, rather than good or bad, respectively."
So, when it comes to our pets, the concept of "good" fats vs. "bad" fats simply doesn’t apply in the same way it does to humans. However, it is still important to feed your pet healthy fats, and avoid feeding excessive amounts of polyunsaturated fats or other "bad" fats such a hydrogenated fat or trans fats. These are often pro inflammatory and do not provide significant health benefits to animals.
Fat is an essential part of your dog or cat's diet. It's used by the body as a major source of energy, supports healthy cell growth, and absorbs essential vitamins and minerals. Fat also keeps skin and tissue healthy, maintains brain and nerve function, protects the organs, and more!
Animals who cannot tolerate fat (due to a lipid disorder), need a fat like coconut oil that's easily digested and does not put undue stress on their digestive system. Despite some myths regarding coconut oil and animals with lipid disorders, coconut oil has been proven in numerous studies to be a beneficial source of fat for these animals. Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut oil provide a positive impact on the digestive system and intestinal health. They are easily metabolized in the gut, without undue stress to the pancreas. In addition, they help the body absorb nutrients and vitamins from food more efficiently.
The most abundant saturated fat found in coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid. Sometimes referred to as a "super ingredient", lauric acid is responsible for many of coconut oil's health benefits including its immune-supporting, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties.
CocoTherapy coconut oil is a therapeutic-grade oil that has a high percentage of beneficial medium-chain fatty acids, containing at least 63%. Our oil also contains 53% lauric acid, compared to 40% in grocery or cooking-grade coconut oils.
For more information on the health benefits of CocoTherapy coconut oil for pets and people, please visit our website.
(1) MI Gurr & AT James. Lipid Biochemistry: An Introduction. Chapman and Hall, London, 1971. Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press, Silver Spring, Maryland, 2000.