What is Coconut Oil Good For in Chicken Husbandry?
Is Coconut Oil Good for Chickens and Are There Any Risks?
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The recent popularity of coconut oil may make you wonder, “What is coconut oil good for in the care of chickens?” This topic is still controversial in human health and appears to be less studied in domestic fowl.
Coconut oil enthusiasts claim antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, that may also bestow anti-inflammatory and healing effects. On the other hand, coconut oil is high in saturated fats and low in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which runs contrary to human diet recommendations. Research into cardiovascular health in humans indicates that coconut oil raises cholesterol of types considered both healthy (HDL: high-density lipoprotein) and a health risk (LDL: low-density lipoprotein). Moreover, it raised both types of cholesterol more than plant oils high in unsaturated fats but not as much as butter.
However, the main saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which some believe to have health-giving properties. Coconut oil averages 82.5% saturated fatty acids by weight. Two MCFAs, lauric acid and caprylic acid, comprise on average 42% and 7% by weight respectively. These two MCFAs are being studied for their beneficial properties, but research is not yet conclusive. So, do these health risks and potential benefits apply to poultry?
Is Coconut Oil Safe for Chickens?
Similarly, there is insufficient research to draw a conclusion for chickens. Studies have been carried out in poultry to examine the effects of dietary saturated fats on blood cholesterol and the effect of cholesterol on artery health. A review of these studies concludes that a rise in blood cholesterol increases hardening of the arteries in poultry. It also found that consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) rather than saturated fats resulted in lower blood cholesterol.
Feeding Treats to Chickens
In view of this similarity to the effects in humans, I would be very careful not to feed much fat of any kind to my chickens. A commercially-produced balanced ration includes only 4–5% fat, and I would not want to upset a carefully formulated diet, especially when feeding young birds.
The problem with adding homemade treats is that we upset their dietary balance. Treats made with coconut oil or mixing it into feed could provide too much saturated fat. Bear in mind that manufactured products containing coconut oil may have processed the oil into a trans fat, which also increases LDL. Moreover, chickens may favor treats and reduce intake of their balanced feed, missing out on essential nutrients. Incidentally, there is one essential fatty acid that chickens must consume, albeit in small quantities: linoleic acid, an omega-6 PUFA. However coconut oil is not a good source, containing only on average 1.7% by weight.
I find that mature free-range chickens are adept at acquiring the nutrients they require if they have sufficient varied pasture to forage. These birds could probably take the occasional fatty treat in careful moderation.
Penned birds dependent on humans to feed them are better off with a complete balanced ration. The lack of variety can be boring for them, so we should provide enrichment to keep them occupied. Rather than giving them treats, consider providing pen enhancements that satisfy the desire to forage. Foraging materials, such as fresh dirt or fresh grass turfs, fulfill the urge to scratch and seek food, rather than altering nutritional balance. Such measures also greatly improve chicken welfare.
Can Coconut Oil Improve Meat and Egg Production?
Research into fattening broilers has shown mixed results—either improving or not affecting weight gain or appetite compared to other oils. An early study showed promise in increasing weight gain and performance in young laying hens. As for the products, a chicken’s diet may have an effect on the kinds of fats we find in the end product. Analyses have found the types of fatty acid in chicken meat and eggs reflect the birds’ diet. Another study found that different combinations of coconut and unsaturated oils gave varying results in eggs. Further studies may reveal more decisive results on performance. However, these experiments are generally short-term, as befits commercial production, so do not address any long-term effects that may be relevant to backyard husbandry. All in all, I would say that poultry nutrition is a complex science that I would not want to try and mess with at home!
Does Coconut Oil Fight Chicken Diseases?
Some MCFAs found in coconut oil are being studied for their antibacterial properties. In one study, lauric acid added to the diet reduced Campylobacter colonization in chickens two days after infection, but not long term. Another MCFA, caprylic acid, has been found to reduce colonization of Campylobacter and Salmonella in chickens. Coconut oil comprises around 42% lauric acid, but only 7% caprylic acid. Moreover, effect of these MCFAs in isolation may not be the same as using coconut oil—its effectiveness would need to be studied.
Can Coconut Oil Aid Healing in Chickens?
Like other oils, coconut oil can be used as a barrier to prevent moisture loss. For children with mild to moderate dermatitis, virgin coconut oil promoted healing better than mineral oil. So far, we have no studies on the effect on chicken wounds or skin.
Coconut oil is an important ingredient in soap-making, producing a hard soap that lathers well. We should not overlook these humble properties, as soap and moisturizer are important to maintaining hygiene, which is important when caring for animals. The potential of coconut oil for further health applications is promising but needs more research.
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