A Tropical Boost

Nutritional powerhouses, such as coconut oil, can be a boost for small-animal health.


It is a good time to be a pet rat, hamster, ferret or some other type of small animal. Manufacturers these days continue to improve upon the nutritional quality of the foods they produce for small animals, taking into consideration their varied needs. However, that does not negate the value of a good supplement.

ferretAs more pet parents learn about the benefits of taking supplements themselves, many are seeking out similar products for their small companions. The market has been offering a growing assortment of supplements that give pets a nutritional boost to help them live longer, healthier lives. Two of the latest trends in the category come from the tropics—coconut oil and red palm oil, and both are purported to deliver some amazing health benefits.

Coconut oil has been in the news a lot lately, as scientists continue to uncover its various dietary benefits. Some manufacturers have even started to include it in products for dogs.

A study on rats comparing diets containing either coconut oil, olive oil or sunflower oil found that the coconut oil acted as a powerful antioxidant. Oxidation can damage tissues in the body, and it is considered a major contributor to cardiovascular problems, aging, and possibly even cancer.

Other studies have shown that the intake of coconut oil can help fight viruses and bacteria, as well as yeast and fungus that can cause illness. Coconut oil is also known to have a positive influence on blood-sugar levels and the hormones controlling thyroid function. It aids digestion and helps the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

One of the more surprising reported benefits of coconut oil is its ability to aid in weight loss. Although it is a fat, studies on both mice and rats found it can actually help the body to burn its own fat, resulting in a leaner body, as long as calorie intake is not too great. Coconut oil can also be applied to the skin to help soothe irritation and inflammation.

The Red Wonder Oil

Another tropical product that has been shown to have numerous health benefits is red palm oil, which comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It is different from palm kernel oil, which comes from the seed inside the fruit, and does not have the same health benefits. There have been products available for pets that include red palm oil for quite a while, and for at least 5,000 years, it has been a part of the human diet in Africa, where it has long been recognized as having health benefits. It was so prized by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt that it was entombed with them so that they would have access to it in the afterlife. The oil palm is now an important crop in Southeast Asia, West Africa and South America.

The oil is called red palm oil because it is actually red in color, as is the fruit it comes from. The red color comes from its high level of carotenes, including beta-carotene and lycopene—the same powerhouse antioxidant nutrients that give tomatoes and carrots their rich red and orange colors, but in higher levels. Red palm oil is also densely packed with numerous tocopherols, which are natural forms of vitamin E, the most powerful of which seems to be tocotrienols.

Does a Body Good
The numerous studies that have looked at the benefits of red palm oil have found that it reduces cholesterol levels in the body, and actually helps clean out deposits in the arteries and “thins” the blood—reducing the chance of heart disease and stroke, and reducing blood pressure. It also reportedly promotes the efficient utilization of nutrients, helps the liver quickly remove toxins from the blood, increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells and improves immune function. And if that isn’t enough, studies on mice, rats and hamsters suggest that components in red palm oil can have powerful anti-cancer effects.

If this product sounds too good to be true, there is one small fly in the ointment, so to speak. The increased market for red palm oil has led to a huge increase in the amount of forest being cleared in Malaysia to make room for new palm plantations. Deforestation in Malaysia has a devastating impact on orangutans, which are critically endangered. Therefore, care should be taken to look for brands of the oil that are sustainably produced. In addition, it is important to look for products that are “virgin” and “organic” to ensure the oil is of the highest quality.

Retailers could also consider selling the plain oils themselves as a dietary supplement for all pets. Customers can even include both of them in their own diets.

Both oils are solid at normal room temperatures and do not require refrigeration. They come in plastic jars, so the oil can be scooped out. My rats like the flavor of both oils and will lick them right out of a dish or off a spoon.

Coconut oil can be spread on bread or mixed into other foods. Red palm oil has a stronger flavor and seems most suitable for cooking, and has a high smoking-point temperature. It seems to me that appropriate amounts to give to small animals twice a day would be about one-sixteenth of a teaspoon for mice, hamsters and gerbils, one-fourth of a teaspoon for rats, guinea pigs, small ferrets and chinchillas, and one-third to one-half of a teaspoon for large ferrets and rabbits.

Retailers could display jars of these oils on the checkout counter, which will give staff members a chance to tell customers about the numerous health benefits they offer. A little time spent on the Internet will yield articles about the various effects these oils can have on the body, which can be printed out or combined into a handout to give to customers.

The oils can also be stocked in other areas around the store. Because they can be given to all species of animals, they can be placed in all the food or health-product sections. Another idea is to create an end-cap display with posters that describe all the health benefits that these products offer. Discount coupons will also give customers a reason to try these products for the first time.

Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.

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