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What Is it About Catnip that Makes Cats Crazy? And Is it Safe?

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on August 30, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management

If you venture down the cat toy section of a pet store, you’ll notice that a lot of the toys will be branded with the word “catnip” on them. Catnip is a familiar term to pet owners, as it is well-known to produce a “high” effect in cats, but the reason for the effect is much less widely known.

Because of the craziness that catnip can cause, many cat owners get concerned about whether or not catnip is actually safe for their feline friends. But worry not—catnip is perfectly safe and natural for your cats to nibble on and smell once in a while. By taking it back to its roots, so to speak, we can uncover the reason catnip makes cats go so wild.

What exactly is catnip and what does it do to cats?

Catnip is a perennial plant from the mint family that is native to Africa, Europe and Asia. The plant can be grown indoors and can grow to an impressive three feet tall in some cases.

The leaves and stems of the plant contain nepetalactone, an essential oil that stimulates your cat’s pheromone receptors. When the leaves are crushed or rubbed, they excrete the scent of the oil. Experts believe the smell of nepetalactone mimics feline pheromones, triggering your cat’s vomeronasal organ and sending stimulating signals to its brain.

When your cat sniffs the nepetalactone, the reaction the oil produces causes your cat to experience feelings of euphoria, which leads to the crazy behavior that makes it seem like it is on drugs. Normal cat behavior in response to catnip is to paw at it, lick it, roll around it and rub it. This wild movement will also probably be accompanied by meowing, purring, growling and drooling.

The feeling of euphoria usually only lasts for around 10 minutes, after which your cat will calm down and likely walk away as if nothing had happened. After a little while, your cat may have a similar reaction to the catnip if it goes near it again.

Do all cats act this way around catnip?

Not all cats go crazy for catnip. Only between half and three-quarters of all cats actually react to catnip—the rest of them won’t have any reaction at all.

Additionally, young kittens aren’t likely to respond to catnip right away but may develop the sensitivity once they are older.

Where can you get catnip?

Many cat toys on the market contain dried and ground-up catnip. When these toys are squished and played with, they release the scent of the plant and trigger a response in receptive cats. Over time, the scent in the toys will fade away and will not trigger a response anymore, so you will need to buy new ones.

Catnip can be grown inside, as well, or you can buy the stems and leaves of fresh or dried catnip. You might also be able to find catnip in spray form, which you can use on toys or in certain places around your home.

How safe is catnip?

Catnip is completely safe for cats to sniff and eat. Most importantly, cats cannot overdose on catnip. The pheromone response cats experience when smelling nepetalactone will not hurt them—after all, their pheromone receptors are triggered all the time by their own and other cats’ pheromone markers inside and outside of your house.

If you allow your cat to nibble on catnip, monitor the amount they eat. Ingesting catnip may have more of a sedative effect on your cat, but it is still perfectly safe. If they eat too much, they might get sick to their stomach or have diarrhea, but they won’t get deathly ill.

Catnip is not a drug and it is not at all addictive. Your cat might eventually have enough of the scent, opting to play with the toy or go near the leaves only once in a while. Over time, cats can actually get desensitized to catnip. It is recommended that you only provide catnip or catnip-filled toys once every two to three weeks to prevent your cat from becoming accustomed to the nepetalactone smell.

If you see a catnip toy at the store and aren’t sure if your cat reacts to nepetalactone, pick the toy up and give your cat a whirl. There’s a chance it won’t have any effect, but if it does, you can sit back and enjoy the silly reaction from your cat until the next time you bring it out.

Read also: Canine Pancreatitis: why high amounts of fat in your dog’s diet is unhealthy

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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