Catnip Makes My Cat Ornery. Should I Still Give it to Him?

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on February 18, 2019
Posted in Behavior Management

Cat owners are well aware of the mysterious substance called catnip and its intense effects on our four-legged friends. While some cats won’t react at all, some get playful, some get mellow and others get…downright mean.

If your cat gets ornery or aggressive when you give it catnip, you’re not alone. It’s actually a pretty common occurrence. What’s important after the aggression passes is to understand how catnip works and whether your cat should get it again in the future.

What is catnip and how does it work?

Catnip is a type of plant in the mint family. It contains an oil made of a chemical called nepetalactone, which is present in the leaves and stems of the plant. When inhaled, this chemical appeals to your cat’s olfactory system—the system that controls its sense of smell.

Experts aren’t completely sure what causes the reactions to catnip, but they believe that the smell triggers “happy receptors” in the brain that cause a euphoric physical response.

Catnip is traditionally inhaled by cats after being stuffed into toys. The plant is typically dried and crushed so it expels the nepetalactone scent. Sometimes, the oil is collected and used in catnip sprays that can be applied to toys, scratching posts and more. Catnip can also be eaten by cats, which sometimes causes different effects than when it is inhaled.

Despite its drug-like effects, catnip is not addictive, and cats can’t overdose on it. Therefore, pet parents do not need to worry about giving their cats the substance too often. Most cats will know when they’ve had enough and won’t have a reaction for a few years after being exposed to the plant. Catnip should only be used once or twice a week. If it’s used more often than that, your cat may develop a reduced sensitivity and not react to it anymore.

The many effects of catnip

Catnip has the power to affect cats in many different ways. Catnip typically affects cats for around 20 minutes, although some effects may last longer after the initial experience is over.

Some cats will go nuts over the substance, acting “high” and rolling around, sniffing, scratching, licking and pawing at it in a hyperactive and playful state. However, although we typically hear about cats going crazy with joy over catnip, it’s not always stimulating for our feline friends.

Catnip can sometimes act as a sedative for cats, calming them down and putting them into a peaceful, dream-like state (or even putting them to sleep!). These calming effects are most often caused by a cat ingesting catnip, rather than eating it.

Catnip also sometimes makes cats aggressive! Not all cat owners know about this effect, so it can be quite alarming to expect a happy, playful kitty and get an ornery, mean one, instead. Fortunately, because the effects of catnip have such short durations, your kitty should return to acting normal and loveable shortly after the effects wear off.

Additionally, catnip might not have an effect on your cat at all. Approximately one third of cats won’t experience any change in behavior. Kittens and older cats typically don’t react to catnip, either. Our cats’ differing reactions to catnip ultimately depend on slight differences in their DNA.

Cutting back on catnip

One common concern about catnip from pet owners is that catnip makes their cat aggressive and it lashes out, whether by hissing and growling or sometimes even attacking humans or other pets in the home.

While catnip is perfectly safe for cats and cannot cause health problems, if your cat acts in an undesirable way after coming into contact with it, there’s no need for you to continue giving it to your cat. Catnip is not necessary for any aspect of your cat’s health. It is no more than a form of enjoyment or entertainment, like a toy.

In fact, it is probably best to avoid giving your cat any catnip in the future if it acts more aggressive than usual. Allowing your cat to maintain aggressive behavior could potentially lead to injuries to yourself, other family members or other pets.

If you have multiple pets, consider avoiding the use of catnip altogether. If you really want to give your non-aggressive cats catnip, isolate the aggressive cat until the catnip has been used and put away so that it does not react to it.

While catnip can be a fun experience for your cat, it is not a good idea to provide it continuously if your cat acts inappropriately. Find one of the many other forms of fun available to entertain your cat, such as new toys, a laser pointer or physical exercise.

Read also: Planning a Stress-Free Introduction Between Your Resident Cat and a New Dog

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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