- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
As all cat owners know that if you’re looking for a good laugh, just give your cat some catnip. Some cats turn into mewing pools of mush, others turn into superheroes, others still are transformed from cuddly balls of poof into hissing monsters. From little house cats to the giants of the savannah, cats all but lose their minds over this leafy green. So just what is it about catnip that drives cats so crazy?
What is catnip and why do cats like it so much?
Catnip is a leafy green plant from the same family as mint. Its leaves, stems, and seeds contain an oil that secretes a chemical called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone acts as a sort of pheromone to cats. For many, its smell is irresistible.
With even a small whiff of catnip, most cats begin to headshake and will rub on, lick, or eat the catnip followed by twitching, salivating and a whole lot of rolling around. These effects usually last anywhere from five to 15 minutes, after which time cats seem to recover their senses and develop a catnip immunity that lasts about an hour.
The actual scientific explanation for what’s going on in your kitty’s brain comes from veterinarian Ramona Turner, who wrote about catnip for Scientific American:
Nepetalactone “enters the cat’s nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters in the midbrain that mediate emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain’s ‘master gland’ that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.”
Does catnip actually get a kitty “high”?
The short answer? Yes. “In humans, catnip can cause mild visual and auditory hallucinations so it is possible it does the same in cats,” explains Angelica Dimock, DVM and Managing Shelter Veterinarian with the Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. “Most commonly it acts as a stimulus for cats and they become more active or playful. Less commonly it can cause sedation or aggression.”
Can catnip be bad for cats?
“Yes, but they would have to ingest A LOT of catnip,” points out Dr. Dimock. Gastrointestinal issues, like vomiting or diarrhea, are the most common symptoms. Most of the time, these symptoms go away on their own as the plant is metabolized, she says. “In severe cases, the cat could show neurologic signs such as stupor, stumbling, pupil size changes, and/or tremors.” In the unlikely event that these neurological symptoms happened to your cat, Dr. Dimock says you need to contact your vet, who can help provide supportive care until your cat is on the mend.
Dr. Dimock also advises keeping catnip away from pregnant cats. “Catnip should not be used on pregnant cats since it can cross into the placenta and may affect the kittens.” She also suggests you keep catnip away from cats who experience seizures, since catnip has been found to cause seizures in rats, and it’s possible cats could be similarly affected.
Lastly, while there is no real consensus on how frequently to give catnip to a cat, Dr. Dimock recommends keeping it to about once a week. “Using it more frequently may cause the cat to become desensitized to catnip,” she explains. And no cat wants that!
What if my cat doesn’t like catnip?
If you have a kitten, it’s likely just age. Kittens don’t tend to respond to catnip until they are around six months old. If your adult cat isn’t responding to it, no worries: only around 70 percent of adult cats respond to catnip. “Catnip is great for many cats – but not all cats respond to it,” says Rover’s resident cat behaviorist, Mikel Delgado. For those who don’t respond, Delgado adds that there are other nasal treats you can try, like silver vine and valerian root, which cats also tend to enjoy.
What is the best form of catnip to give my cat?
Just like with any herb, fresh is best. Catnip is easy to grow, but invasive, so you might consider growing it in a pot or a planter with other cat favorites such as wheatgrass.
Dried catnip is also extremely effective, though the essential oils tend to lose their power over time. Sprays tend to not contain enough nepetalactone to really get your kitty going.
Does catnip work on humans?
Catnip is safe for humans to consume though there is much debate over whether it has the same effect on humans as it does on cats.
While many believe catnip does not produce the euphoric “high” in humans that it does in cats, according to a study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, it did enjoy a hot minute on the hallucinogenic drug scene.
Catnip has also been used in Native American and alternative medicine treatments for everything from a cure for colicky babies to poultices for tooth pain.
Most commonly, it is recommended by herbalists as a mild sedative (drank as tea), to relieve migraines, and also to assist with common ailments including cramps, gas, indigestion, insomnia, and nervousness.
What else is catnip good for?
In addition to just being plain fun, catnip can be used as a tool in cat training. Sprinkle a little on new scratching posts and kitty beds to attract your cat to them.
You can also store special toys in a canister with dried catnip to infuse them with that amazing catnip smell. Rolling around with, batting, and chasing these toys will help your kitty get more exercise – not to mention all that good mental stimulation.