The Catnip Controversy. Are Cats Supposed to Eat or Just Smell This Plant?

What is catnip?

Catnip is a perennial flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae (https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/catnip-nepeta-cataria/). The botanical name for catnip is Nepeta cataria. It is also known as catmint and catswort. Catnip is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa but now grows wild in many parts of the world.

Catnip is a bushy, upright plant that grows to about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. The leaves are heart-shaped with scalloped edges and have a grayish-green color. Small tubular purple flowers bloom on the ends of the stems in summer and fall (https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-catnip-plants-2132328). The plant has a minty aroma that is very enticing to cats.

Catnip’s effects on cats

Catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone that acts as a feline attractant and stimulant when smelled by cats 1. When cats smell catnip, most will start rolling, flipping, rubbing, and eventually zoning out. They may meow or growl at the same time. Other cats become hyperactive when smelling catnip 2.

a cat rolling and rubbing on catnip

However, eating catnip produces a different response than just smelling it. While the nepetalactone in catnip still acts as a stimulant when ingested, eating catnip can have a calming effect on cats. It may make some cats sleepy or relaxed. The response depends on the individual cat, with some becoming hyperactive or overly playful from eating catnip.

Is catnip safe for cats to eat?

Catnip is generally considered safe for cats to eat in moderation. The active ingredient in catnip, called nepetalactone, is not toxic to cats according to the ASPCA (https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/what-does-catnip-do-to-cats/). However, eating too much catnip can cause gastrointestinal upset or diarrhea. The ASPCA recommends limiting a cat’s catnip consumption to about 1/8 teaspoon of dried catnip per day for a 10 pound cat.

Cats tend to self-regulate their catnip intake. They will typically lose interest after sniffed or eating a small amount. While not toxic, overindulging in catnip can cause lethargy, anxiety, vomiting or diarrhea just like any other over-consumed substance. If a cat consumes an excessive amount of catnip, symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea or hyperactivity may occur. Treatment involves restricting access to catnip and supportive veterinary care if needed (https://wagwalking.com/cat/condition/catnip-poisoning).

Overall, occasional moderate catnip consumption is not harmful for cats. But cats should not have unlimited access to eat it in very large quantities. Following dosage guidelines and monitoring for overindulgence is recommended.

Benefits of eating catnip

One of the main benefits of eating catnip for cats is relaxation and stress relief. Catnip contains compounds like nepetalactone that can have a sedative effect when ingested by cats, helping to reduce anxiety and relieve stress [1]. Research shows that eating catnip can trigger receptors in a cat’s brain that induce a relaxed state, almost like a natural anti-anxiety medication. The sedative qualities of catnip help calm nervous or anxious cats, leading to a more mellow and relaxed mood.

a cat relaxing after eating catnip

In addition to relaxation, some research suggests catnip can provide pain relief and aid in sleep when ingested. The sedative properties of catnip can ease stomach or digestive discomfort in cats. Eating catnip may also promote restful sleep due to its relaxing qualities. A relaxed, sedated cat is more likely to nap or sleep peacefully after eating catnip. However, more research is still needed to fully validate the pain relief and sleep benefits of ingesting catnip for cats [2].

Overall, the key benefit cats gain from eating catnip is relaxation and relief from stress or anxiety. The natural compounds in catnip can induce a sedative effect to calm a cat down and provide a break from nervous tension or everyday stressors.

Risks of eating catnip

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, eating too much can cause side effects. According to Rover, the most common side effect of a cat eating catnip is diarrhea or vomiting (source). This is because catnip acts as a mild laxative and stimulant when ingested. WebMD notes that catnip can cause headaches, vomiting, and an ill feeling in humans when consumed in large doses (source). The same is likely true for cats.

Cats eating small amounts of catnip should not experience any adverse effects. However, eating too much catnip can upset a cat’s gastrointestinal system and cause diarrhea or vomiting as the body tries to expel the excess. Cat owners should monitor their cat’s consumption of catnip and limit the amount to avoid gastrointestinal upset.

Recommended Dosage

When giving catnip to your cat, it’s important not to overdo it. According to experts, a small amount is all that’s needed for your cat to enjoy the euphoric effects of catnip.

For dried catnip, the recommended dosage is around 1/4 to 1 teaspoon per cat. You can start with 1/4 teaspoon and observe your cat’s reaction, then slowly increase to 1 teaspoon if needed [1]. Place the dried catnip on a paper plate or in a small bowl and present it to your cat.

For fresh catnip, give your cat one or two fresh leaves at a time. Catnip starts losing its potency quickly after being picked, so fresh leaves pack more of a punch [2].

It’s best to start with a small amount and slowly increase as needed based on your cat’s reaction. Giving too much catnip can lead to overstimulation and an unpleasant experience for your cat.

How to give catnip safely

When giving catnip to your cat, moderation is key. Here are some safe ways to let your cat enjoy this herb:

Sprinkle small amounts of dried catnip on your cat’s food. Only use about 1/4 teaspoon per meal, as too much can upset your cat’s stomach (1). You can also rub a bit of fresh catnip leaf between your fingers and let your cat lick it off.

sprinkling dried catnip on cat food

Look for catnip-filled toys and treats. Many brands make toys with catnip inside that will release the scent as your cat plays with it. Catnip treats are another option (2). But limit treats to a few per day.

Use catnip sparingly and store it in an airtight container out of your cat’s reach. And never give a concentrated catnip essential oil, which can be toxic (1). Overall, enjoy catnip in moderation as an occasional treat.

Signs of catnip overdose

While catnip is generally considered safe for feline consumption, too much can lead to negative side effects. The most common signs of catnip overdose include:

Agitation – After the initial mellow phase, some cats may become hyperactive and overstimulated from too much catnip. They may excessively meow, zoom around the house, or act aggressive.

Drooling – Excessive catnip can cause nausea, which leads to drooling. You may notice thick saliva dripping from your cat’s mouth.

Vomiting – One of the main symptoms of catnip toxicity is gastrointestinal distress. Your cat may start frequently throwing up if they’ve had too much catnip.

According to wagwalking.com, vomiting every few days after ingesting catnip could be a sign of toxicity. If the vomiting persists, take your cat to the vet.

Other possible symptoms include diarrhea, lack of coordination, tremors, and lethargy. Be aware of any behavioral or physical changes after your cat consumes catnip. Seek veterinary care if symptoms are severe or last more than 24 hours.

When to Avoid Catnip

While catnip is generally safe for most cats, there are some situations where it should be avoided:

Kittens younger than 3-6 months should not have catnip, as their brains are still developing and they will not have a reaction. According to PetMD, most cats don’t respond to catnip until 6 months to 1 year of age.1

Pregnant and nursing cats should avoid catnip, as the effects are not well studied and could potentially harm the kittens. It’s best to avoid catnip during pregnancy and nursing as a precaution.

Cats with certain medical conditions like liver or kidney disease, epilepsy, or hyperthyroidism should not be given catnip, as it can exacerbate these conditions. Check with your vet before giving catnip to a cat with any medical issues.2

In general, it’s best to avoid giving catnip to very young kittens, pregnant/nursing cats, and cats with medical conditions that could be worsened by catnip.

Catnip Alternatives

While catnip is safe for most cats, some felines may prefer or require alternative herbs or plants. Some good catnip alternatives to consider include:

alternatives to catnip like silver vine

Silver Vine (Actinidia polygama) – Silver vine comes from the kiwi plant family and acts as a stimulant for cats similar to catnip. Some cats may respond more strongly to silver vine than catnip. It is safe for feline consumption.[1]

Tatarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) – The wood and flowers of this plant contain phenolic compounds that can act as a cat attractant. It provides a milder reaction than catnip. Tatarian honeysuckle should be safe for cats when used properly.[2]

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) – The root of this flowering plant has a strong odor that interests cats. Valerian provides a calming effect for anxious or stressed cats. It is generally recognized as safe but use caution when introducing it.[3]

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