Catnip’s Calming Effects. Does This Herb Help Cats Relax?

Anxiety and stress are common issues for domestic cats. A 2022 study found that over half of cats display anxious behaviors like fear of loud noises, strangers, and unfamiliar environments [1]. With more cats living indoors and experiencing changes in routine, anxiety has become increasingly prevalent.

Catnip has been used for centuries to alter cat behavior. Native to Europe and Asia, the Nepeta cataria plant contains nepetalactone, which produces a benign euphoric response in 2/3 of cats when smelled or ingested [2]. Common reactions include rolling, flipping, and intense playfulness. However, research on catnip’s effects on anxiety is limited.

This article examines whether catnip can help reduce anxiety and stress in domestic cats. It analyzes available studies on catnip and anxiety, explores how catnip works in the feline brain, and provides tips for using catnip alongside other anti-anxiety techniques.

Signs of Anxiety in Cats

Cats can exhibit various signs and symptoms when they are feeling anxious or stressed. Some of the most common signs of anxiety in cats include:

    anxious cat hiding under a bed

  • Aggression – An anxious cat may suddenly become more aggressive and attack or bite their owner or other pets. This is often an indication that something is causing them stress.
  • Hiding – Cats will often hide when they feel anxious or afraid. They may hide under furniture, in closets, or in other secluded areas.
  • Overgrooming – Excessive licking, chewing, or scratching at their own fur is a sign a cat may be anxious or stressed.
  • Urine marking – Anxious cats may spray urine on walls, furniture, or other areas to mark their territory in response to feeling threatened.
  • Other symptoms – Anxious cats may exhibit dilated pupils, flattened ears, a puffed up tail, and other body language cues indicating their stress. They may also vocalize more with meows, growls, or distressed sounds.

If a cat is suddenly displaying any of these anxiety symptoms, it’s important to try to determine the source of their stress and take steps to alleviate it. Consulting with a veterinarian can also help rule out any medical causes.

What is Catnip?

Catnip, also known by its botanical name Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb in the mint family that contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone. This oil is what causes the characteristic response in cats when they are exposed to catnip (Martha Stewart, 2023).

close up of fresh catnip leaves

Nepetalactone binds with olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and stimulates responses in the central nervous system that can cause effects ranging from playful and energetic to sedated. Though the reaction is not fully understood, researchers believe nepetalactone mimics feline pheromones and triggers primal, instinctual behaviors in cats (PetMD, 2023).

Common responses to catnip exposure include sniffing, chewing, rolling, head shaking, and aggressive play. The effects usually last between 5 to 15 minutes before subsiding. Only about 50-70% of cats exhibit sensitivity to nepetalactone inherited through genetics (AERCMN, 2023).

Studies on Catnip and Anxiety

Several studies have examined the effects of catnip on anxiety and stress in cats. Here is an overview of some of the major scientific research:

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology looked at the anxiolytic effects of catnip in rats. Researchers found that catnip exhibited anxiety-reducing effects comparable to common pharmaceutical drugs like Diazepam. The active compounds in catnip appear to interact with neurotransmitter systems involved in anxiety.

Another study from 2010 in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior specifically looked at catnip’s effects on anxious behaviors in cats. The researchers observed that cats fed catnip exhibited reduced anxious behaviors like growling, chasing their tail, and running aimlessly. The anti-anxiety effect was observed after consuming both fresh catnip and dried, powdered catnip.

Overall, the scientific research indicates that nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that causes euphoric effects in cats, also has anti-anxiety properties. Consuming or inhaling catnip appears to reduce anxious behaviors in cats by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain.

How Catnip Works

Catnip contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone which interacts with cats’ olfactory systems and binds to olfactory receptors in the nose (Scientific American). When inhaled, nepetalactone is absorbed into the cat’s bloodstream where it travels to the brain and causes the release of neurotransmitters that induce a temporary relaxed and euphoric state (The Humane Society).

The effects of catnip are short-lived, usually lasting between 5 and 15 minutes before wearing off completely (Scientific American). Catnip causes no long-term side effects and is considered completely safe for cats when used appropriately (The Humane Society). The temporary high from catnip is the result of a neurological reaction, not an addiction, so cats cannot abuse or become dependent on catnip.

Using Catnip for Anxious Cats

When using catnip to help ease anxiety in cats, dosage and proper application is important for getting the desired effects. According to Preventive Vet (https://www.preventivevet.com/cats/catnip-why-you-should-try-it-on-your-cat), the recommended dosage is 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per use for dried catnip, or one catnip toy. Giving too much catnip can overstimulate some cats and make anxiety worse. It’s best to start with a small amount and monitor your cat’s reaction.

person sprinkling small pinch of dried catnip

Consistency is also key when using catnip for anxious cats. Giving catnip at the same times daily, such as before a stressful event like a vet visit, can help your cat associate the calming effects with the situation. You may need to experiment to find the right frequency that works best for your cat. Always supervise your cat during initial use until you understand how they respond.

While catnip can help take the edge off anxiety, it works best alongside other calming techniques like pheromones, environmental changes, and positive reinforcement. Combining catnip with lifestyle adjustments provides maximum anxiety relief. Monitoring your cat’s behavior will help determine if and when extra anti-anxiety measures may be needed.

Other Anti-Anxiety Options

In addition to using catnip, there are some other options for reducing anxiety in cats, including:

Pheromones

Synthetic pheromone sprays or diffusers can help soothe anxious cats. These contain chemicals that mimic cat pheromones and signal safety and contentment. Using pheromone products in the home may have a calming effect on cats (Managing Anxiety in Cats).

Environmental Enrichment

Providing more opportunities for play, exercise, and mental stimulation can help alleviate anxiety. Cat trees, interactive toys, food puzzles, and playtime are ways to enrich the environment (How to Help a Cat with Fear and Anxiety).

Medications

In severe cases, anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed by a vet to reduce anxiety. These can include medications like fluoxetine or benzodiazepines.

Training

For specific phobias or fears, desensitization training can help the cat overcome the trigger. This should be done under guidance of a veterinary behaviorist.

Lifestyle Changes

Making some simple changes to your cat’s lifestyle and environment can help reduce anxiety. Here are some tips:

Provide more playtime and exercise. Giving your cat adequate playtime and physical activity helps relieve pent-up energy that can manifest as anxiety. Try interactive toys and play before mealtimes when cats tend to be more active. Start a daily routine of playtime. You can also provide cat trees, scratching posts, and other enrichment.

owner playing with cat using a feather toy

Keep to routines as much as possible. Cats feel less stressed when they can predict their daily activities. Maintain consistent feeding times, play times, nap times, and interaction. Avoid unpredictability which can heighten anxiety.

Remove or reduce stressors. Loud noises, changes to environment, adding new pets, and even negative interactions can stress cats. Try to minimize disruptions and make changes gradually when possible. Give your cat quiet, calm spaces to retreat to like high perches or covered beds. Use calming pheromones or music therapy.

With these lifestyle adjustments, you can make your cat’s world more relaxing and less anxiety-provoking. Work with your vet if anxiety persists despite these efforts.

When to See the Vet

If your cat’s anxiety is severe or chronic, it’s important to see your veterinarian. They can help rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing the anxiety, such as thyroid disorders, pain, or cognitive dysfunction. Your vet can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications if needed. Medications like fluoxetine and clomipramine can help reduce anxiety in cats when combined with behavior modification.

Some signs that it may be time to see the vet include:

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Aggression or irritability
  • Inappropriate urination/defecation
  • Destructive behavior
  • Compulsive grooming
  • Hiding and avoiding interaction

If your cat is experiencing separation anxiety or situational anxiety that is interfering with daily life, prescription medication from your veterinarian may help ease the anxiety while you work on behavior training. Never give your cat medication without consulting your vet first.

Conclusion

In summary, research suggests that catnip may have mild anti-anxiety effects in some cats. The nepetalactone in catnip is known to bind to cat olfactory receptors and stimulate a response that includes rolling, rubbing, and reduced anxiety. However, studies show catnip does not work for all cats, and its effects can vary greatly depending on the cat. It’s not a cure-all solution.

While catnip is generally harmless and worth trying for anxious cats, it’s best used as part of an integrated approach. Environmental changes, pheromones, nutritional supplements, medication (for severe anxiety), and positive reinforcement training can also help reduce anxiety. If your cat’s anxiety persists even after trying various remedies, consult your veterinarian.

The key is being patient, exploring different anxiety relief options, and finding the right combination tailored to your cat’s needs. When used properly alongside other interventions, catnip can be a useful addition to the toolkit. But on its own, it may not resolve anxiety issues completely.

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