Does Your Cat Need Therapy? The Surprising Benefits of Catnip

What is catnip?

Catnip, Nepeta cataria, is a perennial flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae. It grows to be 50-100 cm tall and has grayish-green leaves and small lavender flower spikes (Wikipedia).

The active chemical compound in catnip that causes a euphoric reaction in cats is called nepetalactone. When cats inhale nepetalactone, it binds to receptors in their noses and stimulates sensory neurons, leading to the typical catnip response of rolling, pawing, licking, and chewing that lasts around 5-15 minutes (Wisconsin Horticulture). However, only about 50-70% of cats exhibit this response to catnip.

Catnip contains additional chemical compounds like citral, nepetalactone, geraniol, nepetalic acid, valeric acid, tannins and iridoids that produce various medicinal effects in humans, though cats are only attracted to the nepetalactone (Wikipedia).

Why do cats like catnip?

catnip plant

Cats love catnip because of the euphoric reaction caused by nepetalactone, the essential oil in catnip that gives it its characteristic minty aroma. When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactone compound binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and mouth, which triggers a response in the brain that makes cats feel temporarily high and elated (Purina). Specifically, nepetalactone is believed to activate opioid receptors in the brain, stimulating areas associated with reward and pleasure and causing a temporary sense of euphoria and relaxation similar to the high caused by substances like morphine in humans (Science Magazine). This gives cats an irresistible urge to play, paw, roll around, and rub their head and body on the catnip. The effects of catnip peak after about 10 minutes and usually last around 30 minutes or less before wearing off.

Can catnip help with feline depression?

There is some anecdotal evidence that catnip can help boost cats’ moods. Some cat owners report that giving their cats catnip toys or treats seems to lift their spirits and make them more energetic and playful for a short period of time. However, there have been no scientific studies specifically looking at catnip’s effects on feline depression.

Catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone which triggers a response in cats’ brains that can induce euphoric effects. It is possible this short-lived “high” could temporarily relieve symptoms of depression. However, there is no clinical research yet on using catnip to treat long-term or chronic depression in cats.

There are also concerns around the safety of regular, long-term catnip use. Cats can become tolerant to catnip over time if exposed frequently. There are no studies on the potential adverse effects of prolonged catnip use in cats with depression. More research is needed before veterinarians can recommend catnip as a treatment for this condition.

Overall, while catnip may provide a temporary mood boost, there is no scientific evidence yet that it can relieve feline depression. Cat owners should exercise caution with regular catnip use and consult a vet for approved treatments for a depressed cat.

Other potential benefits of catnip

In addition to potentially helping with feline depression, catnip has several other benefits for cats:

Catnip can help relieve stress in cats. The nepetalactone in catnip binds to cats’ olfactory receptors, which triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This can put cats in a more relaxed, content state of mind.

cat playing with catnip toy

Catnip encourages playfulness and activity. The signature response cats have to catnip, nicknamed the “catnip crazy,” involves excited playing, jumping, pouncing, and running. Catnip toys can stimulate play in less active or depressed cats.

Catnip acts as a mild natural sedative. While catnip excites cats initially, it soon causes them to become more mellow and sleepy. Pet owners can use catnip to help cats relax before bedtime or during stressful events like vet visits or travel.

However, catnip should be given in moderation, as very large doses can cause vomiting or diarrhea. Most experts recommend limiting catnip to no more than 1-2 times per day.

Potential risks and side effects

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, there are some potential risks and side effects to be aware of:

Overstimulation – Catnip can make some cats very active and excitable. Excessive catnip exposure may lead to overstimulation and hyperactivity in some cats [1].

Aggressive behavior – Though rare, catnip may cause aggressive behavior in certain cats, especially if they become overstimulated [2].

No proven long-term safety studies – While catnip has been used for centuries, there are no scientific studies on the long-term safety of catnip when given regularly or in large doses [1].

Appropriate dosage and application

The recommended amount of catnip to give a cat is usually around 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of dried catnip leaves. According to Holistapet, this small amount is enough for most cats to experience the pleasurable effects of catnip without overdoing it.

Catnip can be given to cats in several ways:

  • Catnip-filled toys – Many cat toys contain dried catnip inside which will be released as the cat plays with it.
  • Loose dried leaves – Sprinkling some loose dried catnip on the floor or adding some to a paper bag can allow the cat to roll around and rub against it.
  • Catnip sprays – Spraying a small amount of catnip oil onto toys or scratching posts can also provide exposure.

applying catnip spray
It’s best to start with a small amount of catnip and monitor your cat’s reaction. Effects usually last 10-15 minutes. No more than 1-2 catnip sessions per day is recommended.

Other alternatives for depressed cats

There are various alternatives for treating feline depression beyond just catnip. Environmental enrichment is important – providing climbing structures, window perches, puzzle feeders, and play opportunities can help stimulate and engage a depressed cat. Establishing a consistent routine with regular playtime can also lift a cat’s mood.

Feliway plugins release synthetic pheromones that can help relieve anxiety and stress in some cats. These plugins mimic cats’ natural facial pheromones and signal safety and contentment. Using Feliway throughout the home may comfort a depressed cat.

As a last resort, prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be prescribed by a vet. Drugs like amitriptyline or fluoxetine are sometimes used for difficult cases of feline depression when other alternatives have failed. However, medication side effects and long-term safety are still being studied so they should be used judiciously.

Overall, environmental solutions, routine adjustments and pheromone plugins are gentler first choices for depressed cats. But prescription meds are an option if depression persists and significantly impacts quality of life. Consulting with a vet is advisable to choose suitable treatment paths. For more information see Petcarerx.

When to seek veterinary advice

If your cat has been displaying signs of depression or anxiety for an extended period of time, it’s recommended to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Prolonged depression in cats can lead to more serious health issues if left untreated. Look out for symptoms like consistent lack of interest in food or toys, aggression, hiding, or problems with self-care and grooming that last more than a few days. According to the ASPCA, you should contact your vet if your cat stops eating or using the litter box for over 48 hours, as this can be life-threatening for cats (ASPCA).

depressed looking cat

Your vet can run tests to check for underlying medical conditions that may be causing your cat’s change in mood and can recommend treatment options. They may prescribe antidepression or anti-anxiety medication in some cases. Never attempt to give your cat any medication without consulting your vet first, as improper dosage can be very dangerous. Your vet may also refer you to an animal behaviorist who can provide more specialized therapy and training to help your depressed cat.

While things like catnip, pheromones, and environmental changes can temporarily boost your cat’s mood, depression stemming from complex factors like grief, change in environment, or illness will require professional treatment. Don’t hesitate to call your vet if your cat is displaying concerning signs of depression or anxiety for multiple days in a row. With proper care and treatment, most cats can make a full recovery from depression or anxiety disorders.

Summary

While there is some evidence that catnip may potentially help lift a cat’s mood and reduce anxiety, more research is still needed to fully understand catnip’s effects on feline depression specifically. The research so far shows some promising results, with cats exhibiting more playful and energetic behavior after exposure to catnip. However, each cat is unique, and catnip alone is unlikely to completely resolve a depressive episode or anxiety disorder in cats. Catnip should be just one part of a broader approach to managing feline mental health issues. A holistic treatment plan developed with a veterinarian is recommended, which may include environmental changes, pheromone therapy, anti-depressants in severe cases, and meeting the cat’s basic needs for proper nutrition, exercise and enrichment. While catnip appears relatively safe for most cats, always consult your vet before introducing any new supplements or remedies, especially with cats who have medical conditions or are on other medications. With a balanced approach tailored to your individual cat’s needs, depressive symptoms can often be well-managed.

References

Feline Behavior Guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Feline Behavior Guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners, 2021, catvets.com/guidelines/practice-guidelines/feline-behavior-guidelines.

Bol, Sebastiaan & Bunnik, Eline M. (2015). Ethical Issues in Using Biotechnologies to Enhance Cats. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 2. 10.3389/fvets.2015.00026.

Grognet, J. A. (1990). Catnip: Its uses and effects, past and present. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 31(6), 455–456.

Rothschild, M., Wiencke, M., & Sanders, E. (1988). Reactions of cats to nepetalactone analogues. The chemical senses, 13(3), 369-373.

Tucker, Arthur O., and Sharon Tucker. “Catnip and the catnip response.” Economic Botany 42.2 (1988): 214-231.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top