Does Catnip Get Cats Buzzed? The Truth About Feline “Happy Herb”

What is catnip?

Botanically known as Nepeta cataria, catnip is a short-lived perennial herb belonging to the mint family. It grows wild in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. The plant features small, white and lavender flowers and jagged, heart-shaped leaves that smell faintly of mint.

Catnip contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone, which is what triggers behavioral responses in cats when they detect it. Nepetalactone acts as a feline attractant and stimulant when inhaled or ingested by cats.

How does catnip affect cats?

Catnip contains an active chemical compound called nepetalactone that binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and triggers a response in the brain. According to researchers at Scientific American, this response lasts for about 10 minutes, after which the cat becomes temporarily immune to catnip’s effects for roughly 30 minutes before responding again.

cat rolling in catnip

The effects of catnip on cats can include rubbing, rolling, pawing, licking, jumping, and other playful behavior. Catnip can also have a relaxing effect, causing the cat to lounge around in a sleepy, contented state. The stimulant and sedative effects seem to be contradictory but are in fact both reactions the cat has to the nepetalactone.

Overall, catnip causes a reversible euphoric state in cats that temporarily alters their behavior. The effects are short-lived and harmless, akin to the effects of caffeine on humans.

Catnip compared to alcohol

Both catnip and alcohol can cause an altered mental state and a temporary “high” feeling. When cats smell or eat catnip, they often become hyperactive, playful, vocal, and may roll around on the floor. This is caused by compounds in catnip known as nepetalactones that bind to receptors in the cat’s brain and trigger these behaviors. The effects of catnip last about 10-15 minutes before wearing off.

Similarly, alcohol can induce behavioral changes in humans such as increased sociability, euphoria, disinhibition, and lack of coordination at mild to moderate doses. At higher doses, alcohol acts as a depressant and sedative. These effects are caused by alcohol binding to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and altering neurotransmitter activity in the brain.

However, unlike alcohol addiction in humans, cats cannot become chemically addicted to catnip. While some cats may enjoy and seek out the smell or taste frequently, they will not experience withdrawal symptoms without it. Catnip does not contain addictive compounds that lead to physical dependence and addiction like those found in alcohol. The “high” from catnip is temporary and not harmful to cats’ health when used moderately.[1]

Differences from Alcohol

While catnip may act somewhat like a stimulant drug for cats, it does not produce effects similar to alcohol intoxication.

One key difference is that catnip does not impair motor functions or coordination in cats. Intoxication from alcohol significantly impairs physical and mental abilities through its effects on the brain and central nervous system. Catnip does not intoxicate cats or alter their state of consciousness in the same way.

Additionally, alcohol consumption has many associated health risks and can lead to long-term organ damage and addiction. Catnip does not appear to have any long-term health effects on cats when used moderately. The effects wear off within minutes to hours without any hangover or withdrawal effects like those caused by alcohol.

According to WebMD, “Catnip is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth in food amounts. Catnip is POSSIBLY SAFE when smoked or taken by mouth in medicinal amounts. However, catnip is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when smoked or taken by mouth in high doses.” While catnip may have a stimulating effect, it does not cause the type of intoxication or long-term health effects associated with alcohol consumption (Source).

Catnip as enrichment

cat playing with catnip toy

Catnip can provide important mental and physical stimulation for cats when used properly. According to Chirpycats.com, catnip contains nepetalactone, which can induce a euphoric state in cats when smelled or ingested. This helps encourage playtime and activity.

Experts recommend using catnip in moderation as an occasional treat for playtime enrichment. Preventivevet.com suggests filling toys with catnip or sprinkling some in areas around the home to help create a stimulating environment. They note that catnip should complement an already enriching routine, not serve as the sole source of enrichment. Too much catnip can make some cats overly excited or even anxious.

Overall, catnip can be a fun way to mix up your cat’s routine and encourage active play when used responsibly. Monitoring your cat’s response and limiting the frequency and amount can help make it an effective enrichment tool.

Risks and warnings

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, there are some potential risks with overexposure that cat owners should be aware of. Too much catnip can cause overstimulation and discomfort (Petcarerx). Cats who ingest large amounts of catnip may experience an upset stomach or diarrhea. Kittens and elderly cats may be more sensitive as well. It’s best to offer catnip in moderation.

There’s also some evidence that cats can develop a tolerance to catnip over time if exposed to it frequently. The euphoric effect may diminish with prolonged exposure as cats become desensitized (Petcarerx). It’s generally recommended to limit catnip to a few times per week for the best results.

While non-toxic, responsible cat owners should monitor catnip usage and avoid allowing their cats to have unlimited access. Consulting a vet can help determine appropriate amounts and frequency for an individual cat.

Other responses

Interestingly, not all cats respond to catnip. Studies have shown that only about 50-70% of cats exhibit a response to nepetalactone, the active chemical in catnip [1]. Some cats may react strongly, while others show mild or no interest at all.

Kittens also do not respond to catnip until approximately 6 months of age, likely because their brains are still developing [2]. The response seems to kick in around the time cats reach sexual maturity. Before 6 months, most kittens are unaffected by exposure to catnip.

Active Chemical

The chemical compound responsible for the cat-attracting effects of catnip is called nepetalactone. Research has shown that of the many compounds found in catnip plants, nepetalactone is the key active ingredient that elicits the response in cats [1]. Other compounds in catnip have no observable effect.

chemical structure of nepetalactone

Nepetalactone is extremely potent even in dried catnip, and becomes more concentrated when cats chew or roll in the plant. The effects seem to be amplified when cats ingest nepetalactone as opposed to just smelling it [2].

The nepetalactone content varies between different catnip plants and species. Scientists have shown that catmint plants can have up to 20 times more nepetalactone compared to regular catnip [3].

Commercial products

There are a variety of commercial catnip products readily available for cat owners. These include sprays, treats, and toys infused with catnip. Many major pet retailers like Amazon, Furhaven, and Meowijuana offer catnip products. Some things to look for in quality commercial catnip products include:

Catnip sprays allow cat owners to apply catnip to toys, scratchers, bedding, and more. Popular brands like SmartyKat offer catnip sprays in resealable pouches.

Catnip infused treats provide another way for cats to enjoy the effects of catnip. Treats often contain dried catnip along with other flavorful ingredients cats love.

Plush and soft toys filled with catnip are extremely popular cat toys. Many feature removable catnip pouches that allow owners to re-stuff the toys. Meowijuana makes organic catnip toys designed to be refilled.

In general, cat experts recommend choosing USDA certified organic catnip when possible. Organic catnip avoids pesticides and harmful chemicals. High potency catnip products also tend to provide stronger reactions in cats.

Summary

cat treats made with catnip

While catnip provides a temporary high for many cats, comparing it to alcohol can be misleading. Catnip does not cause intoxication, addiction, or dangerous health effects like alcohol can in humans. The active chemical nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors, creating a response ranging from mild relaxation to playful giddiness in some cats. However, not all cats respond to catnip. When used safely and in moderation as an enrichment supplement, catnip is not harmful for cats.

It’s important to note that catnip does not produce the same physiological effects or risks associated with alcoholic intoxication in humans. The euphoric response to catnip lasts about 10-15 minutes and then wears off, without any lingering impairment, addiction, or health consequences. So while catnip may elicit a short-lived “high” for cats, it is very different from alcohol intoxication. Catnip can be used safely as an occasional treat in moderation, but as with any supplement, owners should monitor their cat’s individual reactions.

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