Do Vets Really Recommend Catnip? The Truth About This Controversial Herb

What is Catnip?

Catnip, also known as catmint, is a flowering plant with the botanical name Nepeta cataria. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae, which contains around 250 species of aromatic herb plants. Catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone, which is the key component that causes euphoric effects in about 50-70% of cats when they smell it.

Nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose, triggering a response that affects cats’ brains and behavior. When cats inhale nepetalactone, it can make them act jittery, playful, excited and amorous. The response to catnip is believed to be an inherited sensitivity. Not all cats respond to catnip, and kittens generally do not respond until they reach 3-6 months of age.

Effects of Catnip on Cats

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that can induce a temporary euphoric state in cats when smelled or ingested. The effects of catnip are often described as making cats feel “high” or giving them a marijuana-like reaction. When exposed to catnip, most domestic cats will start to roll, flip, rub, and eventually seem to zone out into a relaxed and content state. They may vocalize more with meows and growls while under the influence of catnip.

Other observable effects of catnip on cats can include increased playfulness and activity. The period of sensitivity to catnip usually lasts between 5 and 15 minutes before wearing off. Once the initial reaction has passed, cats typically need at least an hour before becoming receptive to catnip again.

a cat rolling in catnip

According to veterinarians, the response to catnip is an inherited sensitivity and not all cats will react in this way. Around 50-70% of adult cats are susceptible to the effects of catnip, while kittens younger than 6 months old typically show little to no interest in catnip.

Is Catnip Safe?

Catnip is generally considered non-toxic and safe for cats when used appropriately. The active ingredient in catnip, called nepetalactone, binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and has a stimulating effect. According to PetMD, catnip causes no long-term side effects in cats and is not addictive when used moderately.

Some potential short-term side effects of catnip may include vomiting or diarrhea if a large amount is ingested, according to ASPCA Pet Insurance. However, serious side effects are very rare. Most cats show no adverse effects from sniffing or eating catnip. It’s important not to force your cat to have catnip if they show no interest.

Veterinarians generally consider catnip to be a safe herbal supplement for cats when used properly. It should not be given to kittens under 6 months old. Overall, catnip has few risks compared to the positive effects it can provide for many cats.

Benefits of Catnip

Catnip can provide enrichment for cats and stimulate exercise. When cats smell or consume catnip, it often causes a state of temporary euphoria and excitement. Cats will frequently start to play more when exposed to catnip by rolling around, chasing toys, and running around. The increase in activity and play from catnip can provide cats with exercise and satisfaction. Catnip can be used as a tool to engage inactive or bored cats in playtime.

Another benefit of catnip is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety in cats. Research shows that nepetalactone, the chemical compound in catnip that causes the euphoric reaction in cats, can have a sedative effect and lower stress levels. The relaxing response induced by catnip can help high-strung cats feel more calm and content. Sniffing or eating catnip is an easy way to reduce your cat’s anxiety, especially during stressful events like vet visits or introducing a new pet or family member.

Finally, catnip can be an alternative outlet to scratching furniture or carpeting. The stimulating qualities of catnip frequently lead cats to rub, kick, scratch and stretch on catnip-filled toys. Providing catnip toys helps redirect normal scratching behaviors to appropriate objects, reducing destruction of household items. Catnip scratching posts are a good way to minimize inappropriate scratching.

Potential Risks of Catnip

cat scratching a catnip toy

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, there are some potential risks with overindulgence. The main risk is that too much catnip can cause lethargy or lack of interest in some cats. Catnip contains nepetalactone, which binds to olfactory receptors and has a sedative effect after an initial period of giddy excitement 1. Large doses of nepetalactone can overload these receptors, leaving some cats feeling drowsy and unmotivated.

Another potential risk is aggressive behavior in certain cats. Most cats respond to catnip by rubbing, rolling, and playful activity. However, some cats may become more irritable or aggressive with too much catnip. This is likely due to overstimulation of the central nervous system. Catnip should be given in moderation to avoid potential aggression triggered by overindulgence 2.

While catnip is generally harmless in normal quantities, owners should monitor their cat’s behavior after exposure to catnip and limit consumption to avoid lethargy or aggression in sensitive cats. Moderation is key when it comes to catnip.

Veterinarian Perspectives

Most veterinarians approve of moderate catnip use for cats. Catnip is generally considered to be safe, non-toxic, and harmless when used responsibly ( According to vets, the active chemical compound nepetalactone in catnip triggers a pleasurable response when smelled by around 50-70% of cats. It can make cats feel euphoric, relaxed, silly, hyperactive, or sleepy.

However, some vets caution that excessive catnip use could potentially lead to psychological dependence. Providing unlimited access to catnip could cause some cats to compulsively seek it out. Most vets recommend catnip in moderation, such as 10-15 minutes of play per day, to avoid overstimulation or reliance on the herb for entertainment. But overall, vets consider catnip to be a safe way to provide sensory enrichment and exercise when used responsibly (

Recommended Usage

a vet examining a cat

While most vets agree that catnip is safe for cats in moderation, they typically recommend occasional use rather than daily use. The key is to monitor your cat’s reaction and watch for any negative side effects.

Most vets suggest using dried catnip leaves or catnip-filled toys over oil extracts, which are highly concentrated and can cause diarrhea or vomiting if over-consumed. Give your cat access to catnip for 5-10 minutes at a time, then remove it so the effects can wear off. Limit catnip sessions to once or twice per week at most.

Observe your cat after exposure to catnip. Signs of overstimulation include hyperactivity, anxiety, restlessness or aggression. If you notice any of these side effects, discontinue catnip use for a while. Each cat responds differently, so adjust accordingly if yours seems overly sensitive.

While research shows catnip is not addictive and your cat won’t overdose, it’s still smart to use moderation. Most vets recommend catnip as an occasional treat, not a daily requirement. Monitor your cat’s reaction and limit the amount to avoid negative side effects.

Alternatives to Catnip

While catnip is popular for stimulating play in cats, there are other alternatives that cat owners can try. Some good options include:

Cardboard Scratchers

Providing cardboard scratchers allows cats to satisfy their natural scratching instinct. The cardboard texture also releases feel-good pheromones that many cats enjoy. Scratchers come in simple cardboard pads, vertical posts, and more elaborate toys. Placing them strategically around the home can help divert cats from undesirable scratching spots. Source

Pheromone Diffusers

Pheromone diffusers release synthetic pheromones that mimic cats’ natural calming pheromones. This can satisfy cats’ scent drive without the overstimulating effects of catnip. Diffusers are plugged into outlets to emit pheromones continuously, helping reduce stress and destructive behaviors. They can be especially useful for anxious cats. Source

cat pheromone diffuser plugged into outlet

Interactive Toys

toys that move unpredictably, light up, or make sounds can provide mental stimulation and exercise for cats. Toys like wand teasers, puzzle feeders, treat balls, and laser pointers tap into feline predatory instincts. Rotating a variety of interactive toy options prevents cats from getting bored. This gives them an outlet for play while avoiding overuse of catnip. Source

Signs of Catnip Overdose

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, too much of it can lead to signs of overdose. The most common symptoms of catnip overdose include:

  • Lethargy – Excessive catnip can cause cats to become very sleepy and inactive.
  • Lack of interest – Cats may lose interest in toys or activities they normally enjoy.
  • Agitation – Some cats may become agitated or anxious after too much catnip.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea – Large doses of catnip can upset a cat’s stomach leading to gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea (PetMD).

These symptoms tend to be temporary and resolve on their own as the effects of catnip wear off. However, if symptoms persist or seem severe, veterinary attention should be sought, especially for vomiting and diarrhea which can lead to dehydration.

To avoid overdose, cat owners should follow dosage guidelines and limit catnip to occasional use as a special treat. Monitoring the cat after exposure and removing access if signs of over-stimulation occur is also recommended.


In conclusion, catnip can be an enriching yet safe herb for cats when used moderately and under supervision. The main active chemical compound nepetalactone is what produces the euphoric effects in cats. While catnip is non-addictive, non-toxic and generally recommended by veterinarians, overindulgence can cause lethargy and lack of appetite. The stimulating qualities of catnip provide mental stimulation, exercise and stress relief. Most veterinarians approve of catnip usage in moderation. It’s best to observe your cat’s individual reaction and monitor for overuse.

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