Is It Safe For Dogs To Eat Catnip?

What is catnip?

Catnip (botanical name Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb from the mint family Lamiaceae. It is also known as catmint and catwort. Native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, this plant has been naturalized to many other parts of the world. Catnip contains a chemical called nepetalactone that acts as a feline attractant and causes a euphoric response in about 2/3 of cats when smelled or ingested (1).

Catnip is a hardy, drought-tolerant perennial that grows up to 3 feet tall. It has grayish-green leaves with scalloped edges on square, upright stems. Small tubular flowers bloom in clusters at the stem ends and can be white, pink, or light purple (2). All parts of the catnip plant, especially the leaves and flowers, contain the essential oil that provides the distinctive aroma and flavor.




Active chemical in catnip

cat rolling in catnip

The active chemical in catnip that causes a response in cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactones are derived from the essential oil of catnip (Nepeta cataria), a plant in the mint family. The chemical structure of nepetalactone contains a bicyclic ten-carbon ring with three methyl groups (Wikipedia).

When a cat inhales nepetalactone, the chemical binds to receptors in the cat’s nasal tissue, triggering a response. This causes most cats to act playful, excitable, and exhibit rolling, rubbing, licking, or chewing behaviors. However, around 30% of cats are not affected by nepetalactone (Scientific American).

Catnip effects on cats

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that can produce a stimulant and euphoric effect in cats (Source). When cats smell catnip, the nepetalactone binds to receptors in their brain and triggers a response that affects their behavior and mood.

Most cats will react to catnip by rolling around, rubbing against it, and exhibiting excited behavior. They may meow loudly, play more energetically, and zoom around the room. The euphoric effect from catnip acts as a stimulant that makes cats feel happy and content.

Catnip does not produce this stimulant response in all cats, as genetics determine whether a cat is susceptible. However, most cats are sensitive to catnip and will show a strong euphoric reaction when exposed to it.

Dog’s sense of smell

Dogs have a remarkably sensitive sense of smell that is much stronger than that of cats. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to only around 200 million in cats (Do Dogs Really Have More Sensitive Noses Than Cats?). This gives dogs the ability to detect scents at concentrations of 1-2 parts per trillion, allowing them to pick up subtle nuances in aroma that cats often miss. Additionally, the part of a dog’s brain devoted to analyzing smells is about 40 times larger than that of a human.

Because of their superior sense of smell, dogs are able to detect scents from much farther away than cats can. Dogs can pick up scents that are diluted to 1-2 parts per trillion, while cats need a concentration of at least 1 part per billion to detect a smell (Dogs Vs. Cats: A Comparison of the 5 Senses). This means dogs can detect faint odors from significantly greater distances. Their high olfactory acuity gives dogs an awareness of their surroundings that cats cannot match.

Effects of catnip on dogs

While catnip acts as a stimulant in cats, inducing behaviors like rolling, rubbing, and playfulness, it typically has mild sedative effects in dogs (Healthy Paws Pet Insurance). The nepetalactone in catnip binds to olfactory receptors in a dog’s nose, which produces a calming effect on the nervous system. Most dogs will simply become more mellow and relaxed after sniffing or ingesting catnip.

Some dogs may experience lethargy, sleepiness, or reduced anxiety levels after being exposed to catnip. The sedative effects tend to be mild and temporary in nature. Catnip does not appear to be addictive for dogs the way it can be for cats. While a small minority of dogs may become more excitable after catnip exposure, this stimulant reaction seems less common.

Overall, catnip tends to have a soothing, calming influence on dogs when smelled or eaten in small amounts. It’s important to closely observe your dog’s individual reaction and adjust their access accordingly.

Possible Risks and Safety Concerns

While catnip is generally considered safe for dogs, there are some potential risks to be aware of. Consuming large amounts of catnip may cause gastrointestinal upset like diarrhea and vomiting in dogs (1). The exact amount that could cause this effect is not known, but it’s likely that only very excessive consumption could lead to these symptoms.

dog eating catnip plant

Some sources advise giving only small amounts of catnip to dogs to prevent adverse effects. A good rule of thumb is to limit catnip treats to no more than 1-2 times per week (2). Overall, regular and moderate consumption of catnip is unlikely to pose safety issues for most dogs.

Signs of toxicity or overdose from too much catnip can include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea or excessive salivation. If you observe any of these symptoms after your dog has eaten catnip, call your veterinarian right away (3). With prompt veterinary attention, your dog should make a full recovery.

Safer alternatives

While catnip can have unintended effects on dogs, there are some safer herbal alternatives. Anise, for example, contains a chemical called anethole that is similar to nepetalactone in catnip and appeals to dogs’ senses without the hyperactive effects. Anise can be found in some dog treats, toys, and oils marketed as “dognip”.

Other pet-safe herbs like valerian, skullcap, and chamomile can have a soothing effect on dogs without overstimulation. Check with your vet before introducing new herbs, as some may not be recommended for dogs with certain medical conditions. When in doubt, it’s best to avoid catnip and stick to dog-specific products designed to be safe and appealing for canines.

Serving Catnip to Dogs

Catnip can be given to dogs in moderate amounts infrequently. Some key things to keep in mind when serving catnip to your dog:

    catnip treats

  • Give your dog catnip treats instead of allowing them to eat the live plant. This allows you to control the dosage.
  • Start with small amounts like a pinch or a few leaves to see how your dog reacts.
  • Only give catnip 1-2 times per week at most. Frequent use can lead to overstimulation.
  • Never force your dog to eat catnip if they show no interest.
  • Monitor your dog closely when first trying catnip to watch for any negative reactions.
  • Reduce dosage or stop giving catnip if your dog shows signs of anxiety or aggression.

While catnip is generally safe for dogs, moderation is key. Pay attention to your dog’s individual reaction and adjust accordingly. Too much catnip can overstimulate some dogs.

Signs of catnip toxicity

Although catnip is non-toxic for dogs, consuming too much catnip can cause some mild side effects. The most common signs of catnip toxicity in dogs include:

Excessive drooling – Some dogs may drool more than usual after eating catnip. The chemical nepetalactone in catnip can cause increased salivation.

Upset stomach – Eating too much catnip may irritate a dog’s stomach and cause vomiting or diarrhea. Catnip can act as a laxative.

If your dog shows these or any other concerning symptoms after ingesting catnip, contact your veterinarian, especially if the symptoms persist more than 24 hours.

When to contact your vet

In most cases, catnip is harmless for dogs when given in moderation. However, if concerning symptoms appear after your dog has consumed catnip, contact your veterinarian right away.

Signs that may indicate a toxicity issue include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, increased body temperature, and abnormal heart rate or blood pressure. These can potentially be life-threatening, so do not hesitate to call your vet if you notice anything out of the ordinary after your dog eats catnip.

Your vet can examine your dog, run any necessary diagnostic tests, and start supportive care as needed. They may induce vomiting or give your dog activated charcoal to help remove the catnip from its system. In severe cases, hospitalization with IV fluids and medication may be required. The sooner you seek veterinary care, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Knowing when to be concerned and getting prompt veterinary treatment can help prevent serious illness or complications if your dog experiences a bad reaction to catnip. Trust your instincts and do not wait if your dog displays any troubling signs after eating catnip. Your vet is there to help keep your dog healthy and safe.

dog at veterinarian

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