Is Your Cat Addicted to Catnip? The Truth About This Herb’s Safety

What is Catnip and How Does it Affect Cats?

Catnip is a herb in the mint family with the botanical name Nepeta cataria. The catnip plant has gray-green foliage and small lavender flowers. It contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that is attractive to domestic cats and some other felines. When cats smell or ingest catnip, it binds to receptors in their nose and stimulates a response. Reactions can include playful behavior, rolling around, relaxation, and euphoria.

Not all cats are affected by catnip. Around 50-70% of adult cats respond to it, while kittens under 6 months old typically show no interest. The catnip reaction is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene, meaning the cat only needs one copy of the gene from either parent to exhibit the trait. Cats may react differently to catnip at different points in their lives for reasons not fully understood.

For cats sensitive to catnip, the herb induces a temporary high-like euphoric state typically lasting 5-15 minutes. Common responses in cats include rubbing against the catnip, rolling around, pawing at it, hyperactive behavior, relaxation, and vocalizations like meowing. The catnip excites cats’ hunting and mating instincts.

cat rolling in catnip

While the euphoric effects of catnip are safe for cats, it should always be given in moderation. Catnip is not addictive for cats, but they can become tolerant to its effects if too much is given too frequently.

Active Ingredient in Catnip

The active compound in catnip responsible for its effects on cats is called nepetalactone. This organic compound binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and stimulates responses in the central nervous system. Though the exact mechanism is not fully understood, it is believed that nepetalactone mimics certain pheromones and stimulates cats’ innate prey drive and playful behavior when smelled.

Nepetalactone is found in the leaves and stems of catnip plants (Nepeta cataria), part of the mint family. Though about two-thirds of cats are strongly affected by nepetalactone, some cats show no response. The effects of catnip typically last between 5 and 15 minutes before wearing off.

While nepetalactone causes stimulating effects in cats, it can act as a mosquito and insect repellent for people. Researchers continue to study nepetalactone for its potential applications.

Safe Dosage of Catnip

Pure catnip is generally considered non-toxic for cats (Animal Medical Center). While cats can have adverse reactions from eating too much catnip, they cannot technically “overdose” on it. There have been no reported cases of catnip toxicity or fatal overdoses in cats.

measuring catnip dose

Most commercial catnip toys and treats contain safe, limited amounts of catnip. These products are not known to cause harm when used as directed. However, some cats may eat the catnip out of toys, which could result in an upset stomach.

Signs that a cat has had too much catnip include lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms are generally short-lived once the cat metabolizes the catnip. Limit access to catnip if these reactions occur (Petful).

While not toxic, large doses of catnip may cause temporary discomfort. Cats should not be allowed to binge eat dried catnip. Store catnip safely out of reach and limit portions.

Risks of Eating Catnip

Eating too much catnip can potentially cause some mild gastrointestinal upset in cats such as an upset stomach or diarrhea, but catnip itself is not considered toxic or poisonous to cats[1]. The main compound that causes the euphoric effects in cats is called nepetalactone, which is not known to be toxic even in large doses[2].

cat eating catnip

One of the main risks of a cat eating catnip is potential dehydration if they experience diarrhea after eating a large amount. Make sure your cat has access to plenty of fresh water if they ingest a lot of catnip.

There can also be a risk from any foreign non-edible objects that may be mixed in with the catnip, such as sticks or hard stems. Make sure any fresh or dried catnip given to cats is free from hazardous debris. But ultimately, catnip itself is not inherently toxic to cats when eaten in large quantities[2].

The key is moderation. Giving your cat occasional access to small amounts of catnip for enjoyment is perfectly safe. Just be mindful of gastrointestinal effects if they eat a large amount.

[1] https://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/nutrition-feeding/catnip-for-cats

[2] https://www.litter-robot.com/blog/can-cats-eat-catnip/

Long-Term Effects of Catnip

Despite the euphoric effects catnip produces in cats, studies have shown there are no significant long-term effects from catnip use. Research revealed no evidence that catnip is addictive for cats or impacts their long-term health [1]. The active chemical in catnip, called nepetalactone, causes a temporary high but repeated exposure results in smaller responses. This is due to the refractory period cats experience after catnip exposure, which limits overindulgence. During this refractory period, cats are unable to experience the euphoric effects of catnip again until the nepetalactone has cleared their system. This period can last anywhere from 2-3 hours up to a full day. While catnip may cause a temporary hyperactive state, once the effects wear off, cats return to their normal behavior and temperament.

Additionally, research has not shown any addiction or withdrawal symptoms in cats with long-term catnip exposure. Unlike addictive substances, cats do not demonstrate obsessive seeking behavior or negative health impacts when catnip is removed from their environment after regular use [2]. Most evidence indicates catnip is a safe way to provide cats with temporary enjoyment and stimulation. Veterinarians generally consider catnip non-addictive and harmless when used properly and in moderation.

When to Avoid Catnip

While catnip is generally safe for cats to consume, there are some instances when catnip should be avoided:

Kittens under 6 months old – Catnip can cause excitability in kittens that is too much for their still-developing bodies. It’s best to wait until a kitten is at least 6 months old before introducing catnip.

Cats with liver or kidney disease – The active ingredient in catnip needs to be metabolized by the liver and excreted by the kidneys. Cats with compromised organ function may have adverse reactions.

Pregnant or nursing cats – It’s best to avoid catnip while a cat is pregnant or nursing, as the effects of catnip metabolites transferred through milk are unknown.

Cats on medication – Catnip can interact with certain medications like sedatives or antidepressants. Check with your vet before giving catnip to a cat on any regular medication.

In general, it’s best to avoid catnip for any cat that is sick, weakened, or on medication until their health has stabilized. Introduce catnip slowly to gauge a cat’s reaction. Discontinue use if any concerning symptoms develop.

Natural Alternatives to Catnip

There are a few alternatives to catnip that affect cats in a similar way. These include silver vine, valerian, Tatarian honeysuckle, and Actinidia polygama. Some of the primary natural alternatives to catnip are:

Silver Vine

Silver vine (Actinidia polygama) is a close relative of the kiwi plant that grows in parts of Asia. It contains compounds like matatabilactone that produce effects in cats comparable to nepetalactone in catnip. Many cats that don’t respond to catnip will react to silver vine. Some key facts about silver vine:

  • The mature shoots and leaves of the silver vine plant contain the active compounds.
  • Can be purchased as dry leaves, sticks/twigs, or toys filled with powdered silver vine.
  • Effects can include rolling, licking, chewing, head shaking, and euphoria.
  • May have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.

Sources:
https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/silver-vine-plant-alternative-catnip
https://catoropets.com/blogs/news/4-alternatives-to-catnip

Valerian

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an herb with sedative properties that also triggers a response in many cats. The root contains valepotriates and actinidine which are attractive to cats. Key facts about valerian:

  • Can be given dried, as an extract/oil, or as valerian root capsules.
  • Effects are usually less intense and last shorter than catnip.
  • May cause relaxation, kitten-like playfulness, muscle contractions.
  • Should only be given occasionally and in moderation.

Sources:
https://www.amcny.org/blog/2018/06/20/catnip-and-its-alternatives/

Signs of a Catnip Sensitivity

While most cats enjoy catnip, some may have an adverse reaction. Signs of a catnip sensitivity can include:

  • Aggressive reaction – Some cats may become aggressive or angry after being exposed to catnip. They may hiss, bite, or scratch.
  • Hiding or cowering – Cats who are overstimulated by catnip may hide under furniture or in small spaces. They may seem fearful.
  • Excessive drooling/vomiting – Eating too much catnip can cause nausea and vomiting in sensitive cats. There may be excessive drooling as well.
  • Dilated pupils – Catnip causes pupil dilation in cats. Overly dilated pupils can be a sign of catnip toxicity.

If your cat displays any of these symptoms after being exposed to catnip, remove access to the catnip immediately and monitor your cat. Seek veterinary attention if symptoms persist or seem severe.

Storing Catnip Properly

Catnip should be stored properly to maintain its freshness and potency. According to How to Grow, Harvest & Store Catnip, catnip should be kept in an airtight container like a plastic bag or jar with a tight lid. This prevents moisture from getting in, which can cause the catnip to lose its effectiveness. Refrigeration can also help keep catnip fresh for longer.

Catnip should also be kept out of direct sunlight, according to Does Catnip Expire? Here are 5 Facts About Freshness. Light and warmth will cause the essential oils in catnip to evaporate faster. Storing catnip in a cool, dark place is best.

The color of the catnip can indicate freshness. When the green color starts to fade to brown, it’s a sign that the catnip is past its prime and should be discarded. Avoiding moisture is key, as moisture will accelerate the breakdown of the essential oils.

With proper airtight and refrigerated storage away from light and moisture, catnip can retain its potency for up to six months or longer. But when in doubt, rely on scent and color rather than storage time. If the catnip has lost its distinctive minty smell and vibrant green color, it won’t have the desired effect on cats anymore.

Catnip Safety Tips

storing catnip safely

When giving your cat catnip, it’s important to keep some safety tips in mind:

Monitor play sessions – Catnip can make some cats hyperactive, so keep an eye on your cat when they have access to catnip to make sure they don’t get overstimulated or anxious. Limit play sessions to 10-15 minutes.

Remove vomit hazards – Some cats may eat too much catnip and vomit. Make sure to remove rugs, wires, and other items your cat could vomit on and have trouble cleaning up.

Keep hydrated – Catnip can cause drooling or dry mouth. Ensure your cat has access to fresh water after playing with catnip.

Use organic/pesticide-free – Purchase catnip from a reliable source and look for organic, pesticide-free varieties when possible to reduce the risk of contamination.

Rotate toys – Rotate catnip toys to keep them novel and exciting for your cat. Cats can become desensitized to the smell if exposed continuously.

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