The Catnip Craze. What Happens When Kitties Get High?

What is Catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family. It has green or grayish-green foliage and small, white or pinkish flowers that bloom in the summer. All parts of the catnip plant contain the chemical compound nepetalactone, which is the active ingredient that causes behavioral effects in cats (https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-catnip-plants-2132328).

close up image of catnip leaves

Nepetalactone is an essential oil found in the leaves and stems of catnip plants. When cats detect this oil, it binds to receptors in their nose and stimulates a response. Though the effects can vary from cat to cat, most exhibit a range of behaviors like head shaking, chin and cheek rubbing, head over rolling, and aggressive play (https://bonnieplants.com/blogs/how-to-grow/growing-catnip). The chemical makeup of nepetalactone is similar to cat pheromones, triggering this instinctual reaction.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose and induces a euphoric effect (Source). When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactone acts as a stimulant by mimicking feline “happy” pheromones and triggering areas in the brain associated with reward and pleasure.

The most common symptoms of catnip’s effects are behavioral. Cats may act hyperactive, playful, vocal, and exhibit behaviors like rolling, pawing, head shaking, and strange undirected leaps. However, not all cats react the same way – genetics plays a role in catnip sensitivity. Around 20-30% of cats lack the gene responsible for the nepetalactone response and exhibit no effects from catnip exposure (Source).

Short-Term Side Effects

When cats smell or ingest catnip, it activates their pheromone receptors and triggers a response that is often described as a temporary euphoric high. The most common short-term side effects of catnip on cats include hyperactivity and excited behavior, increased playfulness and activity, anxiety or aggression in some cats.

cat rolling around and playing with catnip toy

The short-term effects of catnip typically last around 5-15 minutes before wearing off. During this time, cats often roll around, rub against objects, run around excitedly, meow, chase imaginary objects, and show an intense fixation on catnip-filled toys. The pheromones in catnip trigger feelings of pleasure and disinhibition that make cats playful, energetic, and uncharacteristically goofy.

However, catnip does not affect all cats. Around 20-30% of cats seem immune to its effects. Additionally, catnip can cause anxious or aggressive reactions in some cats. They may hide, act hostile, or scratch and bite during their hyperactive catnip state. Therefore, cat owners should closely monitor their cat’s response to catnip and discontinue use if aggressive behavior develops.

Long-Term Side Effects

Repeated or prolonged exposure to catnip does not appear to be addictive or harmful to cats. While cats may develop a tolerance over time, requiring more catnip to get the same response, there is no evidence that catnip causes addiction or withdrawal symptoms (PetMD).

One study found that giving cats catnip once a week for one year did not cause any negative health effects. The cats maintained a healthy appetite, activity levels, and weight throughout the study period (Massoco, 1995).

Overall, research indicates that long-term, moderate catnip use is safe for cats. While a tolerance may develop, there are no reports of addiction, dependence, or withdrawal symptoms. As with any supplement, it’s best to use catnip in moderation under supervision to avoid overdose.

Risks and Dangers

Though the effects of catnip on most cats are harmless and temporary, there are a few potential risks and dangers to be aware of:

Catnip can cause overstimulation or stress in anxious cats. The energetic, frenzied behavior induced by catnip does not mix well with cats that are easily excitable or prone to anxiety. It’s best to avoid giving catnip to cats with nervous or high-strung personalities (source).

Rarely, some cats may experience trembling or vomiting after eating catnip. Consuming large amounts of the leaves on an empty stomach can sometimes cause gastrointestinal upset. Limit your cat’s catnip intake to avoid potential vomiting (source).

Benefits of Catnip

cat lying relaxed rubbing its face on catnip

Catnip can provide many benefits for cats when used properly and in moderation. The main active chemical compound in catnip is called nepetalactone, which can have a relaxing effect on cats. Two of the primary benefits of catnip for cats are relaxation for anxious cats and environmental enrichment/stress relief.

Catnip has been shown to reduce anxiety and relax nervous cats or cats experiencing stress. The nepetalactone compound interacts with receptors in a cat’s brain that can have a calming effect. Cat owners may notice their anxious or high-strung cat becoming more mellow and relaxed after exposure to catnip. It can be useful for soothing cats in stressful situations like visits to the veterinarian or introductions to new environments. Studies show catnip acts as a sedative and can reduce anxiety, stress and depression in cats.

Catnip can also provide enrichment to a cat’s environment and help relieve boredom and stress. When cats experience the “high” effects of catnip, it provides mental stimulation and environmental enrichment through increased playful behavior. Catnip can be used for play sessions to relieve boredom and excess energy. The relaxing and stress-reducing benefits also aid in environmental enrichment. Owners should provide catnip toys or loose dried catnip to give their cats an engaging activity to relieve stress.

Recommended Usage

When it comes to catnip, moderation is key. While most cats enjoy catnip, overusing or forcing it on cats can reduce its positive effects. According to https://content.petmate.com/academy/the-dos-and-donts-of-catnip/, catnip should be given infrequently as a special treat.

Veterinarians typically recommend limiting catnip to once or twice a week for 10-15 minutes at a time. It’s best to start with small amounts and observe your cat’s reaction before increasing the dose. Let your cat walk away when they lose interest instead of continually exposing them to catnip.

Avoid forcing or restricting access to catnip if your cat shows no interest. According to https://www.dreamiestreats.co.uk/did-you-know/what-is-catnip, around 30% of cats are unaffected by catnip, so don’t persist if they seem indifferent.

In moderation, catnip can be an enjoyable treat for cats. But be mindful not to overuse it, and let your cat indicate their desired dosage and frequency.

Signs of a Catnip Overdose

While most cats enjoy catnip in moderation, too much can lead to an overdose with concerning symptoms. The most notable signs of a catnip overdose include:

Nonstop hyperactivity and restlessness – After ingesting or inhaling too much catnip, cats may become extremely hyper and unable to settle down. They may run around, jump on furniture, and play more roughly than usual for hours on end without tiring themselves out.

Aggressive behavior or hiding – Some overstimulated cats may become uncharacteristically aggressive and attack people or other pets. Others may hide under beds or furniture because the catnip has made them too wired. These behavioral changes result from an overload of catnip’s active ingredient nepetalactone.

Excessive vocalization – Overdosed cats may meow, chirp, or yowl relentlessly due to their hyper stimulated state. Their vocalizations may be louder and more frequent than normal.

Lack of appetite – While catnip often excites a cat’s appetite at moderate doses, too much can make cats lose interest in food temporarily.

Vomiting or diarrhea – Ingesting too much catnip may irritate a cat’s gastrointestinal tract, causing upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea. This reaction is typically short-lived.

While alarming, these signs of catnip overdose tend to resolve on their own within a few hours as the catnip wears off. Severe or prolonged symptoms may warrant a vet visit to rule out other conditions. Moderation and supervision are key when giving cats catnip.

Alternatives to Catnip

While catnip is a popular herb for cats, some cats don’t respond to it or owners want alternatives. Other plants can produce effects similar to catnip:

Silver vine (Actinidia polygama) is a member of the Actinidiaceae plant family native to areas of China and Japan. Silver vine contains compounds called matatabilactones that are structurally similar to nepetalactones in catnip and produce euphoric effects in cats. Many cats that don’t respond to catnip will respond to silver vine. Silver vine is available as toys, treats, and sprays.1

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) contains actinidine, a cat attractant similar to nepetalactone in catnip. The roots and leaves of the valerian plant can be dried and added to toys. However, valerian effects are milder and shorter-lasting compared to catnip.2

Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is another honeysuckle species besides woodbine that can act as a catnip alternative, producing mild euphoric effects. However, tatarian honeysuckle is considered an invasive species in North America.3

When to Avoid Catnip

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, there are certain situations when it’s best to avoid giving it to your feline friend.

mother cat and nursing kittens

Kittens under 6 months of age typically do not respond to catnip, as their brains are still developing. It’s best to wait until a kitten is a little older before introducing catnip.

Cats with existing anxiety or nervousness can have an adverse reaction to catnip. The stimulating effects of catnip can exacerbate anxious behaviors. It’s also best to avoid catnip if your cat has any heart conditions, as catnip can raise a cat’s heart rate and blood pressure.

Pregnant or nursing cats should not have catnip, as the effects have not been studied enough to determine complete safety. Play it safe and avoid giving catnip to expectant or new mamas.

Overall, skip the catnip if your cat is especially sensitive, prone to anxiety, or has any pre-existing health conditions that could be impacted. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian before introducing catnip to your cat’s routine.

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