Is Catnip Really All It’s Crack-ed Up To Be?

What is Catnip?

Catnip—also known by its scientific name Nepeta cataria—is a member of the mint family. The active compound in catnip, nepetalactone, is what causes the unique effects in cats when they are exposed to the plant (https://www.marthastewart.com/2140307/what-is-catnip). Nepetalactone binds to receptors on the cat’s nose, which triggers responses like rolling, flipping, and vocalizing that mimic a cat’s response to pheromones (https://aercmn.com/what-is-catnip-what-does-it-do-to-my-cat/). The nepetalactone acts as a stimulant when inhaled by cats, causing the euphoric effects typically associated with catnip. Not all cats are affected by catnip—the stimulant reaction is an inherited sensitivity. But for susceptible cats, the effects of catnip are usually harmless and temporary.

Short-Term Effects on Cats

When cats ingest, sniff, or roll in catnip, it interacts with their scent receptors and triggers a response of excitement and euphoria. As per WebMD, catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that binds to cats’ olfactory receptors. This produces a sense of relaxation and pleasure, even though a cat’s behavior may appear hyperactive. Common short-term effects include:

short-term effects of catnip on cats

  • A euphoric yet relaxed state
  • Rolling, flipping, and rubbing against the catnip
  • Increased playfulness and activity
  • Excitement, including jumping, pouncing, and chasing imaginary prey

The high from catnip typically lasts around 5-15 minutes. Most cats will then lose interest for around an hour before responding to catnip again. According to PetMD, the response to catnip is connected to genetics – around 50-70% of cats respond to it, while kittens typically don’t respond until 3-6 months of age.

Potential Long-Term Effects

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats when used occasionally and in moderation, some potential long-term effects have been observed with regular, heavy catnip use:

potential long-term effects of catnip

Some studies indicate that regular catnip use may slightly suppress the immune system over time. One study found that cats given catnip daily for 2 weeks had a minor reduction in antibody production compared to cats not given catnip [1]. However, this effect was reversed when catnip was discontinued.

There is also some concern that long-term catnip use could negatively impact liver and kidney function. One study on mice found changes in liver enzymes after 2 weeks of daily catnip doses [1]. However, more research is needed to determine if this also applies to domestic cats.

Additionally, some cats can become more aggressive with regular catnip use over time. While most cats relax and become playful, in rare cases cats may react to catnip with aggressive behavior like growling, scratching, or biting. Limiting catnip use is advised if this occurs.

Overall, occasional catnip use is fine for most cats, but heavy long-term use could potentially lead to immune suppression, organ issues, or aggression in some cases. Moderation is key.

Overdose Risks

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, there is a risk of overdose if too much is consumed. Signs of catnip overdose can include vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, restlessness, and agitation. These effects are usually short-lived, lasting only a few hours as the cat metabolizes the catnip.

signs of catnip overdose

To avoid overdose, it’s recommended to limit catnip to no more than 1-2 times per week for 10-15 minutes at a time. Providing dried catnip or catnip toys allows the cat to regulate their intake. Spraying or sprinkling catnip can make it easy to overapply. Cats may overindulge if given constant access to fresh catnip. It’s best to put catnip away in between uses.

If overdose symptoms occur, remove access to catnip and monitor the cat. Make sure they stay hydrated. Symptoms should pass within a few hours as the cat sobers up. Seek veterinary advice if symptoms persist or seem severe.

Interactions with Medications

Catnip can interact with certain medications, especially sedatives like antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep aids. According to WebMD, catnip may cause sleepiness and drowsiness. Taking catnip along with sedative medications can enhance these effects and may lead to excessive sedation. Catnip also contains chemicals that affect neurotransmitters in the brain which may interact with medications that work on neurotransmitters like antidepressants.

According to Drugs.com, catnip can potentially interact with medications metabolized by the liver. Catnip may inhibit certain liver enzymes which can cause increased levels of medications broken down by these enzymes if taken concurrently.

It’s recommended to consult your veterinarian before giving catnip to a cat on medication. Stop using catnip and call your vet if your cat exhibits any unusual effects after being given catnip alongside medications.

Addiction and Withdrawal

There is debate over whether cats can truly become “addicted” to catnip. While cats’ reactions may seem intense, research shows that cats do not experience opioid-like withdrawals if catnip is withheld [1]. However, some cats do exhibit behaviors like aggression or restlessness when catnip is limited after frequent use [2].

To avoid potential dependence, experts recommend limiting catnip to no more than 1-2 times per week. Store catnip out of reach between uses. Monitor for any unusual behaviors if catnip is withheld. While not chemically addictive, limiting catnip may be best to prevent obsessive behaviors.

Kittens and Catnip

Catnip is not recommended for kittens under 6 months of age, as their nervous systems are still developing. According to petMD, most cats won’t react to catnip until they are at least 6 months old [1]. Some kittens may show interest in catnip earlier, but exposing young kittens to catnip is generally not advised.

Kittens have immature nervous systems that are still growing and establishing pathways and connections. Introducing catnip too early can overstimulate a kitten’s nervous system and may have unknown effects on their development. It’s best to wait until kittens are at least 6 months old before exposing them to catnip to allow their nervous system to properly mature.

While small amounts of catnip are not toxic, kittens lack the physical and mental maturity to handle the stimulating effects of catnip. When in doubt, it’s better to wait to introduce catnip to kittens. Once they reach 6-12 months of age, they can start to experience catnip safely under supervision.

Pregnant and Nursing Cats

While catnip is generally considered safe, there are some potential risks to be aware of when giving it to pregnant or nursing cats.

During pregnancy, some veterinarians recommend avoiding catnip, as its stimulating effects could potentially induce labor before the kittens are ready to be born. According to one source, there is not definitive evidence that catnip induces labor, but its stimulating effects do present a theoretical risk (source).

It’s best to consult your veterinarian before offering catnip to a pregnant cat. They can help assess any potential risks based on your cat’s specific health and circumstances.

For nursing mother cats, catnip is considered safe and does not transfer through the milk to kittens. However, it’s still a good idea to monitor your cat’s reaction after initially trying catnip to ensure she does not have an adverse reaction (source).

By consulting your vet and carefully introducing catnip to pregnant or nursing cats, you can help ensure the health and safety of both mother and kittens.

Alternatives to Catnip

While catnip is generally considered safe for cats, some cat owners prefer to avoid it. Fortunately, there are other options that can provide a stimulating experience for cats without the potential downsides of catnip.

One alternative is silver vine, which comes from the actinidia polygama plant. Silver vine contains compounds like actinidine that can induce euphoric effects in cats similar to catnip (source). Silver vine is available in toys and treats just like catnip.

Valerian is another herb that can appeal to cats. The root of the valerian plant contains valepotriates that can cause excitability and hyperactivity when smelled by cats (source). Dried valerian root and valerian-stuffed toys can provide stimulation.

Cat owners can also consider cat toys and activities that provide enrichment without herbs or scents, such as feather wands, laser pointers, treat puzzles, and scratching posts. Rotating different toys keeps cats entertained and stimulated.

Using Catnip Responsibly

When giving catnip to your cat, it’s important to use it responsibly. Here are some tips:

tips for responsible catnip use

Moderation and supervision – Only give small amounts of catnip at a time and supervise your cat during use. Too much catnip can cause overstimulation and upset stomach. Put away catnip toys when not in use.

Consider individual factors – Know your cat’s sensitivities. Kittens, pregnant/nursing cats, and cats on medication may react differently. Introduce catnip slowly and watch for adverse effects.

Consult your vet – Talk to your veterinarian if you have any concerns about catnip use. They can provide tailored advice based on your cat’s health history.

Following these tips will allow catnip to be an enjoyable treat for your cat without any negative side effects.

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