What Happens When Dogs Get Into the Catnip? The Surprising Effects Explained

Catnip, also known by its scientific name Nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb in the mint family that contains an oil called nepetalactone. This oil is known to have unique effects on cats, primarily acting as a stimulant when smelled or ingested.

For cats, catnip often elicits sniffing, licking, chewing, head shaking, rolling, and rubbing behaviors. It can also have a calming effect and induce a temporary euphoric state. However, research shows catnip does not produce the same responses in dogs.

While most dogs appear unaffected by catnip, some individuals may show mild responses. But the reactions are generally much less intense compared to what cats experience. This article will explore what science says about catnip’s effects on dogs.

Catnip’s Effects on Cats

Catnip contains an organic compound called nepetalactone that mimics a cat pheromone and triggers a euphoric response when smelled or ingested (https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/crazy-catnip). Most cats will react to catnip by rolling around, becoming very playful and energetic, meowing or growling, and generally appearing intoxicated for 5-15 minutes before calming down (https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/what-is-catnip). The response is similar to a narcotic reaction, but harmless.

When exposed to catnip, cats may rub their cheeks and head on it, lick it, or eat it. They exhibit playful behavior like chasing imaginary objects, jumping or leaping, and rolling on their back. Catnip essentially makes cats feel happy and euphoric.

However, kittens under 3-6 months old typically do not respond to catnip. Older cats may become more sensitive or resistant to catnip over time. About 50-70% of cats inherit genes making them susceptible to nepetalactone.

Does Catnip Affect Dogs?

While most dogs are not affected by catnip, there are some exceptions. Catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone which binds to receptors in a cat’s nose, inducing a euphoric-like state. However, according to veterinarian Rachel Barrack, nepetalactone does not have the same effect on dogs since their olfactory system is structured differently than cats (source).

Since dogs lack the receptors activated by nepetalactone, most dogs show no interest in catnip at all. They may sniff it out of curiosity, but they will not respond with the hyperactivity, rolling around, and erratic behavior that catnip triggers in cats.

a dog sniffing a pile of catnip but not reacting

However, there are some dogs that do react to catnip in a similar manner as cats. A minority of dogs have sensitivity to nepetalactone and may become energetic or excitable after encountering catnip. But for most dogs, catnip does not induce any discernible effects.

Possible Explanations

The main reason catnip doesn’t affect dogs like it does cats is due to the lack of the feline pheromone called nepetalactone that’s present in catnip. This special compound binds to olfactory receptors in a cat’s nose, producing the euphoric effects we associate with catnip. However, dogs lack these specific nepetalactone receptors, so the pheromone has no effect.

Catnip contains essential oils like citronellol, nerol, and nepetalactone that mimic feline pheromones and trigger a response in cats but not dogs. The lack of feline pheromones in dogs means catnip doesn’t cause the same euphoric or stimulating effects as it does in cats.

Dogs also have a very different olfactory system compared to cats. They have around 1 billion smell receptors in their noses, while cats only have about 200 million. However, dogs lack the key receptor that allows cats to detect and respond to nepetalactone in catnip [1]. So despite their powerful sense of smell, dogs simply don’t process the scent from catnip the same way cats do.

Exceptions to the Rule

While most dogs are unaffected by catnip, some dogs do react to it, though the reasons for this are not fully understood. According to the ASPCA, around 20-30% of dogs may respond to catnip by becoming excitable or sedated (source). Some theories suggest catnip may trigger a mild euphoric effect in the brains of certain dogs, acting as a weak sedative or stimulant depending on the dog.

Additionally, dogs that are genetically related to cats, like foxes, wolves, and wild dogs, may be more likely to respond to catnip. This is because the olfactory stimulation of the plant may be similar to what’s observed in cats (source). However, this reaction appears to be the exception, not the rule, when it comes to dogs and catnip.

If your dog seems intrigued by or reactive to catnip, speak to your veterinarian before giving them access to avoid over-sedation. Monitor closely for any unusual behavior after exposure as well.

Signs of a Catnip Response in Dogs

While most dogs are unaffected by catnip, some may exhibit behavioral responses similar to cats after exposure to the herb. The most common signs of a catnip reaction in dogs include:

Rolling – Dogs may start rolling around, rubbing their backs along the floor. This likely indicates the dog is experiencing a pleasurable sensation from the catnip.

Playing – Increased energy and playfulness are common in dogs reacting to catnip. They may start playing with toys, jumping up and down, or running around excitedly.

a dog excitedly playing with toys after eating catnip

Excitable behavior – Dogs under the influence of catnip tend to act very excitable, restless, and hyperactive. They may seem jittery, react strongly to stimuli, or have trouble settling down.

Other possible signs include drooling, vocalizing, head shaking, lack of coordination, and obsessively sniffing or licking at the catnip source. These behaviors typically start within 5-10 minutes of exposure and may last 30 minutes or longer (source). If a dog ingests catnip, effects often last longer.

While amusing to watch, excessive catnip intake can cause anxiety in some dogs. Catnip should always be given carefully and in moderation to dogs.

Risks and Precautions

Overall, catnip is considered safe for dogs when given in moderation. However, there are some risks and precautions to be aware of:

Overconsumption: Giving too much catnip to dogs can cause negative side effects like diarrhea or vomiting. It’s best to start with small amounts and monitor your dog’s reaction. The ASPCA recommends giving no more than 1/8 teaspoon of dried catnip per 10 pounds of body weight.

Medication interactions: Catnip can potentially interact with the sedative effects of some medications like benzodiazepines or opioids. Check with your vet before using catnip if your dog is on any regular medications.[1]

Multi-pet households: If you have both cats and dogs, be cautious using catnip products around high-energy dogs who may get overstimulated and bother the affected cats. It’s best to separate animals when directly exposed to catnip.

Supervision: Whether it’s toys or treats, supervise your dog any time catnip is given to watch for negative reactions. Don’t use catnip with unmonitored dogs or puppies who could choke on toys.

Overall, exercise prudence and moderation when giving catnip to dogs. Monitor their reaction, dose carefully, and consult a vet if you have any concerns about risks.

Catnip Alternatives for Dogs

While catnip doesn’t have an effect on most dogs, there are some alternatives that can produce a similar stimulating and relaxing response in canines.

One of the most popular catnip alternatives for dogs is anise. Anise is a licorice-flavored spice that contains anethole, the essential oil also found in catnip that triggers a euphoric reaction in cats. When dogs eat anise or anise-flavored treats or toys, they may display behaviors like rolling around, sniffing, licking, or playfulness. However, the effects of anise don’t seem to be as potent or consistent in dogs as catnip is in cats.

a dog relaxing after eating anise-flavored treats

Other herbs and plants that may have mild relaxing effects on dogs include chamomile, valerian, lavender, and peppermint. Pheromone diffusers containing dog-appeasing pheromones are another option that can help promote calmness and contentment in dogs by mimicking natural chemicals released by mother dogs to soothe their puppies.

It’s best to introduce any new herb, plant, or pheromone product gradually and supervise your dog to ensure they don’t have any adverse reactions. Consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns about using alternatives to catnip with your dog.

When to See a Vet

In most cases, catnip is safe for dogs when given occasionally and in moderation. However, some dogs may experience adverse reactions to catnip that warrant a vet visit. Signs your dog may be having a bad reaction include:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy or lack of energy
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Difficulty breathing

If your dog displays any of these symptoms after being exposed to catnip, call your vet right away. They can advise you on the next steps for care, which may involve bringing your dog in for an exam and treatment with medications or IV fluids. In severe cases, a bad reaction to catnip could lead to dangerous drops in blood pressure or body temperature that require rapid veterinary intervention.

Some dogs may also have an allergic reaction to catnip with swelling of the face, hives, or rash. These dogs should avoid catnip entirely in the future. Discuss any allergies your dog may have with your vet so you can take precautions to avoid triggering a reaction.

a dog with hives on its skin from an allergic reaction

While quite rare, it’s important to monitor your dog closely when first introducing catnip and be aware of any concerning symptoms. Don’t hesitate to call your vet if you have any doubts about your dog’s reaction. With prompt treatment guidance from your vet, your dog can recover quickly from a bad reaction to catnip.

Summary

In summary, most dogs do not react to catnip in the same way cats do. The chemical compound nepetalactone in catnip triggers a euphoric response in cats, but seems to have little effect on dogs. While a small subset of dogs may show a mild reaction, the majority are unaffected. Some possible explanations are that dogs lack the innate sensitivity or lack the receptors to detect nepetalactone. For those dogs that do respond, signs may include sniffing, licking, chewing, or rolling in catnip. However, the reaction is typically short-lived and much less intense than in cats. While catnip is generally considered safe for dogs, owners should still supervise use to prevent overindulgence. For dogs that want an enjoyable sensory experience similar to catnip, alternatives like anise, chamomile or valerian root can provide safe stimulation. Overall the key points are that catnip will not have a major effect on most dogs, but owners should monitor any mild reactions to keep their dogs content and healthy.

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