Dr. Debra Eldredge is an award-winning veterinarian & author of the best-selling “Cat Owner’s Veterinary Handbook”.
Catnip is a well-recognized treat for many cats. It can even make some cats a little crazy. But what exactly is catnip and how much catnip is safe for your cat? Can cats have too much catnip?
Catnip is a member of the mint plant family. It grows wild in many areas or can be planted in a patch for your own cats. Many people grow fresh leaves for their cats while others simply purchase bags of dried catnip or toys that are catnip-filled.
If you decide to grow your own, note that this is a hardy perennial plant that spreads readily. Most cats enjoy both dry and fresh forms. You may need to try both to see which version your cat prefers.
What is it about catnip that cats love so much?
When you analyze a catnip plant you find volatile oils, sterols, tannins, and some acids. Nepetalactone is one of the volatile oils. This seems to be the main component that cats react to. This chemical is very close to the natural pheromones that cats make.
As your cat rolls on, chews, licks or rubs on catnip, nepetalactone oil is released. That oil is then inhaled as your cat sniffs and chews. Olfactory cells in her nose pass the substance along to nerve cells throughout the brain. Many of your cat’s reactions are tied to the behaviors stimulated by similar natural pheromones.
Along with domestic felines, many large cats such as tigers and lions react to catnip. Zoos often give catnip plants to their big cats for enrichment or spread dried catnip around their enclosures.
What does catnip do to cats?
Only about 50 to 75% of all cats show some reaction to catnip and its oils. This is a genetic, ie inherited response. The exact behavior will vary from cat to cat. Most cats will drool, roll around, including on the catnip or the impregnated toy, many will vocalize. Many of these behaviors resemble a cat “in heat”. Eventually, they mellow out.
Other cats react with hyperexcitability and aggression. These cats may bite or strike out with their claws while experiencing the oil’s effects. Others run around wildly and do spectacular leaps. Some cats don’t show any response.
It is generally best to simply watch your cat and enjoy her antics while she is “under the influence” of catnip. Even mellow cats are less inhibited and the sweetest of cats may bite or scratch.
How much, how often: what is the right dosage?
There is no “dose” for catnip such as 2 leaves twice a week or one tablespoon of dried catnip weekly. This is not a supplement, medication, or treatment of any kind. So, there is no set amount or clinical evidence backing up a dose. A couple of leaves of fresh catnip or a large “pinch” of dried is usually sufficient to entertain your cat (and you).
How often can you give catnip to your cat?
Most veterinarians recommend keeping catnip as a “treat”. Depending on your cat, you may want to limit catnip time to once or twice a week. Or make it more special and save it for occasions when you want your cat to mellow out a bit. That would mean picking up catnip toys after play and storing them safely out of your cat’s reach.
Storing your stash in the freezer helps to retain potency (and keeps it safely away from your clever cat!)
What happens if a cat gets too much catnip?
Catnip is not considered to be toxic but if a cat gets too much exposure, some cats will vomit and/or have diarrhea. Some researchers feel that a fairly constant exposure will lead to a cat who no longer responds to the catnip or has a greatly diminished response.
How long does it last?
The behaviors triggered by catnip tend to last for about 10 minutes. At that point, many cats simply “crash” and snooze or lay around feeling mellow. Most cats won’t respond to another exposure to catnip for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
How to use catnip
Along with providing entertainment and enrichment for your cat, catnip has some practical uses. If your cat responds to catnip in a mellow way, you can use it to help her with changes in her environment. Rubbing some catnip on a scratching post may encourage your cat to choose that over your couch. If you add a new bed, a sprinkle of dried catnip makes her faster to try it out.
Keeping a carrier on the floor and putting some catnip in it every so often makes the carrier a less fearful thing and can help the next time you need to load your cat for a trip. If you move, sprinkle some catnip around your new home or apartment.
When catnip is not good for your cat
If your cat reacts to catnip in a hyper or aggressive way, it is best to avoid using it at all.
This is also true in a multicat household if you have one cat who gets mellow and another who gets hyper. You could separate the cats and only treat the one who gets mellow but then you should keep the cats separated for about two hours.
Does it work for kittens too?
Because the oils in catnip are tied to sexual pheromones and behaviors, young kittens usually do not show any response to catnip. After they reach puberty around 6 months of age, the ‘responders” will become evident.
Finding a good catnip source
Since catnip is not a regulated supplement or treat, you have to do some research on your own to find safe sources of catnip. If you grow your own, you know it is free from any chemicals or heavy metals. If you are purchasing catnip (fresh or dried) look for organic sources or ask your veterinarian for trusted sources of herbs. Herb festivals often have both fresh and dried catnip available.
When purchasing catnip toys, look for the country of origin. Made in the USA tend to be the safest toys. This is especially true if your cat chews on toys, not just batting them around with her paws or rolling on them.
The bottom line
Catnip can be a fun source of enrichment for many cats. If it excites your cat to over-the-top behaviors, stick to plain wheat grass and skip the catnip. Keep catnip as a special treat – ideally no more than once or at most twice a week.