What does catnip do to cats?

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Giving catnip to cats is often described as getting them high or intoxicated as the effects can appear to be similar.

While this is an interesting premise in theory, the practical reality is that cat owners have varied opinions on the use of catnip – ranging from those who are staunchly against its use and feel it’s exploitative, to those who just think it’s hilarious. Most though are pragmatic and understand that catnip has a lot of useful applications.

This article looks at catnip and gives an overview of its uses and things that you might need to consider before exposing your cat to it.

What is catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family. It’s also know as catwort or catmint, names that have been commonly given to the herb due to the fact that most cats (but not all) are attracted to the plant.

Cats are attracted to nepetalactone, an organic compound found in catnip which affects cats differently, depending on whether it is inhaled or eaten. When inhaled, your cat will experience a short (10 minutes or so) ‘high’, apparently similar to that achieved through marijuana or LSD (thank you science for taking the time to test that one for us). It’s thought that it mimics feline pheromones.

In contrast, if catnip is eaten, it acts as more of a sedative which causes your cat to chill out and nap for a bit.

Basically, the method of consumption determines which way your cat’s ‘dial’ is turned – all the way up, or all the way down.

Catnip can either be grown in the home or in your garden, purchased at the pet shop or many cat toys come with catnip in them to encourage cats to play with them and want more. Basically like toys in a Happy Meal.

A word of warning – many houseplants and flowers are harmful if ingested by cats

We’re veering into a side topic here, but one worth mentioning. Not many people understand that common houseplants and flowers can be poisonous to cats and you can’t rely on your cat to not nibble on them!

Humans are used to being surrounded by plants and flowers – we associate these things with beauty, nature and the environment – all positive associations. But even the most innocent looking plant or flower can be harmful to cats – everything from lillies to aloe vera can be poisonous for cats.

Be sure to research which of your houseplants might be a problem before you bring your new cat home.

Do cats like catnip?

Yes. I mean, wouldn’t you?

Interestingly, their love for catnip isn’t exclusive to house cats. All species of cat including lions and tigers are attracted to the plant as well.

When near catnip plants, cats will routinely rub themselves against the plant. This bruises the leaves and releases more nepetalactone for them to sniff. Cats are smart creatures – it doesn’t take them long to figure out important things (like which human to meow at to get food!), so they quickly learn that catnip plants can release the good stuff.

What behaviour should you expect when you cat is ‘on’ catnip?

It can vary from cat to cat, and not all cats are affected by catnip at all – it’s estimated that between 50% and 75% of household cats are affected. Although, it’s entirely possible that a whole bunch of cats are really good at hiding it from scientists who conduct these studies, so…

When sniffing catnip, your cat may appear to be intoxicated and exhibit some or all of these behaviours:

  • Be more vocal.
  • Roll around on the ground.
  • Be hyperactive.
  • Increased chasing / hunting behaviours
  • Appear bug-eyed.

It’s best to be cautious about interacting with your cat while they are ‘high’ on catnip. Their reactions may be different to what you’d normally expect – in some cases they could be more aggressive, so be careful!

These effects usually last around 10-15 minutes, after which your cat will return to normal. They’ll also be uninterested in more catnip for a while (a few hours).

In contrast, when eating catnip will become more sedated and calmer than usual (cat owners commonly feed a little catnip to nervous cats before placing them in a cat carrier for a car journey, but check with your pet shop or vet first). It’s also worth noting that if a cat eats too much catnip, it can cause it to be sick and bring on a bout of diarrhoea. So, best of luck with the car journey!

It’s possible for cats to build up a tolerance to catnip, so it’s recommended to not give your cat unfettered access to catnip or catnip toys.

Is catnip safe for cats?

Yes it is, but as with most pets (and indeed, things in life), too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s also worth noting that catnip won’t affect kittens (it usually doesn’t affect cats until at least 6 months old) or more senior cats.

Here are some ideas of how you can use catnip in positive ways:

Have you given your cat catnip? Share your stories in the comments section and let us know what you thought of this article.

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