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Happiness Overload: Cats and Catnip

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Cats and Catnip _ What You Need to Know _ ASPCA Pet Insurance _ tabby eating dried catnip

Does your cat act batty when you get out the catnip? My Zoe sure does! She loves her catnip-filled mouse and will sniff it, roll on top of it, swat at it, and then proceed to bounce all around the room. She’s over 16-years-old and normally quite chill, but when she’s been at the catnip, it’s like she’s a kitten again.

So what gives? Why do cats go goofy for catnip?

What exactly is catnip?

Catnip, or nepeta cataria, is an herbaceous perennial. Dried catnip resembles oregano but is actually a member of the mint family. Native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, it was imported to North America and now grows like a wild weed in every region. It can even grow to be two or three feet high!

Fresh catnip has stems with heart-shaped leaves and can sprout small white, blue, pink, or lavender blooms. It does well in full sunlight and grows rather easily.

That means even people like me without a green thumb can probably manage it. You can clip the leaves and hang them to dry in a dark space to have your own stash of catnip on hand. Store it in a baggie in the fridge so it stays potent longer.

Just be sure to keep any catnip plants out of paw’s reach. While a little nibbling on the leaves probably won’t harm your cat, the plant might not fair so well. Your cat could also knock the plant over and get hurt or dig around in the dirt and make a big mess that you’ll be left to clean up.

tabby eating fresh catnip in a living room

Catnip Effects on Cats

The active ingredient in catnip is an essential oil called nepetalactone (say that 10 times fast!). Exactly how this chemical affects the wiring of your cat’s brain isn’t clear, but it is noted to bind to receptors inside a cat’s nose, which then stimulate the sensory neurons leading to a cat’s brain. So, what exactly does catnip do to cats? It’s thought to mimic feline pheromones, which cause a euphoric reaction.

The blissful high of catnip doesn’t last very long, oftentimes less than 30 minutes. Your cat might get nutty for about ten or fifteen minutes and then wander away for a nap. Once a cat has partaken of the catnip, it takes a couple of hours before they can be affected by it again.

Catnip can make cats meow, purr, growl, roll on the ground, zip about, and even drool. It can also have a mild hallucinatory effect, which helps explain why a kitty on catnip might bat at the air or dodge something that isn’t there. Sniffing catnip has more of a stimulant effect, whereas eating it is more likely to make a cat all sorts of relaxed and sleepy.

Some cats can react to catnip with mild aggression, such as low growling or swatting. If you have more than one cat in the house, you should consider giving it to only one cat at a time to avoid potential fights and definitely keep an eye on them during their trip.

Interestingly enough, not all cats are affected by catnip. It’s believed to be an inherited sensitivity with maybe only one out of three cats having it. Kittens under two or three months old are also not likely to react to catnip, and older cats can be less prone to having a reaction—although my Zoe flies in the face of that one!

Is catnip safe for cats?

There’s no evidence that catnip is harmful to cats or young kittens. However, if they eat a lot of the fresh or dried catnip leaves, they can get an upset tummy along with vomiting or diarrhea. Cats are good at self-regulating, so typically won’t overdo it if they get hold of a catnip plant or unexpectedly get into a bag of catnip.

It’s good to keep in mind that although the catnip isn’t harmful, cats can get hurt while they’re zooming around the room. Zoe once jumped up on the bed only to roll right off the other side—and she did not land on her feet! Luckily, she didn’t have far to fall, and she seemed fine after she got over her initial shock.

In any case, catnip should be offered in moderation as an occasional, fun treat for your cat. Another reason not to go overboard on catnip is that it tends to lose its effect with too much use.

While catnip is safe for cats, there are plenty of plants that can cause problems, ranging from a minor stomachache to sudden kidney failure. See the list of 25 plants that are toxic to cats.

longhair cat playing with a catnip mouse toy

Can catnip be helpful?

Catnip can definitely come in handy in certain circumstances. For instance, it can be used to get an older feline or couch potato kind of cat moving. All cats need a daily dose of exercise to help keep their weight on track and avoid health problems, like joint pain and diabetes.

I know it works for me. Now that Zoe is in her twilight years, it can be tough to get her to do much besides doze in the warmth of a sunbeam. But when I get out her favorite catnip toy, she’s all in and gets some of the exercise she needs to stay healthy.

Catnip can also be helpful with behavioral issues. For instance, if your cat is scratching the furniture but not going near the scratching posts and mats you’ve set out, sprinkle a little catnip on them. That should get their attention. You can use this same trick with a new cozy pet bed that your cat doesn’t seem to have any interest in trying out.

In addition, you can offer your cat a little fresh catnip to nosh on before a stressful event. Working as a mild sedative, it can chill out your cat and make car trips, visits to the veterinarian, and other anxiety-provoking activities easier for you both.

7 Fun Catnip Facts

  1. Catnip is a natural mosquito repellant. Unfortunately, it’s not effective when applied to the skin.
  2. Large cats like lions and tigers can be sensitive to catnip. That must be quite a party in the jungle!
  3. Some people treat nausea or headaches with catnip tea. It’s also known to help with insomnia.
  4. You can make a paste out of dried catnip to apply to wounds by crushing it up and adding a bit of water. I’ll stick to bacitracin, thanks!
  5. Catnip comes in many forms—dried, fresh, pressed into solid balls, and in sprays. The sprays tend to be less potent than dried catnip, but are useful for spritzing scratching posts and freshening up toys.
  6. You can even buy catnip bubbles. I have to say, I tried this one, and Zoe was not a fan, but maybe other cats find bubbles more fascinating.
  7. There are plenty of catnip toys on the market too, but you can also make your cat homemade toys that work just as well.

So now you know just about everything there is to know about catnip. What about cat poop? Get the scoop here.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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