Most cats love catnip — and the good news is that catnip is safe. The occasional use of catnip is safe and recommended as a lifestyle enhancer by feline experts and behaviorists.
But can cats overdose on catnip? No.
However, reactions can occur. We’ll discuss this below, so keep reading.
What Is Catnip?
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb of the mint family.
Nepetalactone is an essential oil (and the main ingredient in the plant that is attractive to cats).
It’s also called catmint, catsup, catwort, nip, new and field balm, and most of these names come from the plant’s obvious attraction to cats. Catnip causes neurologic changes in cats and is considered a mild hallucinogen.
Catnip’s effect on cats is best defined as a nonaddictive recreational drug for cats. That being said, some people believe chronic exposure to catnip may cause an apparent loss of mental faculty in their cat.
Common sense dictates catnip should be used occasionally. The overall recommendation is to offer your cat a small amount of fresh catnip every 2 weeks or so.
Catnip toys are safe, and most cats lose interest in the toy after a few minutes. If your cat seems obsessed with the toy, take it away after 10–15 minutes and give the cat a rest.
Pleasurable Olfactory Stimulant (Translation: It Smells Good)
Cats use their sense of smell to perceive and interpret their world to a far greater degree than humans do.
Catnip may be one of the most pleasant and attractive scents in the world to many cats. The nepetalactone binds to their olfactory receptors.
Other plants that are pleasant to the feline olfactory center are honeysuckle wood, valerian root and silver vine. An ornamental plant commonly called catmint (Nepeta curviflora, to name one) is attractive to cats to a lesser extent. All of these garden plants are safe for cats.
Not All Cats Respond to Catnip
The literature states that up to half of cats do not respond or react to catnip. This ability to smell or not smell catnip is hereditary.
Kittens do not respond to catnip until they are at least 9 weeks old. Some cats need to be older before they get pleasure from catnip.
In some cats, catnip is found to be a depressant rather than a stimulant. It’s possible that more cats respond to catnip than previously thought.
In a recent study, researchers hypothesized that the cats who were exposed to catnip and simply reclined or maintained a sphinx-like position may have actually been in a hallucinogenic state.
Interestingly, one study found that cats who did not pick up on the catnip scent responded positively to silver vine (75% of cats) or Tatarian honeysuckle (33%). These plants also contain nepetalactone.
Behavioral Changes Induced by Catnip
Your cat may exhibit some or all of the following:
- Head shaking, rubbing chin and cheeks on the plant, and a “head-over” roll and body rub
- Hallucinations (how can we tell?)
- Spontaneous vocalization
- Euphoria (not sure how to quantitate this one either)
- Sphinx-like position
- Burst of energy
The “high” or behavioral change induced by catnip usually lasts 10–15 minutes, and I have found that most cats seem to lose interest in the plant after their 15-minute episode. Perhaps they self-regulate their transient drug-induced behavior.
Is Catnip “Toxic”?
A large amount of ingested catnip may cause vomiting/diarrhea. This is usually mild and self-limiting. Most cats don’t eat enough catnip to make them sick.
Catnip clearly causes neurologic signs, either stimulation, depression or alteration. Again, these episodes are short-lived (10–15 minutes) and self-limiting.
Some cats show aggression after exposure to catnip. If you already have a cat prone to aggressive behavior, catnip may not be such a good idea.
Catnip is a uterine stimulant, so it is not recommended for pregnant queens. (Historically, catnip was used in women to bring on contractions.)
Catnip increases susceptibility to seizures in rats, so catnip may be contraindicated in epileptic cats.
Some websites include mint as toxic and talk about catnip as possibly toxic. Veterinary toxicologists note that anything can be toxic if enough is consumed. “Toxic” in this sense does not mean the plant makes a cat deathly ill but may bring on some uncomfortable symptoms.
Catnip’s Long History
People have used catnip for centuries, but its usage has largely been replaced by more effective drugs.
Historically, catnip has been drunk (catnip tea), smoked, used as a poultice and topically. This list is not an exhaustive list of its uses in history:
- A stimulant
- A depressant
- Infant colic, flatulence, hiccups
- Reproduction, menstruation and child birth in women
- Whooping cough and measles
- Cold remedy
Catnip was used as a replacement for marijuana in the 1960s or as a filler in marijuana. People were even buying catnip toys and using the catnip stuffing to get high. Its usage declined as marijuana became more readily available.
Ready for some lighthearted fun? Check out this compilation of clips showing what happened “when the catnip kicked in”:
The Cat Gardener
Catnip is easy to grow in most climates. In fact, it grows like a weed, so be careful where you put it. Catnip can be invasive.
The plant is a short-lived perennial and comes up in your garden from late spring through autumn.
There are a wide range of ornamental plants in the Nepeta family. I love the perennial Nepeta plants in my garden, and my cats show mild to moderate interest in them. These plants have fun names like Cat’s Pajamas and Cat’s Meow Catmint.
I planted a new Cat’s Meow Catmint in my garden a few weeks ago. It was a tender new plant, so I was amazed at its resilience when my cat rubbed himself all over it one day after planting. It leans a bit to the left now but should overwinter fine and come back stronger in the spring.
Catmint plants have a wonderful tall lavender flower, and they make a great border or add a touch of English or cottage garden vibe when mixed in with other plants. Easy to grow!
Nepeta is easier to grow than lavender and makes a similar statement in a garden. Nepeta species are cat-friendly and deer-resistant. What could be better? A new variety is called Felix. The cat references never get old!
As I did a web search for “Nepeta,” many references to Nepeta Leijon came up. Thinking it was a new species of Nepeta plant, I wanted to buy, I discovered Nepeta Leijon is actually an adult troll, one of the Twelve Homestruck Trolls.
She looks like a cat-girl, fights for justice, loves animals (particularly cats), and leijon is a Swedish word connoting lion or lionhearted. Somebody did their research when naming her!
Forms of Catnip for Your Cat’s Enjoyment
- Enjoy your outdoor catnip plants until frost. Mine are still healthy and happy. You can also freeze catnip in a freezer bag or plastic container. The essential oil in the plant will be preserved.
- If you don’t have a garden, you can grow a small catnip plant indoors.
- Buy organic catnip or loose catnip. You can put this catnip in a refillable toy.
- Catnip sprays are available and contain a lesser amount of nepetalactone. You can use catnip spray for training purposes, such as spraying a new cat scratch tower, bedding or steering your cat toward furniture that is cat-friendly, hopefully leaving your new couch scratch-free. Good luck with that!
- Bol, Sebastiaan, PhD, et al. “Responsiveness of Cats (Felidae) to Silver Vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria).” BNC Veterinary Research 13, no. 70 (March 2017). https://bmcvetres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6.
- Elliott, Pippa, BVMS, MRCVS. “How to Give Catnip to Your Cat.” WikiHow. June 24, 2019. https://www.wikihow.com/Give-Catnip-to-Your-Cat.
- Grognet, Jeff, DVM. “Catnip: Its Uses and Effects, Past and Present.” Canadian Veterinary Journal 31, no. 6 (June 1990): 455–456. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1480656/.
- Scherk, Margie, DVM, DABVP. “Optimizing an Indoor Lifestyle for Cats.” 2018 Chicagoland Veterinary Conference.