Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Domestic cat eating catnip
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Cats under the influence of catnip certainly give signs they are under the influence of a drug. They can be fun to watch, but you may also be concerned about the effects. Learn about this natural feline recreational substance and its safety. Don't worry too much, it is non-addicting and appears to be completely harmless.

Catnip

Catnip is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family Labiatae. Catnip is known in scientific nomenclature as Nepeta cataria. The plant is a weed-like mint that is now naturalized in North America and northern Europe after being introduced from its native Mediterranean soil.

Catnip isn't hard to grow, but it will take over your garden if you aren't careful. It is a perennial, and if you are in Europe, the northern United States, or Canada it should be easy to find at your local nursery. Some advice is to plant it in a buried 5-gallon bucket to prevent it from taking over your garden, but you can plant as normal. It will likely grow fine, and return each year.

How Does Catnip Work?

The active ingredient in catnip is called nepetalactone. The response to this chemical is mediated through the olfactory system and binds to receptors in the nasal tissue when inhaled. This chemical is thought to mimic the effects of a pheromone to cause a variety of behaviors.

When cats smell catnip they exhibit a range of behaviors that may include sniffing, licking, and chewing the plant, head shaking, chin and cheek rubbing, head rolling, and body rubbing. This psychosexual reaction lasts for 5 to 15 minutes and cannot be evoked again for an hour or more after exposure.

Some Cats Don't Care About Catnip

Very young (under 3 months old) and senior cats do not respond as much, or at all, to catnip. They have to be near sexual maturity for it to have effects. Also, 10 percent to 30 percent of the cat population does not respond to catnip at all, at any age. This is due to genetics as reactions to catnip are hereditary. Some cats are genetically programmed to respond to catnip, and some simply aren't. It seems to rely on multiple genes, so it isn't easy to predict even if you are sure of your cat's parentage.

Is Catnip Dangerous for Cats Who React Strongly?

Cats are unique in their response to catnip, and the response can be very dramatic in some cats. Other cats appear to become very sedate after exposure. As mentioned above, up to 30 percent of the cat population does not respond at all to catnip. In any case, for all of the (sometimes entertaining) behaviors seen, catnip is completely nontoxic to cats. If a large quantity of fresh catnip is consumed, you may see some vomiting or diarrhea, but this is rare and self-limiting. If your cat experiences this, limit or withhold catnip.

Can Humans Get High on Catnip?

Humans are not affected by the active ingredient in catnip. While it may be used in some herbal remedies, it shouldn't have you rolling on the floor with your feline.