Veterinary Q & A: Crazy for Catnip

Is catnip safe for cats?

I Luv Catnip by barockschloss on Flickr
I Luv Catnip. by barockschloss on Flickr
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What is catnip, anyway? Is it a drug?
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 native in North America and Canada after being introduced from its native Mediterranean soil.

How does catnip work?
The active ingredient in catnip is called Nepetalactone.

The response to this chemical is mediated through the olfactory system that cats have a special receptor for. This chemical is thought to minic the effects of a pheromone to cause a variety of behaviors.

From the Chemistry site:

  • 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 5-15 minutes and cannot be evoked again for an hour or more after exposure.

I bought a catnip toy for my new kitten, she didn't seem to care. Is this normal?
Yes, particularly if your kitten is less than 3 months old. Very young and senior cats do not respond as much, or at all, to catnip. Also, 10-30% of the cat population does not respond to catnip at all, at any age. This is due to genetics -- reactions to catnip are hereditary. Some cats are genetically "programmed" to respond to catnip, some aren't.

My cat really goes crazy over catnip, is it dangerous?
Cats are unique in their response to catnip, and the response can be very dramatic in some cats - rolling, licking, rubbing, drooling, jumping, running, growling. Other cats appear to become very sedate after exposure. And, as mentioned above, up to 30% 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.

Is catnip hard to grow?
In my experience no - it will take over your garden if not 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. I was advised to plant this in a buried 5 gallon bucket to prevent it from taking over the garden, but let I planted it as normal, and it is growing fine, returning each year.

Additional Reading:

  • Nepetalactone - Chemical Structure and Information
    From Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., Guide to Chemistry.
  • Who Put the "Nip" in Catnip?
    From Franny Syufy, Guide to Cats.

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM All rights reserved.
Photo: I Luv Catnip by barockschloss on Flickr