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  • Molly Weinfurter

What is Catnip? Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Updated: Jun 9

Lots of cat parents give catnip to their feline companions, but what is catnip? And is catnip safe for cats? I don't have a cat of my own, but I have seen my friends give their cats catnip before, and they always get really hyper and act like kittens again.


It’s no secret that cats typically go crazy for the catnip plant, but it’s good for feline parents to know what they’re giving to their cats in advance. So, let’s take a look at the details of this popular cat toy/treat.


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What is Catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is an herb from the mint family. It’s native to Europe and Asia, where it was originally used for cooking and medicine for humans. It has been used to make tea, relieve coughing, and create natural bug sprays.


Today, catnip can be grown in all areas of the world, and it’s primarily sold as a toy or treat for cats. When cats interact with catnip, they typically become more playful by purring, rubbing, and rolling around more than usual. Most cat parents’ hearts melt when they see their furry friend having so much fun with the unusual plant.


Happy cat has catnip

Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

According to PetMD, the oil in the plant’s leaves, known as nepetalactone, is what makes cats so interested in catnip. Cats are attracted to the scent of the oil, which is why they have to smell it to go crazy. 


Cats have an extremely strong sense of smell because they have a special scent organ known as the vomeronasal gland, which is found in the roof of their mouth. They collect the smell through their nose and mouth, sending the scent to the brain. Thus, it doesn’t take cats long to smell the nepetalactone in catnip to make them go crazy.


What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

The scent of catnip mimics feline sex hormones, making cats behave similarly to how a female cat in heat may act. When exposed to catnip, cats are typically overly affectionate like a female looking for a mate might be. They may also appear happier, less anxious, and more relaxed.


Even though the effects of catnip are similar to the behaviors of female cats in heat, catnip has similar effects for both male and female cats. Yet, most cats don’t react to catnip until they’ve reached sexual maturity (around six months old).


Not every cat acts the same when smelling catnip. Some cats are more playful around catnip while others might act aggressively. Some cats may not react at all. So, keep a close eye on your cat the first time you give them catnip. If they react negatively to it, it’s probably not the best treat for them.


Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Catnip is safe for cats because it doesn’t pose any major health risks and it’s not addictive. However, it could be unsafe when taken in high doses, which could lead to vomiting, diarrhea, or dizziness. Also, giving too much catnip could desensitize cats to it, making them not react to it as much.


Keep in mind that not all cats react the same to catnip. So, even though the plant itself is safe, it could lead to unsafe behaviors, such as aggression. Keep a close eye on your cat whenever they have access to catnip, especially if it’s their first time having it. If any concerning symptoms or behaviors occur, talk to your vet just to be safe.


Cat making silly face

How Much Catnip is Safe for Cats?

There’s no precise dosage of catnip for cats. You don’t need much to get a reaction from your cat, so start with just a pinch. You can give catnip as a small treat as much as once per day, but giving it too often could make it less exciting for your furry friend.


Is Catnip Safe for Dogs?

Giving a small amount of catnip is safe for dogs too. It actually provides some health benefits for canines because it contains vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, flavonoids, tannins, and essential oils. Most dogs do not react to catnip at all, or if they do, it will just make them more relaxed.


How to Serve Catnip to Your Cat

There are lots of ways to serve catnip to your cat. You can directly give them a pinch of fresh catnip from a catnip plant or dried catnip. You can also find it as a spray to apply to your pet’s favorite bed or toys. Plus, there are plenty of companies that sell cat toys stuffed with catnip to encourage play.


Catnip doesn’t expire, but it becomes less potent over time. When your cat is done playing with it, it’s best to store it in a sealed container in a cool, dark place to help it last longer. Catnip that has been sitting out for too long may not get any reaction out of your cats.


Here are a few great catnip toys:


Frequently Asked Questions


How Long Does the Effect of Catnip Last?

The effects of catnip usually only last for about 10 minutes. Then, it will wear off gradually. Your cat will need to be away from catnip for at least 30 minutes for the effects to kick in again (but for some cats, it may take much longer in between).


Where Does Catnip Grow?

Catnip is native to Europe and Asia, however, it can be grown almost anywhere in the world today. It can grow in a variety of environments, but it thrives in warm, temperate regions with lots of sunlight.


Who Discovered Catnip?

Scientist Samuel McElvain (S.M. McElvain) discovered that isolated nepetalactone was responsible for the reactions in cats. This discovery was made in 1941.


Can Cats Eat Catnip?

Yes, cats can ingest catnip. It’s perfectly safe and may even provide digestive benefits.


Can Cats Overdose on Catnip?

Yes, too much catnip can lead to side effects like vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and trouble walking. Only use a pinch at a time to prevent unwanted symptoms. If you notice any side effects after giving your cat catnip, contact your vet immediately.


Cat reacting to catnip

Cats Love Catnip!

Most cats love catnip, so it’s worth giving to them as a special treat now and then. Just remember to keep an eye on your cat while they have access to catnip and alert your vet if you notice any unusual symptoms and behaviors. Catnip is a fun and entertaining activity for cats, but it’s still important for cat parents to stay on top of their feline’s health.

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