can cats overdose on catnip cute ginger cat sniffing on dried catnip

Catnip for Cats: Everything You Need to Know

You’ll probably have seen YouTube videos of cats rolling around and drooling as soon as they get a whiff of catnip. 

This herb is famed for making cats go a little crazy but what exactly is it? Does catnip have any benefits for our feline companions? And is there such a thing as too much catnip for cats? We investigate!

What is catnip?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a common member of the mint family, also known as catmint or catwort. It’s native to Southern and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and parts of China. This herb has actually been used for centuries by people to make tea due to its ability to soothe the digestive system.

It’s thought that European immigrants brought this herb over to North America where it is now considered to be naturalized. You will probably have seen it growing alongside the road or in fields and open woodlands. It’s fairly easy to spot with its light green jagged leaves covered with tiny hairs, and small lavender flowers.

Before it’s dried, catnip has a very minty and lemony scent, but why does it have such a big effect on our feline companions?

ginger cat enjoying catnip benefits

Why do cats love catnip?

Catnip has such a strong (and often comical!) effect on cats because of one specific ingredient – nepetalactone. This essential oil mimics the natural sex pheromones given off by female cats, which is why our domestic felines often behave like a female in heat when ‘under the influence’. Both male and female cats can experience these euphoric effects, which include:

  • Rolling on their backs
  • Flipping
  • Rubbing their faces against or licking the herb
  • Hyperactivity
  • Zoning out
  • Vocalizing
  • Biting or nibbling
  • Jumping
  • Drooling
  • Stretching
  • Lethargy
  • In some cases, catnip can also cause aggressive behaviors such as hissing and unprovoked attacks

Interestingly, these effects are not just limited to our domestic felines. Lions, jaguars, bobcats, and tigers all have very similar reactions to catnip. Simply sniffing this herb triggers the release of happy endorphins in a cat’s brain.

Cats have a unique organ known as the Vomeronasal gland which is situated on the roof of their mouths. Have you ever witnessed your cat seemingly smelling the air with their mouths open? They are using this vomeronasal organ to transport scents that are collected in the nose and mouth, directly to the brain. It’s this specific organ that’s stimulated by the scent of catnip. 

The effects of catnip on cats are usually short-lived, lasting for around 10-15 minutes on average. However, it can last for up to an hour for some cats. After the ‘catnip high’, your cat will go back to normal as if nothing happened!

Benefits of catnip for cats

Benefits of Catnip for Cats cute cat sniffing dried catnip

Symptoms of catnip exposure can vary between individuals. Some cats will become more playful and silly, whereas others may show signs of aggression. Some cats may not even react at all. It’s actually genetics that determine whether your cat will be a fan of catnip or not. 

Approximately two-thirds of cats have the ‘catnip-loving gene’ but you won’t be able to find out if your kitty is one of them until they reach 3-6 months old. This is because kittens under the age of 3 months rarely react to catnip. By 6 months, they should start to show a preference. Catnip also tends to have less of an effect on elderly cats.

Just like in humans, catnip can reduce stomach pain and digestive discomfort thanks to its soothing effects on the digestive system. It can also be used to treat cat anxiety (as long as it has a calming effect and not a negative one!)

Here are some other beneficial uses for catnip:

  • It can be used as a medicated bath to relieve skin irritation: Add a teaspoon of dried catnip (or half a teaspoon of fresh catnip) to a cup of boiled water. Then add this to your cat’s bath. The herbal concoction will penetrate through to your cat’s skin to heal symptoms of an allergy or skin condition. It also makes baths much more appealing for more ‘water-adverse’ cats!
  • Catnip can be a great training tool: Cats are known to be stubborn creatures that always want things their way! However, for those cats that enjoy the effects, catnip can be a good incentive for training. Try offering your cat this herb to make necessary procedures such as nail trimming, less stressful and more fun for both of you. You can also sprinkle catnip onto your cat’s toys to keep them from scratching your furniture.
  • Catnip is an effective pest repellent: Are you bugged by flies in your home? Is your cat plagued by mosquito bites? Insects hate the smell of catnip so try sprinkling some catnip oil onto your cat’s bed or planting it in your backyard to repel those pesky pests.   
  • It acts as a form of environmental enrichment: Catnip is a great incentive for overweight or older cats to move around more. It’s also a great way to stimulate indoor-only cats that are often prone to boredom because of the lack of environmental stimulation and hunting opportunities. 
  • Catnip can help to relieve urinary tract issues: Urinary problems in cats are often caused by long-term periods of intense stress, particularly Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder (FLUTD). This is because stressed cats can suffer from progressive damage to their bladder lining which can cause toileting issues. Catnip is known to be a feline stress reliever so it can assist with these types of urinary tract issues. Saying that, catnip is not a substitute for medication. So, always seek the advice of a vet if you are concerned.

Can catnip calm cats?

If your cat has shown a positive reaction to catnip, this herb can be used to calm several types of anxiety, especially separation anxiety. When ingested, catnip can act as a mild sedative which can reduce feelings of cat anxiety, feline stress, and even depression. It also acts as a good distraction technique during a stressful event, such as fireworks or the addition of a new pet in the home. 

A study performed by researchers at the University of Milan found that 90% of cat owners saw an improvement in their kitty’s anxiety-related behaviors when exposed to a catnip oil diffuser. This included an increase in play behavior and a decrease in aggression and destructive scratching by the time the diffuser had finished (around 28 days).

The key to giving catnip to calm cats is to offer it around 15 minutes before a stressful event, such as the dreaded trip to the vet. However, this should not be given to cats that become aggressive or hyperactive because they are likely to hurt themselves when confined in a cat carrier. 

Luckily, there are numerous alternative herbs to catnip, that offer very similar benefits, including:

  • Valerian
  • Chamomile
  • Hops
  • Lavender

So, if your cat isn’t a fan of catnip, try offering one of these alternatives instead. My own cat is not a fan of catnip at all, however, he experiences a similar type of high with valerian – he loves it!

can kittens have catnip domestic cat enjoying catnip

Can cats overdose on catnip?

Catnip is safe to consume for most cats and there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s harmful. But can cats have too much catnip? Yes. It’s a good idea to only offer it in moderation because too much catnip can cause digestive upset. This can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, a lack of coordination, and dizziness. If your cat is offered catnip too often, they may also become less reactive to its effects.

Keep in mind that cats can sometimes become overstimulated by the sensory overload effects of catnip. This can cause anxiousness, insomnia, and even aggression. When first offering catnip to your cat, it’s best to use a very small amount and observe their reaction. 

Cats are typically very good at knowing when enough is enough, however, this can vary between individuals. Some cats may be tempted to overdo it if they find themselves with a full bag of catnip!

If you are unsure of how much catnip to offer your cat, your veterinarian should be able to give you some advice. Also, remember that fresh catnip is much more potent than the dried variety so, a little goes a long way. 

One of the main concerns of catnip is the potential danger of your cat injuring themselves when they are zooming around the room. Make sure every interaction is supervised and you may even want to cordon off any particularly sharp edges or high perches.

You should also avoid giving a cat catnip if they suffer from certain health conditions. For example, cats with hyperthyroidism that are on a low-iodine diet should not be given this herb because it contains iodine. It should also not be offered to pregnant cats because it’s known to be a uterine stimulant. This means that it could trigger early labor.

It’s best to speak to your vet before giving your cat catnip as it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

How to use catnip for cats

Catnip comes in a wide variety of forms, including: 

  • Fresh plant  
  • Dried
  • Essential oil
  • Calming sprays
  • Catnip bubbles

It’s also commonly added to shop-bought toys. If you are considering buying a fresh catnip plant, look for products that are USDA-certified organic. This will ensure the plant has not been sprayed with any harmful pesticides. 

Dried catnip or catnip sprays/oils can be added to your cat’s toys, scratching posts, or bedding. 

You can also try making your own catnip toys. It’s easier than you think! Simply fill an old sock with dried catnip and tie up the end. Your kitty will have hours of fun! Of course, you can be more elaborate if you like by stitching pieces of felt together in different shapes, from fish to mice, and filling them with catnip. 

Make sure you only buy catnip that’s safe for cats. Don’t be tempted to offer your cat human catnip tea or catnip capsules because these can contain additional ingredients that are toxic to felines. 

Final thoughts: Is catnip good for cats?

Catnip can be a great form of enrichment for cats that react well to it because it can help to soothe anxiety, skin conditions, and boredom. 

However, remember to only give catnip in moderation because too much can lead to digestive issues. If your cat has an underlying medical condition, it’s best to speak to your vet before using catnip.