Can kittens have catnip?

Kitten peeking out from behind catnip plant
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can kittens have catnip? It's a common question among cat owners who want to provide the best care and enrichment for their furry companions. Catnip, known for its intriguing effects on adult cats, may raise concerns when it comes to young kittens.

What does catnip do to cats? Catnip, a member of the mint family, contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that can trigger playful and euphoric behaviors in cats. While adult cats often have a strong reaction to catnip, the sensitivity and response of kittens may differ. As you can probably tell, deciding to buy catnip for your kitty isn’t as simple as when you pick up some of the best kitten food from the pet store.

Whether you're a new kitten owner or simply curious about the effects of catnip on our little feline companions, join us as we uncover the facts and help you make informed decisions regarding catnip and kitten care.

What is catnip?

So, just what is catnip anyway, and why do cats like it so much? Catnip is a plant, Nepeta cataria, a member of the mint family. It’s known as catswort, catwort or catmint, which is a clue as to what most people associate it with! It’s native to Asia, the Middle East, parts of China and Europe, but it’s easy to grow in North America if you fancy a pot for your windowsill. 

Catnip secretes a substance called nepetalactone, and cats go crazy for the smell. Nepetalactone is found in the stems, leaves and seeds of catnip and when cats roll in the plant, it’s because they’re trying to release more of the oils and boost that delicious aroma. Some cats will nibble catnip, while others completely ignore it. 

Once cats have had a ‘dose’ of nepetalactone they then lose sensitivity to it for between 30 minutes and a couple of hours. If you see your furry feline going crazy for his favorite catnip toy then shoving it under the cupboard and ignoring it, it’s perfectly normal!

In fact, the effect produced by catnip mimics that of feline sex hormones, which is why some cats react to it very strongly. Some males can react by becoming grumpy or even aggressive if they get a whiff of catnip – in that case, it’s better to keep them away from it.

According to qualified vet, Dr Joanna Woodnutt, "It’s fine for kittens to have catnip, although they may not respond to it until they’re at least three months of age. The response to catnip is thought to be down to the herb mimicking pheromones related to cats in heat – until a kitten’s brain has matured enough to make this connection, they won’t respond to catnip. For some cats, this is three months of age, although many won’t respond until they’re six months, and some not until they’re a year old."

Note, catnip does lose its potency over time, so keep containers tightly sealed. If you grow your own supply of the herb, you can freeze it and dole it out gradually.

Can kittens eat catnip?

"While I wouldn’t recommend feeding catnip to kittens as they won’t get any benefit, it’s not likely to harm them if they tear open a packet and eat a small amount," Woodnutt explains, "If your kitten eats larger amounts of catnip, this can result in stomach upset – most adult cats avoid this as they self-regulate, but kittens may be prone to over-indulging."

Cats interact with catnip in different ways – they sniff it, eat it or sometimes both. What’s really interesting is that the way they engage with it can cause different reactions. Researchers believe that when cats sniff catnip the scent triggers endorphins (happy hormones) in the brain. This is what causes the ‘yippee!’ reaction many people associate with catnip – where your kitty goes zooming around the room, yowling, rolling and generally having a great time. 

This behavior normally lasts about 10 minutes or so, then your puss will give his previously treasured toy the cold shoulder. This is completely normal, and in a couple of hours or so he’ll be back for more. Some cats seem to prefer to eat catnip, and this causes a more mellow, chilled out reaction. You can find out more here about why your kitty goes crazy for catnip.

Can kittens have catnip toys?

Kitten with catnip toy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Woodnutt highlights that although it's not the best idea to feed kittens catnip, she also points out that it doesn’t harm kittens who are too young though, so it’s fine to continue playing with catnip toys.

Like all young animals, kittens require a lot of stimulation to keep enquiring minds entertained and stop them getting bored. Make sure any toy you give is suitable for a curious youngster and isn’t too easy to destroy. Kittens will respond best to toys they can interact with, and playthings containing catnip can prove extra-interesting, helping to stave off boredom and other problem behaviors

Kittens who go a bit crazy for catnip run the risk of running into the furniture when they’re playing ‘zoomies’, so make sure they’re supervised! Take a look at our guide to the best catnip toys for inspiration.

If you have a kitty who reacts strongly to catnip, then you can use it as a training aid. Rub their scratching post with catnip oil to encourage puss to use it, or tempt him in from outside with the promise of the tempting treat.

When can kittens have catnip?

Kittens don’t become sensitive to the chemical compounds in catnip until they’re between three and six (or even up to 12) months old. So although it’s fine to offer your kitten catnip at a young age, he or she may well ignore it completely. Continue to offer it at intervals until your cat is a year or so old – if he’s not interested by then, it’s unlikely he ever will be.

How much catnip do you give a kitten?

Catnip isn’t toxic or addictive, so if your kitty accidentally overdoses it’s pretty unlikely to cause major problems. However, kittens have sensitive digestive systems and eating too much of the potent herb could cause vomiting or diarrhea. While adult cats tend to self-moderate, young animals are not normally known for their self-control.

Fresh leaves are more potent than dried, so if you grow your own fresh catnip, keep the plant where your pet can’t reach it. For a kitten, try rubbing a toy with catnip to see how strongly they react. If you’re feeding catnip, start off with very small amounts, such as half a teaspoon a day. If you’re using a commercially prepared product such as dried leaves or a catnip spray, follow dosage instructions on the packaging.

Giving catnip to your kitty in moderation is completely safe and won’t hurt him – it might even be good for his digestion to have a small daily dose. If it makes him hugely excited, just make sure you hide all your breakables before you unleash the catnip mouse!

Looking to learn more about what your little bundle of fluff can and can’t consume? Our guide to ‘can kittens drink milk?’ has great advice to help you give your feline friend the best start in life. 

Sara Walker

Sara is a freelance journalist and copywriter of many years’ experience with a lifelong love of animals. She’s written for a range of magazines and websites on subjects varying from pet care to travel. A horse rider since the age of five, she’s currently a full time pet slave to horse Blue and gorgeous, goofy English Springer Spaniel Olly. Adorable Olly has a huge sense of adventure and no sense of direction, keeping Sara on her toes.