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Is catnip bad for cats?

Cute Ginger Cat Sniffing Dried Catnip
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Catnip has been known to turn even the most placid and laziest of kitties into a crazy furball. If you’re wanting to bring out your cat’s playful side and keep them occupied, giving them one of the best catnip toys is a surefire way to keep your moggie amused for hours. 

But is catnip bad for cats, or is this little herb harmless? Well, just like us humans and our favorite foods, it turns out that the answer may lie in one word: moderation. 

The research crew over at Hill’s, makers of some of the best cat food, state that catnip is perfectly safe for most cats but encourage pet parents to educate themselves on the herb and monitor their cat for signs of poor tolerance.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer at all things catnip, so you know everything there is to know about the herb that sends cats to hyperactive heaven.

What is catnip?

Close up of Nepeta cataria plant, commonly known as catnip, catswort, catwort, and catmint.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Catnip, or nepeta cataria, is a perennial herb that closely resembles oregano when dried but is actually a member of the mint family. Originally found in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, catnip is now found growing wild throughout Europe and North America.

With heart-shaped or triangular leaves and blooms of blue, white, pink, or lavender, catnip is rather pretty in appearance and easy to grow, even for the most novice of gardeners. If you decide to experiment with growing catnip at home, be sure to keep it out of reach of your fur pal’s paws as otherwise, you may find it gets gobbled up rather quickly!

Why do cats love it so much?

Cat lying on side and chewing catnip leaves

(Image credit: Getty Images)

So, what exactly is it about this seemingly ordinary herb that’s so captivating? The active ingredient in catnip is a compound called nepetalactone, an essential oil that is thought to mimic feline pheromones, which causes cats to become excited. Nepetalactone binds itself to the receptors inside a cat’s nose, stimulating the neurons that lead to their brain. 

Catnip acts as a mood enhancer for most cats, but the form it comes in can impact the type of response. 

How will catnip affect your cat?

a female domestic calico cat jumping from a chair to catch the green toy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sniffing catnip tends to have a stimulant effect, in much the same way that sniffing rosemary, coffee beans, or citrus has in humans. However, when catnip is ingested it usually acts as a relaxant, like chamomile, making cats feel chilled and sleepy.

When a cat smells catnip they start to mimic the same sort of behavior that female cats in heat display. This can involve purring, meowing, rolling on the ground, zipping about, and drooling. If you notice your kitty trying to swat or chase things that aren’t there, that’s because catnip is known to have the same effect that hallucinogenic drugs have on humans.

While most moggies go mad for catnip, some may exhibit mild aggression and growling behaviors. This is something to watch out for if you have a multi-cat household. If you try your cats on catnip and notice them displaying negative behaviors, we recommend you stop giving it to them and speak to your veterinarian who can advise you on other options, such as valerian.

The good news is that the effects of catnip are short and sweet, lasting for just 5 to 15 minutes, and once they wear off, it’ll take a few hours before your kitty can go catnip crazy again.

What are the benefits of catnip?

A kitten rests on a scratching cat toy indoors.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Believe it or not, catnip isn’t just a fun treat, giving it to your cat can also be beneficial. Catnip can be a great way to train your kitten or cat in appropriate indoor behavior, including teaching them to use a scratching post instead of clawing at your furniture. Some of the best cat scratching posts come with a bag of catnip that you can sprinkle around the base to lure your kitty in. 

It’s also the perfect solution for sedentary cats as it can boost their activity levels and get them engaged in some easy exercise that will benefit their bones, muscles, and joints - not to mention their waistline! 

If you have a cat that hates going to the vet, take advantage of the relaxant effect of infused catnip to help calm them down. Soup for cats is a fairly new phenomenon, and while it may sound labor-intensive, catnip soup is quick and easy to make, and the mild sedative effect can make those vet visits a little easier to manage.

Potential side effects

There’s no evidence that catnip is bad for cats, but there are a few side effects that are worth keeping an eye out for.

In small to moderate doses, catnip is likely to be a purely pleasurable experience for most cats, but if your kitty hits the catnip buffet and devours too much of the stuff in fresh or dried form, they can end up with an upset tummy. This can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and a general feeling of being unwell. Thankfully, cats are expert self-regulators so overdosing on catnip is pretty rare.

What’s more common is cats injuring themselves while they’re bouncing around the room on a catnip high, so it can be a good idea to keep an eye on them just to be safe.