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the truth about catnip

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Grey cat with fresh catnip | The truth about catnip for cats
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Aug 25 2016

I feel like cat owners sometimes get a raw deal because our feline friends usually aren’t quite as demonstrative in their affection as their canine cousins are. Aside from mealtime at our house, I’d be hard pressed to tell you about a time I thought my cats were actually happy to see me or seemed to be feeling the joy that I’ve seen in my dogs’ eyes. With one exception: catnip time.

Now, I admit that I don’t “play” with my cats as much as I should. At their age, they truly do seem much more interested in sleeping! However, from time to time I bust out the catnip, much to their delight. Watching cats interact with it is a sight to behold, but many people worry about the safety of indulging their cats with a little bit of “herbal” fun.

Is catnip safe for cats?

Rest assured that it is safe for your cat. Catnip is a plant in the same family as mint—you can even grow it in your garden to have a ready supply for play time! The compound in it that causes your cats to seem so frenzied is called nepetalactone. When inhaled, the compound stimulates the olfactory bulb, which then sends a signal to the amygdala (responsible for emotional responses) and the hypothalamus, which controls behavioral responses.

 

 

The result is (usually) a very, very happy cat. Cats exposed to catnip will roll around, rubbing their chin, face and body on anything and everything. Sometimes they’ll vocalize, sometimes they’ll gobble it up and sometimes they’ll do headover rolls and shake their heads. Long story short: cats find it extremely pleasurable.

Sadly, not all cats are susceptible to the effects of nepetalactone. Only about 75% of cats will respond to catnip. The other quarter finds nothing special about it. Whether or not your cat responds comes down to genetics—the trait has to be passed down from a parent. In addition, kittens will not respond to catnip, as cats aren’t susceptible to its power until they are about 6 to 8 weeks old.

Before you bust out your cat’s stash, I have three caveats:

  • For some cats, catnip brings out an aggressive side. For these cats, I recommend that owners not give catnip.
  • For others, ingestion of too much can cause diarrhea (usually self-limiting). Owners can make their own decisions in those cases.
  • If used too frequently, it can lose its effect on cats, so the general recommendation is to keep your catnip parties to once every couple of weeks.

Everyone deserves a euphoric moment or two – so go ahead, treat your cat!