What is catnip, and is it safe?: Expert advice on its effects, benefits, and safe usage for cats
Discover catnip's benefits and learn how to use it safely, with advice and research from animal experts.
With so many toys, treats, and accessories available to buy for your cat, it’s hard to know where to start. There are hundreds of options to sift through, but if you know anything about cats, there is one that always comes out on top: catnip. The green herb sends cats wild, induces a euphoric feeling, and propels them into a state of heightened emotion.
Catnip also comes with a variety of benefits which range from physical health improvements to anxiety relief. The plant appears to work miracles, so it’s natural to be a little suspicious before giving it to your pet.
To help answer all your questions about catnip, The Recommended has done the research and put together a complete guide to the herb. We explore its effects, whether it is safe for you to use with your cat, and what you need to know before buying the plant.
What is catnip, and how does it work?
Catnip is the name given to the Nepeta Catari plant, a herb that originates from Europe and Asia. The plant has several oils inside which affect cats, nepetalactone is the most potent of these and responsible for catnip’s euphoric effects. The strength of catnip depends on the concentration of this nepetalactone.
Once cats come into contact with catnip, its effects take hold by the oil reacting with the cat’s olfactory system (sense of smell). For cats to react to catnip, they need to smell or eat it.
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After doing this, the nepetalactone then enters the nasal passages before signals are sent to the brain. These signals trigger physiological responses, such as increased activity, rolling, rubbing, and other effects commonly associated with catnip.
Effects of catnip on cats
Expert in animal behaviour and veterinary medicine, Dr Wailani Sung explains that catnip’s effects depend on the age, sex, temperament, and even genetics of cats. Some have very extreme reactions to the herb, whereas others see little to no difference in behaviour or physical effect. It is important to monitor how your cat reacts to catnip so you can choose when and where to let it interact with it.
Behavioural effects of catnip
The majority of cats are affected by catnip and can often be seen rolling, rubbing, licking, and chewing toys or sacks which contain the herb. It can cause some cats to become more vocal, purr, or even meow more than usual. Other common effects of catnip include hyperactivity, playfulness, and euphoric responses/feelings.
Whilst energy rises with some cats, the opposite effect of drowsiness and relaxation can also be a result of interacting with catnip. Biologist and scientist Dr Neil Todd from Harvard University explains that sensitivity to catnip is genetically determined, so not all cats respond to the herb. In rare cases, some cats may become aggressive, or experience stomach upset when in contact with catnip.
It’s important to remember the effects of catnip are not forever lasting. Overexposure to catnip can lead to habituation, where the cat no longer responds to the herb's effects. To keep on top of this, follow the safe dosage and usage guidelines in our Is catnip safe for cats? section.
Physical effects of catnip on cats
Experts from the Alexander Animal Hospital explain that interactions with catnip make cats’ heart rates rise and breathing rate increase. Some cats even appear to have dilated pupils. These effects are usually short-lived and subside once the effects of the herb wear off. The physical reactions differ from cat to cat but are often mild and harmless.
How long do catnip effects last?
As Dr Wailani Sung said earlier, the effects of catnip depend on the age, sex, and genetics of cats. These will make a difference in the length of time cats are affected. Small Door Vetniary experts say that despite genetic differences, on average, when cats inhale dried catnip scents, they feel the effects for 5-10 minutes. However, when cats ingest fresh catnip, the effects can last for several hours.
Benefits of catnip for cats
Catnip can benefit cats both physically and mentally, with many owners reporting their feline becoming happier by incorporating it into their playtime. Owners also note numerous other benefits of catnip, such as being useful in helping their pets relax, avoid sickness and even make friends. The benefits don’t stop with the cat, the herb can help owners bond with pets and introduce their feline to new settings.
Mental and emotional benefits
Alexander Animal Hospital further explained that catnip could have a range of mental and emotional benefits for cats. With catnip, cats become more engaged with their owners and surrounding- this creates an overall feeling of wellness. The euphoric response from cats when they encounter catnip has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
The stimulation provided can also be beneficial in helping to reduce boredom, which can be especially helpful for indoor cats. Catnip is also mentally beneficial as it helps them socialise and bond with each other.
Physical health benefits
Veterinary expert and researcher Dr Masao Miyazaki of Iwate University explained that catnip could also have physical health benefits for cats. It contains several compounds with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, which can help boost the immune system and promote overall health.
Catnip can also help to improve digestion and reduce gastrointestinal distress. Another added bonus from catnip is its natural insect-repellent qualities, so it helps to protect cats against fleas and ticks.
Catnip and social bonding
Experts from Cathealth.com describe how catnip can also be used to help cats bond. When a pair of cats are exposed to catnip together, it can help to create a positive and playful atmosphere that encourages socialising. This is especially useful if you already have a cat and want to introduce more into your home.
Catnip is also beneficial in the bonding process between the cat and its owner. Giving toys and treats to your cats that are catnip infused creates a positive association between you and your cat.
Is catnip safe for cats?
Cat and animal health expert Dr Heather Hoffmann assures owners that catnip is generally considered safe for cats, but it's essential to use it in moderation and to follow safe dosage and usage guidelines to avoid any potential risks and side effects. Also, if your cat is under one year old, it’s probably not worth giving them catnip because they are likely too young to react to it at all.
Potential risks and side effects of catnip
While ordinarily safe, some cats might react negatively to catnip and have different reactions to the herb. Dr Hoffmann warns us to be aware that some cats can have adverse reactions which are similar to allergies: vomiting, diarrhoea, or even excessive drooling.
Equally, catnip is not recommended for cats with a history of seizures or epilepsy. It is also advised not to give to pregnant cats until after nursing because there is limited research on the potential effects of catnip on foetal development or milk production.
Another potential risk is that a small section of cats become overly excited or even aggressive when in contact with catnip. This can become a problem if they start to become rough during play and endanger owners or other cats.
Safe dosage and usage guidelines
Dr Hoffman gives advice on how to avoid any potential risks or side effects of catnip and says it's important to follow safe dosage and usage guidelines. It's recommended to use only a small amount of catnip at a time, especially if you're using it for the first time.
A small pinch is a good idea when starting to give your cat catnip. Catnip’s effects wear off after 10-15 minutes, so this is safe guidance when thinking about how long you should expose your cat to catnip.
Alternatives and substitutes to catnip
If you're concerned about the potential risks or side effects of catnip, there are several alternatives and substitutes that you can consider. It's also worth noting that overexposure to catnip can lead to habituation, where the cat no longer responds to the herb's effects, so alternatives might be an option to avoid this.
Silvervine, valerian root, and honeysuckle are natural herbs that have similar effects on cats as catnip. You can also try providing your cat with interactive toys or puzzles to stimulate its mind and encourage play.
Ways to use catnip with your cat
Here are some ways to use catnip so your feline friend can enjoy the benefit of the herb. Whether it’s toys, accessories, or even homemade treats, there are several ways to incorporate the plant into your cat’s life.
Catnip toys and accessories
One of the easiest ways to use catnip is to provide your cat with catnip-infused toys or accessories. These can include stuffed animals, balls, and scratching posts that have been infused with dried catnip. When your cat plays with these toys, the scent of the catnip will be released, triggering a range of behavioural and physiological effects. See some of the best deals we've found on catnip toys below.
If you’re interested in other toys for your cats and pets, take a look at The Recommended pet section here.
Homemade catnip treats
Believe it or not, homemade treats are much easier to make than you might first have thought. You can use dried catnip and put it into biscuit recipes or sprinkle it on top of your cat's regular food. You can also get a small fabric bag/sock and fill it with catnip before tying it up and letting your cat play with it. You can create a catnip area in your garden or even a catnip spray to use on your cat's toys or bedding. See some of the best deals we've seen on catnip treats below.
Want to read more expert-recommended pet product round-ups? Check out our Pets page for a full list of recommendations, including our list of the best cat toys, the best cat food, and the best cat litter trays.
Finn Byrne is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media. He works across several brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeforMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. Finn has previously written for publications including MyLondon, The Mirror, The Express, and The Star. When not writing Finn enjoys spending time on the football pitch and getting stuck into a book.