If there’s one thing that many cats love, it’s catnip. It’s super cheap, readily available, easily grown at home, and found in a range of cat products from toys to scratchers. Cats go so nuts for it that some people even refer to it as “kitty crack” or “kitty weed”, which begs the question, can cats overdose on catnip?
Catnip isn’t addictive and your cat can’t really overdose on it. However cats can become desensitized to the effects if you give it to them too often.
What is catnip?
Formerly known as Nepeta cataria, catnip is simply a species of plant that belongs to the mint family. It’s a perennial, herbaceous plant that blooms from late spring through the fall.
It gets its name because roughly somewhere between 1/2 – 2/3 of cats are intensely attracted to this stuff. However the attraction is hereditary, so if you notice your cat doesn’t respond to it that’s totally normal.
Catnip is different from cat grasses, such as barley, wheat, or oat grasses. Those are simply to give your cat something safe to chew on, while catnip elicits a psychological feel good response in many cats.
What does catnip do to cats?
Many cats go absolutely bonkers for catnip.
It’s like, once they get that first whiff they almost act like a different cat. My cat will immediately bolt towards it and sniff, lick, meow, rub his head on it, and jump around.
While most cats get very social and happy under the influence of catnip, some can actually display aggressive behavior. If you have young children, it may be a good idea to make sure your cat is properly supervised the first time you give them catnip to be safe.
The reason for this is that catnip contains nepetalactone, an oil found in the stems and leaves of the catnip plant. A certain percentage of cats are highly susceptible to this.
Nepetalactone, one of catnip’s volatile oils, enters the cat’s nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters* in the midbrain that mediate emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain’s “master gland” that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.Source: Scientific American – How Does Catnip Work Its Magic?
So basically, getting a whiff of nepetalactone triggers “happy receptors” in your cats brain. While you may notice cats eating catnip as well, the “high” reaction is triggered by the scent, not ingestion.
How much catnip to give your cat
Just a pinch or two of the dried stuff or a few sprays of the liquid type is more than enough. If you’re using fresh, cut off just a few leaves at a time.
It’s not necessary to give your cat any more than that because they’ll react to very small amounts.
What happens if cats eat too much catnip? Can they overdose?
There is no evidence that catnip is harmful or that cats can really overdose on it. You’ll notice your cat’s “high” behavior will wear off after about 10 minutes (give or take). Cats then become immune to it temporarily afterwards, for about a half hour.
However if you give catnip to a cat too often, they can become desensitized and no longer react to it. In order to get the maximum effects, you should only offer it once or twice a week.
It’s also possible that if your cat actually eats the catnip (and eats way too much), it could give them an upset tummy. They may even throw up afterwards. But really that is probably the worst case scenario.
Also, when cats actually eat catnip it’s shown to have a sedative effect and make them sleepy, so your cat may go into a “catnip coma” of sorts.
Can cats get addicted to catnip?
Catnip isn’t addictive at all. But because cats can become almost immune to the effects, it’s best to only use it a few times per week at most.
Catnip alternatives – what if your cat doesn’t respond to catnip?
It’s totally normal for cats not to respond to catnip. Actually, according to some estimates only around 50% of cats do. This is because the response is hereditary.
If your cat doesn’t take an interest with it, you can try using an alternative like Silvervine (aka Actinidia polygama).
Silvervine is just another type of plant that’s similar to catnip, only stronger. This is because in addition to nepetalactone, it also contains an additional cat attractant known as iridoids nepetalactol.
This stuff is known to elicit responses in a greater percentage of cats than catnip alone. My sister’s cats do not respond to catnip, but they go crazy for silvervine. It’s most common to find silvervine mixed with catnip in dried form, but these silvervine sticks are also a fun treat!
Ways to use catnip (and/or silvervine) with your cat
As long as catnip isn’t used too often, there are a lot of cool and creative ways it can be used around them.
These are a really fun way to get your cat to play with toys, and they’re a good option if you want to use catnip in a way that’s not very messy. If you have a lazy cat that needs more activity, try introducing toys that come prefilled with catnip.
Many of these just come with catnip inside the toy or a ball of compressed catnip, but others have pouches you can open and refill yourself.
My cat loves these compressed catnip mice!
Catnip can also be used to help introduce shy or anxious cats into your home and with other cats.
Some people refer to this stuff as weed for cats, since it has a similar response in cats as marijuana does in humans. They both stimulate pleasure centers of the brain. This can make cats happy, calm, and more relaxed in social situations.
However certain cats respond aggressively around catnip, so be extra cautious the first time you use it and watch their behavior closely.
Encourage use of scratching posts/scratcher mats
Try putting them directly next to the problem areas your cat likes to scratch the most, and see if the catnip is enough to redirect them and train them to stop scratching your furniture or carpet.
Use to help introduce them to a new type of cat litter
Cats can be really hesitant to use a new type of litter, so using catnip around the litter box can help get them curious and interested. You can also try slowly introducing them to new litter by putting a litter box filled with their normal litter right next to their new one. Over time, gradually add more of the new litter into the old box.
In this case, I find using a catnip spray the best option since it’s less messy.
Calm anxious cats when traveling
Most cats don’t like traveling, but sometimes it’s necessarily. You probably know that all too familiar yowling/meowing they make when riding in a car.
To help ease their nerves, sprinkle a few pinches of catnip in their carrier before you leave.
The Bottom Line
Neither catnip nor alternatives like silvervine are harmful or addictive to your cat. While you don’t have to worry about an overdose, they can get less interested in it over time if used too often.