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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Cats and Catnip: Does it Really Get Them 'High' and Why

Does your cat like catnip? I just found out that one of mine does and one doesn’t. Typical, according to the statistics.
 

My daughter and I were recently running some errands, and she decided to buy the cats presents. Keep in mind that she is four and her savings are, shall we say, "limited," so I knew I’d be the one footing the bill. I am nothing if not frugal (some would say cheap), so I gently steered her towards the one dollar cat toys. There, she selected a fuzzy pink mouse and a small catnip-stuffed pillow emblazoned with the words "I Love Cats."

We promptly lost the mouse (I think it made it out of the car and into the house, but I wouldn’t swear to it), but the pillow survived the trip home. Renee placed it ever so gently in front of the cats and stood back to watch their reactions.

Vicky – nothing. She looked at it quizzically, gave it a quick sniff, and walked away.

Keelor – ecstasy! He immediately started rubbing his face all over the pillow, drooling (he responds to many things by drooling), and purring. This continued on and off for days, after which time he completely lost interest. The last time I saw this previously adored object, it was in the corner of the laundry room covered with dust.

This experience made me wonder exactly what catnip is. You might think we’d have learned something about this in vet school (and maybe we did), but when Renee asked me why Keelor was acting so funny, I realized my knowledge was rudimentary at best. I did a little research and here is what I found:

  • Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb that is a member of the mint family. It can grow to be up to three feet high!
  • The chemical compound in the plant that attracts and affects cats is called nepetalactone. It is found in the leaves and stems.
  • Nepetalactone is a stimulant when sniffed by a cat, producing a "high" that is described as being similar to either marijuana or LSD. (How this was determined, I do not know.)
  • When a cat eats catnip, it acts as a sedative.
  • About 50 percent of cats seem to be affected by catnip, and the behavior that results varies widely between individuals.
  • Cats may rub against and chew on catnip to bruise the leaves and stems, which then release more nepetalactone.
  • Catnip is safe for cats. If they eat a lot, they may vomit and have diarrhea, but will return to normal given time (and no more catnip).
  • If cats are exposed to catnip frequently, they may no longer respond to it. Some people recommend that it shouldn’t be given more than once every two or three weeks to prevent habituation.

So if I had to guess, I’d say that all the nepetalactone has been squeezed out of Keelor’s little pillow. If I want to get him "high" again, I’ll have to splurge the next time I’m at the pet store, or start my own "home grown" operation.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Pic of the day: catnip 012 by LaidiKarma

 high on catnip. catnip, gray cat, grey cat, love catnip

Comments  3

Leave Comment
  • Kittens and catnip
    06/06/2011 11:07am

    Years ago, I was told that catnip doesn't affect kittens. I soon found out that was untrue. We had a 5-week-old kitten, and were giving some 'nip to our older cats when he ran in from the other room and attacked the dusting of catnip on the floor. He is still the most affected of our four cats, and you'd better watch out if he's had some recently. Only one of ours is uninterested, but sometimes he'll roll around in it just so the others don't think he's a square.

  • Potency?
    06/06/2011 05:17pm

    I planted some catnip in our yard and put chicken wire around it because Mr. Kitty would go and lie on it. Now he just hangs out by it. I think he's developed an immunity.

    I wonder if like basil, the leaves are more potent before it flowers, or like marijuana, the buds are more potent?

  • Squeeeeeeze!
    06/06/2011 06:59pm

    Try squeezing the catnip toy to break up the leaves a little more. That should release some of the fragrance.

    I have some that go crazy for it and some that could care less.

    My Sylvia Rose (RIP) was the grumpiest cat in the world until a friend gave me a bouquet of fresh catnip. I tossed it on the floor and most of the herd came running. Sylvia Rose happily rolled in it, had a few nibbles, them promptly gathered all the leaves into a pile and made it into a bed so no one else could have any.

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