The substance in the mint plant catnip that makes some cats go wild is nepetalactone. It's unknown exactly how it works, but only around half of all cats seem to be affected, according to Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinarian at Home to Heaven in Loveland, Colorado. While catnip doesn't have any dangerous or unpleasant side effects for most cats, it's a good idea to observe your cat for any undesirable effects after giving him catnip. Cats with certain health conditions shouldn't be exposed to the plant.
Common Effects of Catnip
Catnip can incite all kinds of zany behaviors in cats that respond to it. Your cat may exhibit the following behaviors when exposed to catnip:
- Running around wildly
- Jumping or flipping
- Vocalizing with meows, purrs or growls
- A mellow disposition, particularly if she ingests the catnip
You may notice your cat get aggressive in an effort to protect her toy when she's exposed to catnip, so use caution when approaching her if you're not familiar with how she reacts to the plant.
Most cats won't actually eat catnip, though they may rub against the leaves of a fresh plant, or even bite at them, to release more of the active chemical, nepetalactone. Catnip isn't toxic, but if your cat experiences vomiting or diarrhea after giving him catnip, it's a good idea to steer clear of its use in the future.
If your cat is persistently vomiting or has loose stools that last more than a partial day, or if he seems lethargic, dehydrated or otherwise unwell, make an appointment to see your veterinarian as soon as possible to rule out any other illnesses.
Addiction and Exposure
Catnip isn't addictive like some feline drugs, so if your cat enjoys it, you can give it as often as you like. Your cat may lose sensitivity to the plant if you offer it daily, however. Veterinarian Dr. Gayle Sternefeld at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Maryland recommends giving catnip a couple of times a month as a treat. The effects of catnip usually wear off about 10 minutes after initial exposure. Your cat may not respond to it again for another couple of hours.
Seizures and Pregnancy
Catnip can lower the seizure threshold in cats, so don't give it to your cat if she has a history of seizures. Call your veterinarian right away or get your cat to an emergency veterinary clinic if she experiences a seizure for the first time, either with or without catnip.
Avoid exposing your feline friend to catnip if she's pregnant or you think she might be pregnant. The plant can stimulate the uterus, so it's best to save it for play until after her kittens are born and she's back to her normal self.
Cats Who Don't Respond
Don't fret if your cat doesn't seem to respond to catnip at all -- the sensitivity to the plant is believed to be hereditary, and she may just not have inherited that trait. Up to 50 percent of cats don't respond at all. You can keep offering, however, especially if she's young. Kittens won't typically start responding to catnip until they're between 3 and 6 months old.