Is Catnip Safe for My Cat?

Catnip
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Q. My cat absolutely loves catnip. When I get the container out of the cupboard, he starts acting crazy before I even open the lid. Is it really OK for him to be a catnip junkie?

A. Though I hesitate to say that anything is "completely safe," catnip is about as safe as you could hope for in something that provides your cat with so much obvious pleasure. The cautious voice inside me says that even good things should be enjoyed in moderation — but catnip? Even a daily dip into the 'nip is unlikely to be a problem. So let your cat enjoy!

Your cat is among the lucky ones, by the way, since some cats don’t react to catnip at all. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hard-wired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all.

Among those cats who do like catnip, you'll find two basic kinds of reactions: Some cats become like a lazy drunk, while others get a wired-up crazy. The reaction can be intense, but it's relatively short lived and after it’s over the cat cannot get high again for an hour or so. Credit a substance called nepetalactone, which is found in the leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior.

Instead of worrying about catnip, why not use its power for the benefit of you and your cat? Rubbing the herb (fresh or dried) on scratching posts and cat trees makes them more attractive and rewarding for your cat, and that may help keep your pet from shredding your furniture (along with other strategies). Tucking a little of the herb into toys may also keep your cat more active, which is especially important for indoor cats, who trend toward inactivity and obesity and the health problems that go with them.

You can easily grow your own catnip. The plants are readily available in nurseries and can also be started from seed. You’ll need to protect the growing plants from your cat, though: He may well pull them out of the soil, roots and all, if you don’t. Once the plants are established, you can use fresh clippings and also dry leafy branches as a treat.

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