ask ms kitty: herbs for cat happiness

Dear Ms. Kitty,

Is catnip safe for my cats? I heard that it could cause hallucinations and aggression. I’d like to try it to get my cat more active, but don’t want to turn my cat mean.

Happy in Hanover

Dear Happy, 

Catnip is a member of the mint family of herbs and can enrich your cat’s life. It’s usually a safe plant to give your cats, but you may want to see how they react at first. 

Catnip has a chemical called nepetalactone that triggers a euphoric response in the brains of susceptible cats. Cats typically respond by rolling or rubbing and may bite and kick a toy with catnip stuffing. The effects of catnip are short-lived, usually about 5 to 15 minutes.

Not all cats react to catnip, but around two-thirds of cats have an inherited response to it. Kittens do not usually respond until they are about six months old. 

Your cats’ reaction will depend on whether they sniff or eat the herb. Sniffing produces a stimulant effect, while ingesting has a sedative effect. Experiment with different forms of catnip—some cats enjoy dry herbs and some like the fresh plant. Try offering catnip toys, sprinkling dry catnip on a scratcher, or offering fresh leaves. 

Some catnip toys have just a pinch of the herb, while others—like the Yeoww brand—are stuffed with all catnip. Your cats will let you know what they prefer. Storing cat toys in a container with more catnip can make them extra exciting when you take them out for playtime.

Catnip will not turn your cat mean, but some cats can temporarily get more aggressive when stimulated. Watch to see how your cat responds first. If your cat tends to get puffed up with a little ‘nip, consider separating him while he imbibes to avoid conflicts between cats. That way, everyone in your house will have a better time until it wears off. 

If your kitty is a catnip non-responder, consider offering silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle or valerian root instead. Look for natural, organic products that come from North America to enrich your cat’s experience.

Catnip planted outdoors will spread, so containers are helpful. Harvest fresh leaves for your cat to enjoy or dry the plant and store it in a sealed container. But remember, outdoor catnip can also attract roaming cats, which can be stressful for indoor cats.

If you find that your cat reacts strongly, offer cat grass instead. This is a non-stimulating herb and can be grown from oat, wheatgrass, rye or barley. Cat grass will typically be viable for about two to three weeks. It can last longer if watered from the bottom and refrigerated overnight. 

Catnip will not respond well to refrigeration; however, it can live for a long time if kept from getting root-bound. It’s best to limit access to these plants until your cats learn to control the amount they eat.

Catnip, cat grass or even sprouted sunflower seeds offer a variety of nutrients and enrichment for cats, especially indoor-only cats. Offering these plants can distract them from chewing on house plants, which can be toxic.

Fortunately, catnip is neither harmful nor addictive for cats, and most kitties enjoy interacting with these natural herbs from your own dispensary!

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