AVMA’s latest podcast addresses cats’ love for Nepeta cataria
(SCHAUMBURG, Illinois) December 12, 2012—While our cats are often models of grace and composure, some of them can achieve altered states of drooling relaxation or fits of frantic energy just by getting a whiff of a little bit of catnip. But what exactly is catnip, why does it have such a strong effect on some cats and not others, and is it in any way harmful to our cats?
In the latest podcast from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Dr. Gayle Sternefeld, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, says that while scientists don’t fully understand why cats react to catnip so strongly, the reaction appears to start with the smell of the plant—a member of the mint family—which is transferred through the nasal system to the brain, where it produces a “pleasure-inducing experience” for cats.
But not all cats are hip to the herb.
“It’s an inherited trait in cats,” Dr. Sternefeld says. “So you may find that as few as one in two or three cats actually has the trait, and those that don’t carry it are seemingly immune to the whole catnip experience. They just don’t have any reaction to it.”
Cats that are affected tend to get about 10 minutes of a pleasurable reaction before the effects start to wear off. Dr. Sternefeld says it may take another couple of hours for them to “reset” after that experience and before they can have a similar catnip-related experience from another dose.
Besides making cats relaxed and happy, Dr. Sternefeld says that catnip can lead to additional health benefits, such as stimulating cats to exercise and play. In addition, a little catnip in a carrier can help ease the stress of traveling or help settle nerves for a visit to the veterinarian.
Dr. Sternefeld says that unlike some drugs, there seem to be no addictive qualities to catnip. Cats that have daily exposure to catnip tend to lose their sensitivity to it and become less interested. While there appears to be no toxic dose, she recommends moderation.
“A little bit, a little at a time, maybe every couple of weeks, just as a special treat, is probably the best place to go with it,” she says.
Studies have shown that catnip has led to an increased susceptibility of seizures in rats, so Dr. Sternefeld suggests it might be a good idea not to give catnip to cats that have had a history of seizures. In addition, catnip is a well-known uterine stimulate, so she suggests not giving it to cats who are pregnant.
While nontoxic to cats, catnip, like anything ingested, can cause stomach upset, and Dr. Sternefeld suggests discontinuing use if it leads to diarrhea or nausea.
But for the most part, Dr. Sternefeld lauds catnip for its nonaddictive, nontoxic, pleasure-inducing qualities.
“I will leave it to the ingeniousness of cats to have found a substance that does that for them,” she says. “I think that’s a good thing that we have something safe that can make them happy.”
To listen to Dr. Sternefeld’s AVMA Animal Tracks podcast on catnip, visit http://www.avmamedia.org/display.asp?sid=501&NAME=Catnip.
The AVMA and its more than 82,500 member veterinarians are engaged in a wide variety of activities dedicated to advancing the science and art of animal, human and public health. Visit the AVMA Web site at www.avma.org for more information.