While catnip is famous for putting kitty into a whacky playful mood, chances are quite slim she will be poisoned by consuming it, no matter how much she slurps down. More likely is a physical injury brought on by an overstimulated central nervous system, according to the American Humane Society.
Member of Mint Family
Catnip -- officially called Nepeta cataria -- is a member of the mint family known scientifically as Lamiaceae, according to Pet Wave. It is an aromatic herb native to Europe, Asia and Africa, and it also thrives in the U.S. Midwest, where it is categorized as a weed. Its active ingredient, nepetalactone, is an essential oil with volatile properties that, when activated and inhaled by felines, cause temporary but noticeable behavior changes.
Related to Marijuana
Vetinfo and Pet Wave both include information regarding catnip being biochemically related to marijuana and thus producing the same type of effects in cats that smoking "pot" does in humans. However, the genetic relationship between catnip and marijuana is more like a second cousin twice removed; Vetinfo explains that catnip is related to marijuana only distantly.
Effects on Cats
Oddly enough, felines seem to be the only animals affected by the release of catnip's aromatic properties, reports Pet Wave. Not all cats respond in the same manner. In general, catnip has an aphrodisiac effect on cats, according to the website Plain Brown Tabby. Some cats get into the oddest positions on their backs with their paws extended in to the air and simply stare upwards. Other cats become uncontrollably excited and race around the house with endless amounts of energy propelling them. Vetinfo indicates catnip can cause some cats to become extremely aggressive, trying to pick fights with other cats or other animals in the household.
Temporary and Not Dangerous
The Minnesota Poison Control System says it is nearly impossible for a cat to experience a serious poisoning episode from eating fresh catnip plant. While fresh catnip does contain anywhere from 0.3 to 1.0 percent volatile oil, which is more than enough to cause behavioral changes in a feline, its effects last only a short time period -- from between 5 and 15 minutes. Its effects are temporary and short-lived, making treatment unwarranted, as per the Minnesota Poison Control System. Pet Wave states the actual "high" that kitty gets from sniffing or rubbing up against catnip lasts on average about 10 minutes, leaving kitty satisifed for several hours. Vetinfo states that, while your cat might go crazy over catnip at first introduction, cats by nature are survivors who know their own limits. Most likely your cat will back away from the catnip once she's had enough.
Don't Know Until You Try
Not all cats are affected by catnip. It's a genetic trait that approximately 15 percent of the feline population does not have, according to Plain Brown Tabby. It's one of those things you won't know until you try it. It is best to provide a safe environment for your cat's first exposure to catnip.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.