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  • Writer's pictureJen Van de Kieft

The Ethics of Catnip - Really?

Updated: Apr 1

There can be ethical concerns about keeping cats in captivity, however, providing catnip is definitely not one of them. Not only do I think offering catnip to cats is ethical, but it can be hugely beneficial to reduce boredom that many cats experience indoors.

Cat sticking out tongue
Luke enjoying his weekly catnip treat.

The Article That Went Viral

In 2018, Professor Debra Merskin from the University of Oregon wrote an article for The Conversation called “is it unethical to give your cat catnip?” referring to it as “mood altering” and “kitty crack.” At that time, I was furious. I had just started my feline behavior consulting practice and what I was seeing was lots of bored cats. Boredom is either the primary reason or a contributing factor for many of the feline behavior cases that I see. Providing enrichment including playtime, toys, scratchers, perches, and olfactory enrichment is essential for mental stimulation and the ethics of guardians’ pleasure in watching their cats enjoy catnip seemed trivial to me.

What is Catnip? Is it Addictive? Harmful?

Meowy Janes, feline olfactory enrichment experts, helps clarify the differences in olfactory enrichment. “Catnip is the most commonly known (and loved) cat herb. Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is found in the leaves, stems, and seeds of the plant. When cats come into contact with catnip, they might exhibit behaviors such as rolling, rubbing, purring, and increased playfulness. This reaction is thought to be due to nepetalactone’s interaction with receptors in a cat’s nasal tissue. It can create a euphoric or stimulating response in some cats but it is temporary.” It’s not addictive or hurtful to your cat. In fact, it serves a purpose. Studies show that rubbing on a catnip plant helps protect cats against insects, and therefore getting bitten by insects. There’s a biological reason they are attracted to it. In my experience, cats enjoy it and can help break the monotony of indoor captivity. 

The International Cat Care Association says “Catnip has been found to elicit behaviours that indicate a positive welfare state, such as increased play, in a study of cats exposed to catnip in a rescue centre environment. Very little research to date has focused on the effects of catnip on the cats although it is generally believed to be safe, non-toxic nor addictive for cats.”

Because cats have such a strong sense of smell, offering catnip is a fun way to help enrich their lives. Unfortunately, Dr. Merskin’s views made the news and the article went viral. This has had lasting effects since I still see clients today who are concerned about giving their cat catnip since they worry it’s some type of addictive drug that can be harmful. Catnip is an herb, not a “drug” as she claims in the article.

Feline Olfactory Fun Goes Beyond Catnip

Does your cat not like catnip? No problem. Silvervine is another natural herb that more cats respond to than catnip. Other cats prefer Valerian Root. And my favorite company, Meowy Janes recently came up with an olfactory enrichment pack of 13 different herbs that cats can enjoy. I set out a folded towel, and add a different scent to each corner for the cats to explore on their own. A cat will often fall asleep on the towel with their face facing a particular herb. I get a lot of joy seeing my cats enjoy the enrichment I provide for them. Yes, sometimes it’s funny, but really I would describe how I feel as joy. There’s nothing unethical about that. 

Ethical Concerns Regarding our Feline Companions

Now that years have passed, I went back and re-read Dr. Merkin’s article. Although I still disagree with Dr. Merskin about catnip being unethical, I think she raises a good point about “human power and animal autonomy.” Today, on social media there are so many videos about cats. In my feed, cats who need homes are popular as well as entertaining videos of things cats are doing. They range from cats performing natural behaviors such as successfully hunting fish from various waters (wow!) to humans setting up cats in some way for amusement. 

These are the ones where our beloved feline companions are now objectified for comedy and entertainment. It usually involves fear. One video I saw recently, which I’m not even going to link to, was really disturbing. It featured cats walking into a situation in which they would become so scared that their bodies physically reacted by jumping high off the ground. Most of these were in response to toast popping out from a toaster while the cat was nearby. Cats fell off the counter in such a way that I was concerned about whether they were hurt. Not only is this not funny, but it’s abusive. Cats can get seriously harmed, physically and emotionally.

A colleague of mine, Daniel “DQ” Quagliozzi, of Go Cat Go!, a feline behavior consulting business in San Francisco, has taken on social media users who abuse their cats for the purposes of entertainment. DQ says “Many Instagram and TikTok accounts are exploiting their cats for the sake of comedy, using them as props to gain laughs at the expense of their reactivity, aggression and low threshold for physical contact. As these accounts get more popular with more followers… The brands get stronger and their videos get more exploitive. Join me in putting a necessary spotlight on accounts that notoriously push cats beyond their limits and set bad examples for cat guardians, tarnishing relationships and influencing cat behavior in all the wrong ways. Cats are euthanized in animal shelters all over the country because of behavior like miss directed play drive, biting and swatting. Let’s not forget how our own behavior influences not only our animals and their future, but also the way humans will emulate what they see as popular and lucrative. Internet fame is monopoly money. Spend it wisely. Influence feline advocacy!” DQ, count me in.

To conclude, offering catnip to your cat is not only ethical but can be hugely beneficial. Cats being used as props is for the purposes of comedy and entertainment is not. If we want to focus on ethical concerns about our house cat, this is where our focus should be.

About the author: Jennifer Van de Kieft, CAFTP, FFCP, PNCC is located in Brooklyn, NY. She is certified in feline behavior and pet nutrition. She owns Cat Advocate, a feline behavior consulting company. She provides cat guardians with the strategies, tools and knowledge needed to address their cat's behavior issues. Jennifer provides virtual consultations throughout the United States.

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