The Ethics of Catnip - Really?
Updated: Mar 17
Is providing catnip to your cat a form of enrichment or is it unethical because you might laugh while enjoying watching them in a slightly mood-altered state for a brief period of time? I strongly disagree that it's unethical, but argue that odor enrichment is a must for every cat.
Luke enjoying his weekly catnip treat.
Professor Debra Merskin from the University of Oregon wrote an article last month for The Conversation asking whether it is unethical to give your cat catnip, referring to it as “kitty crack” since it is available in concentrated forms like oil and sprays. She argues that laughing at your cat when they are showing the effects from the herb “raises questions about human power and animal autonomy.” I think those are interesting questions, but I disagree with targeting catnip. Perhaps dressing cats up in clothing where there is a one-sided benefit is a better ethical argument. Or spraying water at your cat to get them off the counter is a demonstration of our power.
About 1/3 of adult cats are affected by catnip, an herb from the mint family. Cats can enjoy catnip through toys and even licking the herb in dried form. Indoor cats often develop behavior issues stemming from boredom. Providing enrichment including playtime, toys, scratchers, perches, and odor enrichment is essential for mental stimulation and the ethics of guardians’ pleasure in watching their cats enjoy catnip is trivial.
Cats have more than 200 million odor sensors in their noses; humans have just 5 million. Their sense of smell is something we have to take into account in our homes. Being sensitive to using strong odors is important. On the other hand, odor enrichment can be really fun. Today, there's more than catnip. My cat's favorite is silvervine. Other cats prefer Valerian Root. And my favorite company, Meowy Janes recently came up with an odor enrichment pack of 13 different herbs that cats have been known to respond to. I like to put out a towel and add a different scent to each corner for the cats to explore on their own. It can help alleviate the boredom of living indoors.
I think Dr. Merskin had her moment in the sun by saying something so controversial that catnip isn't ethical, but many of us cat guardians and cat behavior consultants agree that it's a wonderful enrichment for our cats.
Jennifer Van de Kieft is a Certified Advanced Feline Training and Behavior Professional and Certfied Pet Nutrition Coach residing in Brooklyn, NYC. She provides virtual consultations to cat owners seeking behavioral and feeding advice.