Is Catnip Safe for Cats with Health Problems?

Dr. Debra,
My cat has hypertension (high blood pressure) and is controlled with a medication called Amlodipine. She is doing great.
My question is, can she have catnip? Is catnip bad for her if she has hypertension?

Ann S., Newark, Ohio

Hi Ann,What an interesting question. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding catnip regarding how and why it affects cats.This brings up the question of whether catnip is dangerous to cats with illnesses. Whether it is hypertension, like this reader’s kitty, or other conditions such as heart and lung disease, pregnancy, seizure disorders, epilepsy, or hyperthyroidism, this is an important question. After quite a few phone calls to specialists and a lot of research, I have the answer to Ann’s email.For those if you that don’t know, cats do get hypertension. Here is a link to an article on hypertension so you can learn more about the condition.First, let’s talk a little about how catnip works. This plant affects cats differently and the effect is considered to be somewhat based on genetics. Not all cats are susceptible to the effects of catnip. Some get more excited than others and will display more excitatory behavior while others will have a more laid-back reaction. Why does this happen? Learn more here.In those cats who get energized from a whiff of this plant, the catnip has an excitatory effect on those parts of the brain in and around the hypothalamus, the region which controls appetitive as well as predatory and sexual behavior.
A number of cats react in the opposite manner and become very relaxed when exposed to catnip. Evidence has suggested that a molecule called nepetalactone, present in catnip, has an opium-like action on the feline brain. It stimulates certain types of opioid receptors in the same way morphine does. It has been shown that exposure to nepetalactone can have an amphetamine-like effect in some animals and will cause certain repetitive behaviors. This goes along with the theory of opioid activation as opioids in some species – cats and horses included – do cause stimulation of “go system” neurochemicals (a.k.a. catecholamines) the same way amphetamine do.If your cat’s body is sensitive to nepetalactone that means the opioid-receptors, pleasure centers, and “go” systems of the brain will be activated and the cat will roll around in ecstasy after smelling or eating catnip.
It seems to me that catnip can affect cats differently the same way that alcohol affects people. Some people under the influence of alcohol become funny drunks, mean drunks, angry drunks, “I want to pick a fight” drunks, or laid-back relaxed drunks. We see similar reactions in cats. Some cats will run around like crazy, some lay on their backs and nap, and others want a snack. It really depends on the individual.## So back to the question: is catnip safe to use with cats with hypertension?Most research on the effect of catnip has been completed on rats. Some research suggests that there is a transient increase in blood pressure in some cats that exhibit certain behaviors. Other reports suggest that catnip reduces bloodvessel constriction and is safe, perhaps even lowering blood pressure in humans.I also checked a veterinary information channel and saw various specialists comment about catnip, especially whether if it was a concern with various feline ailments and diseases. In general, catnip was not a concern in cats with lung disease, heart disease, or high blood pressure among specialists who responded. In addition, catnip does not appear to interfere with anesthesia.
Another post questioned whether catnip creates a problem with the regulation of diabetic cats. One feline specialist answered that that they have never seen a problem with diabetic regulation when regular use of catnip was involved.Is catnip dangerous to cats with hyperthyroidism? The answer seems to be that it shouldn’t be a problem. Catnip does not interact with the cardiovascular system; it only has olfactory and possibly central nervous system effects.However, catnip is a concern in hyperthyroid cats being fed an iodine-restricted diet due to the iodine content of catnip. The exact amount is thought to vary depending on the source. Hill’s® Diet y/d™ suggests not giving catnip during the initial feeding of the diet until the cat’s thyroid level is controlled, then introducing it slowly and monitoring for problems.Catnip does not appear to have an impact on dietary trials for allergies.Finally, the primary concerns about using catnip were for pregnant cats and those with seizure disorders. Catnip can be a uterine stimulant and stimulate labor, but its effect on seizures is currently unknown. For this reason I would be very careful about giving catnip to cats with these health issues just to be safe. And of course, don’t be tempted to try it out yourself.I hope this gives you more information about the safety of catnip for your cat.Dr. Debra