Categories: drugs

Is it unethical to give your cat catnip?

Catnip plant

Debra Merskin asks the question whether it is ethical to give your cat catnip. It might sound like a strange question because 70% of cats who chew or smell catnip appear to enjoy it. As one person on Reddit.com said it’s a bit like us going out to the pub after work. It is a cat chilling out having some fun but is it right to be amused by our cat if we give her a drug? If we are amused Merskin says that we deny them the same “moral consideration” that we give to humans.

The answer to the question turns on our attitude towards our animals with respect to ethics and morals. Should we have the same ethical standards in our attitude towards our companion animals as we have towards our children? Debra makes the point that we would consider it unethical to give our children a drug and then laugh at them when they proceed to be high and affected by it. Yet, this is exactly what we do with our domestic cats.

This is a philosophical question. It affects the very root of our relationship with domestic animals and indeed all animals. Personally, I have always considered animals to be equal to humans because I consider humans to be human animals. I don’t see much difference and gradually, day by day, we are becoming more enlightened about the emotional capacities of our animal companions and their intelligence.

Our companion animals share many traits with humans. You can think of sociability, emotions, eating habits, empathy, communication abilities, routines, fears, dislikes and likes, contentment and companionship with their human guardian. It would seem wrong to treat a companion animal from a moral standpoint differently to the way we treat another member of the family who happens to be human.


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If you agree that, and many millions of cat owners treat their cats as members of the family, then you might agree that Debra Merskin’s argument is correct. The nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals disagree with her. They are happy for owners to treat cat companions to reasonable amounts of high-quality catnip. We know this because Debra contacted them for a comment and their media officer, Sofia Charchuk, responded.

There is one other issue worth mentioning which is that the sort of catnip that so often comes with cat toys and other cat products is highly concentrated. It is not like the plant that cats might encounter outside. As you probably know catnip comes from a plant with the botanical name Nepeta cataria. Around 70% of domestic cats respond to catnip. Below is a video which tells us how it works on a chemical level.

What do you think by the way? I welcome responses and comments.

Postscript: many philosophers would support Debra’s argument because, for example, humans shouldn’t treat animals with less compassion than they treat humans just because they have a different vocal structure to humans.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • Proliferation and perpetuation of domesticated cats is inherently unethical. Inflicting them unconfined on our communities and ecological systems is catastrophically so (no pun intended).

  • Felids of many species seek out a psychotropic buzz in the wild. Matatabi, every type of nip and several types of Honeysuckle, all fit the bill. Tigers, get off on Sandlewood! There are far more worthy ethical concerns for feline welfare than this. What about the cruel idiots who think it fun to blow cannabis smoke or the vapour from crack pipes over their hapless feline companions or feed them other devastating street drugs?

    Nepeta Cataria, on a warm summer morning is very potent as the oil evaporates. It is probably stronger than the dried, often aged, pesticide/herbicide soaked stuff found in most catnip stuffed toys.

    I grow a few varieties in our garden. Our cats have always preferred it live, and they seem to get a more self manageable hit from it.

    I agree with Albert about being cautious about the over excitement issue. Over the years, I have noticed that some cats find nip to be a mellow hit and some find it much more stimulating. Different cats, same plant or batch of nip. I wonder if this is due to the individual psychology of the cat and/or the individual's brain response to Nepetalactone?

  • To me it is the same as a human having a couple of beers or even if you think about it now since pot is legal it can be the same as that it helps them escape for a bit i laugh at myself if I get tipsy if i have a little to much or even get high to me its the same and believe me i have also had someone snap a video of me didn't realize it at the time but when i saw it i cracked up laughing the next day. come on we all need to relax a bit whether we are 2 legged or 4 legged animals. We just need to use some common sense when we do it whether it is the 4 legged or 2 legged .

  • I suggest that you ask each cat if they want to be spayed or neutered too and get their explicit permission before doing so if you want to play this silly head-game.

    • Well, strictly speaking neutering is unethical (vis-a-vis the cat) but humans have created such a mess of cat domestication that we have to put aside ethics from the cat's standpoint and do it but there is no such pressure to give cats catnip. It is not a head game.

  • I'm just curious how the question of ethics came up with regard to giving cats catnip. Was it just a conversation starter? I'm happy to make my pets happy. It's such an easy way to do it. I've learned to give it to them individually though, as when they partake in close proximity to another cat, they get too excited and often lash out at each other. I don't think there's any thought to the process; I think that when cats get hyper-stimulated almost anything can happen, and they almost can't help it.

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