The mint genus is a broad category of plants that contains multiple species cats will react to in different ways. If you’re confused about the difference between catnip and catmint, or between catmint and wild mint, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll start by putting your mind at ease, just in case you found this article by searching its headline in a panic: mint poisoning in cats is not a common occurrence. While it’s true that many members of the mint genus are toxic to cats, they’re often only poisonous in huge volumes.
If your cat just ate some wild mint out of your backyard or window herb garden, take a deep breath. They’ll be fine, and if they do start vomiting or showing signs of weakness, they can be treated for mint poisoning at the vet.
Now that we’ve established your cat won’t die, let’s learn a little more about mint and its complicated relationship to your fuzzy pal.
Mentha is the scientific name for mint plants, part of the family Lamiaceae, or sages. They’re recognizable by their square stems, long leaves, and distinctive smell — not to mention the cool, fresh feeling you get from chewing them, caused by the chemical menthol.
The most common variety is mentha spicata, or garden mint, which is also known as spearmint, common mint, lamb mint, or garden mint. It’s a wild herb, frequently found running wild in gardens from Ireland all the way east to China. Our American readers are likely to have seen mentha canadensis, or American wild mint, growing in low, rocky terrain near water.
Mentha spicata is cultivated as an herb and used in cooking and flavoring. The other most important type of mint we’ll be talking about isn’t actually a mint at all, but a fellow member of the sage family. It’s nepeta cataria, common name catmint or catnip.
Catnip is used to attract cats to play with toys. It’s also thought of as a kind of kitty drug, since it induces certain moods: it mellows and relaxes adult cats when fresh, and stimulates energy when dried. Another common name, “catmint,” is responsible for a lot of the confusion regarding cats and mint.
Plants with a strong scent or flavor contain essential oils, which are just highly concentrated forms of that flavor. Mint plants contain essential oils that are toxic for cats in their undiluted form. That’s what will make your cat sick if they eat too much mint.
It’s not that mint essential oils are especially poisonous to cats, so much as that anything that concentrated will make them sick (for example, we wouldn’t recommend letting them eat vanilla extract). On their own, cats just tend to nibble mint leaves, which won’t deliver anywhere near a toxic dose.
That being said, if your kitty is throwing up and you suspect the mint patch in your garden might be the cause, here are a few symptoms to look for:
If your cat displays any of these for more than an hour, head to the vet.
Treating Mint Poisoning
If you take your cat to the vet with a case of suspected mint poisoning, they’ll start by observing your pet and evaluating how bad the symptoms really are. If they diagnose an extreme case, they’ll induce vomiting in your cat, or pump its stomach if necessary.
Your cat might need to be hospitalized in order to keep it hydrated. Don’t worry: once the symptoms subside, your kitty will be just fine.
The Strange Case of Catnip
So far, so good — don’t let your cats lap concentrated peppermint extract, or wolf down garden mint for hours unsupervised, and they’ll be fine.
Catnip/catmint is the confusing part.
“Mint” is in the name, so many people assume it must be in the mint genus, and therefore poisonous. But as we’ve seen, catmint isn’t actually a mint at all, but a different part of the sage family. That means it must be fine, right?
Not necessarily. A quick look at the ASPCA’s toxic plants database reveals that they consider catnip/catmint to be potentially harmful to cats. In their words: “Many cats love catnip, but it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. It makes some cats sedated and others stimulated.”
Cats react to catnip in different ways. Much like how some humans metabolize stimulants so quickly that they don’t experience any effects, there are some cats who don’t get any buzz from catnip at all. Some cats love to roll around and paw at catnip, but for different lengths of time. And some, when they ingest far too much, will experience symptoms similar to mint poisoning.
What does this mean for you as a cat owner? Catnip is harmless for almost every cat, but you should still pay it the respect due to any toxic substance. Don’t keep catnip leaves out for your cat to eat, but introduce catnip to them using safe toys instead. Toys will never contain enough catnip to produce a toxic reaction in your cat.
Keep in mind that lethargy or being “stoned” is one common effect of catnip, and is easy to confuse with mint-poisoning weakness. Know how your cat reacts to small amounts of catnip. If it usually makes them hyper, but this time they’re suddenly chill, that might be cause for alarm.
Other Plants to Know
Catnip isn’t the only plant that might induce your cat to frisk, enjoy itself, or mellow out. If your cat is one of the 25 percent or so that don’t respond to catnip at all, try valerian, silver vine, or Tatarian honeysuckle wood.
The best thing you can do to keep your cat safe from mint poisoning is to learn to recognize mint plants, and chart out where your cat might encounter any.
The second-best is to memorize the scientific name for catnip (nepeta cataria). If you want to get any for your cat, instead of just getting toys that come pre-filled (the safest option), make sure to only buy catnip with nepeta cataria on the label. You just can’t trust that everybody will understand the difference between garden mint and catmint.