Veterinarian-written / veterinarian-approved articles for your cat.

What Does Catnip Do to Cats? Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

Many cats love catnip and others don't respond to catnip at all.

Catnip is a rather remarkable plant. It produces a euphoric state in 2 out of 3 cats, is safe, non-addictive, has no harmful side-effects, and is relatively inexpensive.

Catnip: Wonder Plant

Here are some other interesting catnip facts:

  • Catnip is an herb that is a member of the mint family.
  • It grows in semi-arid regions.
  • Catnip is native to Europe, Africa, and the western parts of Asia.
  • It was brought to America by European settlers and used as a homeopathic remedy to treat headaches, hives, colds, nervousness, and fevers among other ailments.
  • Since its introduction to North America, catnip has naturalized and grows wild in the right climates.

Do All Cats Respond to Catnip?

Did you know that not all cats are affected by catnip? It's true! Here's more on that plus some other surprising catnip tidbits:

  • Young kittens show no interest in catnip.
  • About 1/3 of cats are not responsive to catnip. If your feline doesn't get frisky from catnip by the time he's around 6 months old, chances are he never will.
  • Catnip affects cats of all sizes, from tabbies to tigers.
  • Whether or not cats are susceptible to the effects of catnip is a genetic trait.
  • In humans, catnip has a calming rather than a stimulating effect. If your cat totally ignores his new bag of catnip, you can make a pot of catnip tea for yourself instead.

How Does Catnip Work in Cats?

Here is how catnip has its effect on cats:

  • The active ingredient in catnip is an oil called nepetalactone.
  • Cats sniff catnip and draw it into the Jacobson's organ (or vomeronasal organ), a chamber just above the roof of cats' mouths that sends information about odor molecules to the brain. The sensation this gland provides is a cross between tasting and smelling.
  • Cats may inhale, chew on, roll in, ingest, or cover their faces with catnip.
  • The effects of catnip last about 15 minutes.
  • If cats are exposed to catnip too frequently, they may become desensitized to it. About once a week is a good rule of thumb for dispensing catnip treats unless a situation comes up that calls for a therapeutic dose of catnip (see "Beneficial Uses of Catnip" below).

What are the Effects of Catnip on Cats?

Cats may react to catnip in one or many of the following manners:

  • Rolling around in it
  • Becoming very vocal
  • Drooling
  • Becoming very sluggish
  • Becoming aggressive

Beneficial Uses of Catnip

There are some times when catnip can have benefits beyond simply being fun. These benefits include:

  • Catnip may entice a cat to play.
    • Buy catnip toys or rub catnip on a toy.
    • Don't leave catnip toys out all the time or your cat will become numb to the effects.
    • Refresh old toys with a coat of fresh catnip. Catnip spray works great for this.
    • Some toys have built-in catnip compartments.
  • Catnip may induce a cat to use a scratching post.
    • Rub some catnip on the post.
    • Catnip comes in sprays that can be applied to scratching posts.
  • Catnip may help a shy cat feel bold enough to engage in interactive play.
    • Make or buy a hiding place for your shy cat.
    • From time to time, nonchalantly drag a catnip toy on a string near the hiding place.
    • Eventually, your kitty's curiosity should prevail, and he'll pounce and play.
    • Take it slowly; let your cat set the pace.
  • May release tension after a stressful episode.
    • After a trip to the vet clinic, break out the catnip to let your cat redirect anxiety or displaced aggression.

Even if there is no "special reason," you can always offer Monsieur Kitty a paper plate of "Catnip du Jour" for a fun after-dinner treat. How about a Sunday afternoon romp with a catnip-filled sock to make your older cat feel like a rambunctious kitten for a little while?

Catnip Tips

Here are some tips, tricks, and hacks for getting the most out of your cat's catnip experience.

  • For maximum strength, crush fresh catnip a bit between your thumb and other fingers before serving to release the volatile oil that brings on the magical effect.
  • Look for catnip that is not mostly stems. The essential nepetalactone oil is concentrated in the leaves and blossoms. Organic catnip is also available and may be safer. Non-organic catnip may contain pesticides or insecticides.
  • To maintain freshness, store catnip in a tightly sealed bag. Do not refrigerate.
  • Some cats become temporarily hostile when under the influence of catnip. The first time you give your cat catnip, give him a great deal of space to see how he reacts.
    • If your cat becomes aggressive with catnip, give him some distance when he has his catnip treat.
    • In a multi-cat household, if any cats get testy when under the influence of catnip, serve that cat in an area that is separated from the other cats, especially if there are already any rivalries among the housemates.

Alternatives to Catnip

Should you find that your cat is one of the few that becomes antagonistic or hostile when under the influence of catnip or is not affected by it at all, there are a couple of alternatives to try; honeysuckle and valerian.

  • There are almost 200 varieties of honeysuckle and one of them, tartarian honeysuckle, seems to have a similar effect upon cats as catnip.
  • Not all cats will respond to honeysuckle, but many cats that do not respond to catnip will indeed respond to honeysuckle.
  • To ensure the health of your pet, only buy honeysuckle sprays and cat toys from trusted sources in order to ensure that the proper species of honeysuckle is used in the manufacture of the product.

You May Also Like These Articles:

How to Keep Playtime Fun for Your Cat

Honeysuckle: An Alternative to Catnip

How to Play With Your Cat- Part One

How to Play With Your Cat- Part Two

Interactive Playing with Wand Toys

Cat Aggression Overview

Play Aggression in Cats

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