What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

You may find your cats suddenly rolling around or even salivating at some point, which might mean they may have sniffed a catnip treat. So what is catnip? Why does it give a distinct sensation to cats whenever they come in contact with it? Is catnip safe for your cat? Is it addictive?

Catnip is a short-lived perennial herb, which is relative of the mint family. Its scientific name, Nepeta cataria, was derived from the Etruscan city of Neptic, where it is widely grown.

It is also known as the “true catnip.” It is commonly named as “catswort” or “catmint”, stemming from the fact that big or small felines fall head over heels for it.

Catnip plants and cat

Catnip is native to Europe, Asia, and parts of China. It looks like the typical mint family, with a square stem and triangular to elliptical coarse-toothed leaves. It usually blooms from May to September, and their flowers are typically white with pale purple spots.

cat relaxing with fresh catnip

How Does It Work?

This herb was known to be used by humans in the early days for its medicinal properties. It was usually served as teas, or extracts were used in wounds and scabs. Though it is not as popular now for humans, it is highly talked about in the cat world.

This herb contains different essential oils that make it extremely potent such as thymol, valeric acid, monoterpene, among others. The most important thing to cats is nepetalactone, which is found in the stems and leaves of the catnip plant. Just one tear from a leaf releases a small amount of nepetalactone that attracts cats, even from a distance.

Nepetalactone is a volatile oil that manifests a certain behavior in cats. When this essential oil is exposed to cats, it enters their noses and stimulates sensory neurons. In turn, these neurons project the stimuli to the amygdala and the hypothalamus regions of the cat’s brain. This region plays a role in the regulation of a cat’s emotions, hunger, and sex drive.

As the amygdala gives instructions for the behavioral effects in cats, the hypothalamus releases a response through the pituitary gland, creating a behavior that mimics a “sexual response.” Catnip essentially acts as an artificial cat pheromone. Catnip does not have the same effect on humans.

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Effects in Cats

The effects may differ between cats. There are noted stretching and euphoric responses observed from cats. These responses have been categorized into four components, published by the Journal of Heredity:

  • Sniffing
  • Licking, chewing, and head shaking
  • Chin and cheek rubbing
  • Head-over roll, and body rubbing

Are you familiar with any of these responses? These might be normal for some cats, but there are other cats which respond at the other end of the spectrum. Some cats respond so strongly to catnip, they become aggressive or overly active. They could go and do crazy antics while on their high.

Surprisingly, the effect of catnip is not applicable to all cats. It has been reported that an estimated 30% of cats worldwide are not affected by it in the slightest. This is mainly due to genetic,s where at least one of the parents must carry the gene responsible for the behavior.

Another thing is kittens are not affected until they reach sexual maturity. The effect of catnip is not only on domestic cats; big animals like lions and tigers are susceptible to nepetalactone as well.

The nepetalactone effect in cats only lasts  10 minutes on average. After that, catnip won’t be effective for the next hour or so. You may also observe that as your cat gets older, it loses interest in catnip.

Catnip flowers

Through the Mouth or Nose?

The effect of catnip differs whether it is ingested or sniffed. The symptoms mentioned above are typical signs of catnip when inhaled in either dried or fresh form. When it is eaten, however, it will make your cats relaxed and calm.

Sniffing will have the greatest impact on a cat. The after-thought of eating comes from the association of the aroma together with the high sensation.

Is It Safe for Cats?

You won’t have to worry about your cats getting addicted to catnip. This herb is completely harmless and non-addictive.

There are also no bad side-effects of everyday exposure of catnip to your feline. However, you should be aware that the effects can wear out faster if you offer them catnip often. It would be a good idea to use it as a treat around once a week.

It is safe to eat as well, as there are no known toxins in the plant. As they say, too much is never good. An excessive amount of catnip may result in small bouts of diarrhea or vomiting in some cats. The vomiting is usually an effect after swallowing a medicine, then eating an excessive amount of catnip right after.

If you observe overstimulation in your cats, it would be best to stop offering catnip to them. This can also be applied to cats who have sensitive stomachs.

Usage Of Catnips as Toys and Training Aids

Since cats respond to this herb, catnip toys are usually used as a training aid to remove bad habits. They can be a good tool to prevent scratching around the house. You may scent bedding to lure them and avoid scratching your favorite wooden chair. Spraying catnip on their scratching posts will also increase your cats’ interest in them.

Some toys already have catnip embedded in them to serve as a form of entertainment for cats. A lot of catnip toys are available at different pet shops, such as catnip balls or catnip wands. You can even make them yourself. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a few guides on making catnip toys.

Forms of Catnips

  • Live Catnip Plants – they are fairly easy to grow: all they need is full sunlight, and light, sandy soil. You can plant them in your garden, and have your cats enjoy the outdoors. You can buy catnip plant kits from many pet stores.
  • Catnip Flakes – also called dried catnip, these are the classic form that most people know. You can use these on almost anything, like making catnip packets or sprinkling them on pillows. However, these do not generally last longer, and you have to store them properly to increase their potency. Keep unused dried flakes in airtight containers or store them inside the freezer.
  • Compressed Catnip – these come in the form of balls or full cylinders. They can be a good option if you don’t want catnip to be flying around the house. They can become a toy as well, and last for about a week.
  • Catnip Sprays – the easiest form to dissipate would be spray form. They may double as insect repellents for humans as well by spraying on your clothes, not directly to the skin.
  • Catnip Oils – this is one of the most concentrated forms, and should be used sparingly. They have the longest shelf life among all other forms. Keep them tightly sealed and away from direct sunlight. These should never be used ON your cats and should be diluted before using them on your cats’ toys.
  • Catnip Bubbles – yes, apparently catnip is also sold in the form of bubbles, much like bubble maker toys for children. You can start the fun by blowing the bubbles away while your cats do the sniffing and popping.

Whatever catnip form you give them, your cats will definitely enjoy it. It can also be a good way of exercising your cat by increasing its playfulness, as well as inducing relaxation and relieving stress. It’s all in good, clean fun.

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