What Does Catnip Do to Cats?

You may find your cats suddenly rolling around or even salivating at some point and it might mean they may have sniffed their catnip treat. But what are catnips? Why do they give a distinct sensation to cats whenever they come in contact with them? Are they safe for your cat? Are they addictive?

Catnip is a short-lived perennial herb which is part of the flowering plants of the mint family. Its scientific name Nepeta cataria was derived from the Etruruan 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 over it.

Catnip plants and cat

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

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 the extracts were used in wounds or scabs. Though it is not so much as popular now in humans, it is highly talked about in the cat world.

This herb contains different essential oils that make it very potent such as thymol, valeric acid, monoterpene, and many others. But the most important thing for cats is the nepetalactone. It is found in the stem and leaves of the catnip plant. Just one tear from a leaf and it will release a small amount of nepetalactone that eventually attracts the 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. These neurons in turn project the stimuli to the amygdala and the hypothalamus regions of the cat’s brain. This region plays a role in the regulation of emotions, hunger, and sex drive.

As the amygdala gives the instructions on the behavioral effects in cats, the hypothalamus part releases responses through the pituitary gland creating a “sexual response.” It essentially acts as an artificial cat pheromone.


Effects in Cats

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

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

Familiar with any of these? As these might be normal for some, there are other cats which are at the other end of the spectrum. Some cats do respond strongly to it that 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 catnips. This is mainly due to genetics where it should be at least one of the parents must carry the gene responsible for the behavior.

Another thing is that kittens that are 6- 8 weeks old are not affected until they reach sexual maturity. The effect of catnip is not only in domestic cats; big animals like lions and tigers are susceptible to nepetalactone as well.

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

Catnip flowers

Through the Mouth or Nose?

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

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

Is It Safe for Cats?

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

There are also no bad side-effects to everyday exposure of catnips to your feline. But you should be aware that the effects can wear out faster if you offer them often. It would be a good idea to give this as a treat about once a week.

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

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

Catnips as Toys and Training Aids

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

Some catnips are already embedded in toys 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 may even make them yourself. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has guides in making catnip toys.

Forms of Catnips

  • Live Catnip Plants – they are fairly easy to grow, need full sunlight, and a light sandy soil. You can plant or place 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 catnips, 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. These, though, do not generally last longer and you have to store them properly to increase their potency life. Keep unused dried flakes in airtight containers or store them inside the freezer.
  • Compressed Catnips – 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 become a toy as well and last for about a week.
  • Catnip Sprays – the easiest form to dissipate would be the ones in spray forms. They may double as insect repellants for you too by spraying on your clothes and not directly to the skin.
  • Catnip Oils – these are 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 have to be diluted before using them on your cats.
  • Catnip Bubbles – yes, apparently catnips are also sold in the form of bubbles much like the 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, cats will definitely enjoy. It can also be a good way of exercising your cat by increasing its playfulness. You may even induce relaxation and relieve its stress. It’s all in good, clean fun.


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