As all cat parents know, if you’re looking for a good laugh, just give your pet some catnip. From little house cats to the giants of the Savannah, cats all but lose their minds over this leafy green. But what is catnip, exactly? And what is it about this herb that drives cats so crazy?
A perennial herb from the mint family, catnip grows in the wild throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. You might hear it referred to as catmint, catnep, catswort, or field balm. Catnip is unfussy and easy to grow, making it popular with home gardeners. Catnip can make cats roll around, lick their pet parents, want to play, and zone out completely. Here’s the science behind our cats’ obsession with catnip and why you might want to treat your kitty to a bit of ‘nip.
Why Do Cats Like Catnip?
With even a small whiff of catnip, most cats begin to head shake and will rub on, lick, or eat the catnip followed by twitching, salivating and a whole lot of rolling around. This reaction is due to a chemical called nepetalactone, which is secreted from the oil in the leaves and stems of the plant. Nepetalactone acts as a pheromone to cats, and many felines find its smell irresistible.
Why do cats react to nepetalactone when it goes undetected by us humans? This unique feline sensitivity is because of the vomeronasal organ (or the Jacobson organ). Located on the roof of a cat’s mouth, this olfactory organ sends scent signals on a direct path to a cat’s brain.
The effects of catnip are brief: you can expect them to last for five to 15 minutes. After, they seem to recover their senses and develop a catnip immunity that lasts about an hour.
Does Catnip Make Cats High?
The short answer? Yes. “In humans, catnip can cause mild visual and auditory hallucinations, so it is possible it does the same in cats,” explains Angelica Dimock, DVM and managing shelter veterinarian with the Animal Humane Society. She says that catnip commonly acts as a stimulus for cats, and they become more active or playful. However, she also says that a less common reaction is sedation or aggression.
Research shows that exposure to nepetalactone activates a cat’s reward system, which contributes to feelings of bliss and relaxation. While this euphoric activity resembles a human marijuana buzz, it’s worth noting the distinction between the two. There’s no evidence that catnip and cannabis work the same way, and the herb’s effect on cats is safe and non-addictive.
Is Catnip Good For Cats?
Yes, it is! Catnip is a safe way to provide kitty enrichment and offers both behavioural and physical benefits to cats. When exposed through smell, this mood booster encourages active play, which keeps cats fit and mentally engaged. In addition, catnip has a more soothing effect when ingested, alleviating your cat’s anxiety and helping them relax. Nepetalactone even acts as a natural mosquito repellent for cats!
When is catnip bad for cats?
Catnip is mostly harmless—with occasional exceptions. Dr Dimock advises keeping catnip away from pregnant cats. “Catnip should not be used on pregnant cats since it can cross into the placenta and may affect the kittens.” She also recommends keeping catnip away from cats who experience seizures since catnip has been found to cause seizures in rats, and it’s possible cats could be similarly affected.
While there is no real consensus on how frequently to give catnip to a cat, Dr Dimock recommends keeping it to about once a week. “Using it more frequently may cause the cat to become desensitised to catnip,” she explains.
Can Kittens Have Catnip?
Catnip won’t hurt your kitten, but it won’t have much of an effect, either. Generally, kittens don’t respond to catnip until they reach about six months. So it’s a treat best saved until they can enjoy the experience fully.
Types of Catnip & Which One Is Best
Catnip comes in a few different forms, and some cats may express a preference for one over the other.
- Fresh herbs. Just like with any herb, fresh is best. It’s more potent than the dried variety—which means you can give your cat less of it. Catnip is easy to grow but invasive, so you might consider growing it in a pot or a planter with other favourites such as cat grass.
- Ground and dried. Dried catnip is also extremely effective, though the essential oils tend to lose their power over time. Look for tubs of quality catnip at pet stores, preferably containing just the leaves and flowers (not stems).
- Catnip toys. Whether your cat likes to chase, chew, nuzzle, or scratch, there’s a catnip toy for every style of play. Refillable plushies keep the fun going, and catnip-infused balls bring out your cat’s inner hunter.
- Catnip sprays. A few spritzes of catnip oil-infused spray on toys, beds, or scratchers can make them more appealing. It’s also a tidier option than sprinkling dried catnip everywhere.
Additionally, catnip is safe for them to eat. It elicits a calming effect, unlike the stimulating burst of energy cats experience when they smell the herb. Eating too much of anything can cause problems. Although they are unlikely to get sick, consuming too much catnip can cause them to have an upset stomach.
What If My Cat Doesn’t Like Catnip?
If your adult cat isn’t responding to it, no worries: less than 70% of adult cats respond to catnip. “Catnip is great for many cats—but not all cats respond to it,” says Rover’s resident cat behaviourist, Mikel Delgado. If they don’t respond, Delgado says there are other nasal treats pet parents can try, like silver vine and valerian root.
Can Dogs Have Catnip?
If you have cats and dogs, you might be wondering if catnip is safe for your dog too. Yes, catnip is safe for dogs. While some dogs don’t respond to catnip, for the dogs who do, the herb acts as a mild sedative and can help with anxiety, GI issues, and sleeping problems.
Catnip is one incredible herb. Not only is it just plain fun, but catnip can also be used as a tool for training. Just sprinkle a little on new scratching posts and kitty beds to attract your cat to them. You can also store special toys in a canister with dried catnip to infuse them with that amazing catnip smell. Enjoy all the batting, rolling, chasing, and rib-tickling kitty antics to follow!