Catnip and Cats: Effects of Catnip, Catnip Spray, Toys, and More

Catnip and Cats: Effects of Catnip, Catnip Spray, Toys, and More

Most cat owners have given their feline friends a sniff or taste of catnip and watched as they enjoyed it—eating, smelling, rolling around in it, or simply lounging in a relaxed state—but what exactly is catnip and why do cats seem to go crazy for it?

So, what is catnip?

Catnip is a plant—known scientifically as Nepeta cataria—that is a member of the mint family. The active ingredient is nepetalactone, to which many domestic cats react in a variety of ways. (Fun fact: It also affects big cats like lions and tigers.) This chemical (nepetalactone) is produced by the plant in microscopic bulbs that coat its leaves, stems, and seedpods. When these delicate bulbs rupture, they release nepetalactone into the air, which is why cats chew on the plant to get more nepetalactone. While it was originally native to Europe and Asia, it now grows wild along roads and highways across the country. Catnip can be identified as a grayish-green plant with jagged heart-shaped leaves and thick stems covered in fuzzy hairs.

How does it affect our cats?

Nepetalactone, according to many experts, causes the reaction and serves as a feline attractant. When your cat smells catnip, it may start rubbing, kicking, chewing, and rolling in it to help release the oil trapped in the plant's leaves. When it enters a cat's nose, it binds to receptors on sensory neurons lining the nasal cavity, causing different areas of the brain that control emotion and behavior to be activated. Catnip's effects are usually only temporary, lasting 10 to 15 minutes. The amount of catnip you give your cat and how you give it to her will produce different results: the more your cat eats or inhales it, the stronger the effect.

Sniffing, licking, eating, rolling, and rubbing their cheeks on catnip is a common reaction. Stretching, drooling, jumping, and hyperactivity are some other responses, while others may become mellow. Even if your cat exhibits these behaviors, the response is mediated by the olfactory system. When your cat has had enough, they will walk away. For at least a couple of hours, a cat may not respond to catnip again. It's important to note that not all cats react to catnip; this response is inherited. According to the American Chemical Society, one in every three cats does not inherit sensitivity to nepetalactone, and kittens do not develop the ability to respond to catnip until they are three to six months old.

How to Use It at Home:

Catnip is commonly used to entice cats to play and explore, but it can also be used as a training aid. Place a small amount of catnip on your cat's scratching post or in their carrier to encourage them to enter, creating a positive association. Catnip can be used to help reduce stress in veterinary clinics, shelters, and foster homes, as well as in a cat's own home. 

Catnip is not poisonous to cats. Although it is uncommon, overindulgence can result in vomiting or diarrhea, so you should limit your cat's exposure if she is overly interested. Rotate your cat's toys to keep them happy and interested: offer some toys as they become available and hide the rest in a ziplock bag or jar marinated in catnip. This keeps the toys fresh and exciting. Catnip toys and dried catnip can be found in most pet stores or in our store; dried catnip does not contain as much nepetalactone oil as fresh catnip, so it smells stronger but is still appealing to cats.

An even better idea is to grow your own catnip. It's simple to grow and can be found in the herb section of most nurseries. They prefer sandy soil and full sun and should be planted in early spring. You can keep catnip fresh by freezing it in an airtight container.