What is Catnip and How Does it Work?

Many cat owners have heard of catnip, but do you know how it works, or why your cat loves it? Have a read here as we take a closer look at catnip, what it is, and how you can use it with your feline friend.

What is Catnip?

Catnip is a perennial herb of the mint family with over 250 species in existence. While some cats seem uninterested in catnip, many cats are very affected by it! Common Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and Catmint (Nepeta mussinii) are the most readily available varieties, with Common Catnip being the one cats seem to enjoy the most. While catnip species contain multiple aromatic oils, the active organic compound that is responsible for the effects we see on cats is called nepetalactone.

Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

Cats inhale the aromatic oils of catnip, where they come into contact with special receptors in the cat’s nose. These receptors are linked to the brain and affect the cat’s behaviour. Cats will commonly sniff, rub, lick and chew catnip, which releases more of the volatile oil and the active mood-modifying compound nepetalactone. Signs can vary between cats, but frequently catnip induces a state of euphoria or calm. Some of the most common effects on cats are the following:

  • 10-30% of cats show no effect when exposed to catnip
  • Very young kittens and senior cats show little no effect, and may even avoid it
  • Some cats appear “intoxicated” or “in ecstasy” and may drool or roll around on the floor. It is believed that this is a similar reaction these cats have when they are exposed to the “feel good” pheromones released during sexual courtship or activity
  • Some cats become hyperactive with excessive vocalisation, chasing, and hunting behaviours
  • Some cats may display signs of aggression

Cats are usually affected by catnip for 5-10 minutes. The effects then wear off, and are not repeatable for at least 1-2 hours.

How to Best Use Catnip?

If catnip has a positive effect on your cat, you can use it as a training aid or an occasional treat. Some suggested uses for catnip are the following:

  • Rub catnip into your cat’s scratching post to encourage use
  • Place catnip in toys to promote active play and exercise
  • Sprinkle catnip in a new environment to encourage shy cats to be comfortable and help cat-to-cat introductions go smoothly
  • Use catnip in the carrier or crate to reduce anxiety and create a sedative state during car trips

Importantly, cats cannot overdose on catnip. They seem to limit themselves and will refuse any further offers or leave the placed catnip after a while. It is not harmful or addictive for your cat. It is possible that overuse may lead to a decreased response in the future, and is best used occasionally.

Where Can I Buy or Grow Catnip?

You can purchase dried catnip from pet shops, as well as cat toys that already have catnip within them. Catnip may also be available in a spray form.

Catnip is easy to grow and readily available for purchase from most nurseries in the herb section. It is available as seedling plants or in seed form, as is best planted in early spring. The plants grow quite large, and prefer sandy soil and full sun.

Are There Other Plants that Act Like Catnip?

A recent study has demonstrated three other plants that have effects on cats similar to catnip, Silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), and Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). None of these plants contain nepetalactone, but they do contain similar compounds.

The effects of these three plants were observed on 100 cats. Plant matter was rubbed on a sock or piece of carpet and offered to the cats. 79% responded positively to silver vine. About half of the cats responded positively to Tatarian honeysuckle and valerian root. Of the cats that did not respond to catnip, nearly 75% responded to silver vine. This research has opened the door for alternatives to catnip for those cats who are unaffected by it.