How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

Cat Care

If you have a cat you’ve probably heard about catnip. After all, this is a plant that literally has the word “cat” written all over it.

Searching TheCatSite for this word brings up hundreds of threads – that’s how we found some of the awesome photos in this article! – and we even have quite a few members with the word as part of their username! But why do cats love it so much? How does catnip affect cats and why? Is it safe for them? Let’s explore these questions and see if you should offer your cat the green stuff and how.

What Is Catnip?

Sometimes referred to as catmint, field balm, and even catswort, catnip is a type of plant named Nepeta cataria. It belongs to the Lamiaceae family and the Nepata genus. If left to fully grow, catnip can develop small white or pink flowers with purple details. Otherwise, catnip has dark leaves that are rough in texture and tend to look green or brown. The plant is most often found in China, central Asia, the Middle East, and eastern and southern Europe. It may also be grown in North America, New Zealand, and northern Europe.

What are the uses of catnip for humans?

Catnip can be used by humans in many ways. In the past it was favored medicinally, although that’s not nearly as common in today’s advanced medical landscape. Instead, some people smoke it as a kind of herbal cigarette to calm themselves down. Others use the plant to garnish dishes with its herbal taste or make it into tea.
Catnip leaves and flowers

The nepetalactone within catnip will keep flies and mosquitoes at bay, according to some people. Ironically, it’s this nepetalactone that cats love so much (we’ll talk more about this shortly). When distilled in steam, catnip oil can be used to ward off termites and cockroaches. Catnip fans claim that it’s even better at combatting mosquitoes than diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET. Also, catnip oil contains iridodial, which invites mite-eating lacewings. Butterflies also like the compounds of catnip.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

The receptors within the cat’s olfactory epithelium (inner part of the nose) are activated by the presence of nepetalactone. Once this happens, the cat may get eager to chew or lick the catnip. They may also swipe it or nuzzle it, and your cat may even lie down and roll over several times as well. It’s worth noting that cats probably don’t sense the smell of catnip through the vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ, which is located near the nasal bones and vomer.

It generally takes a minute or two for the effects of catnip to kick in. With some cats it can take up to 15 minutes. During this time, your cat will purr and be content, often getting tired and drooling, too. If they’re not immediately sleepy after sniffing or ingesting the catnip, they may jump around a little bit before tiring themselves out.

Cat enjoying fresh catnip

Do be aware that some cats aren’t always so benevolent when they smell catnip. Catnip heightens anxiety in some felines, so your four-legged friend may seem more nervous than lovable during these moments. They may also bite or scratch you if you offer them catnip by hand. For that reason, it’s always best to place catnip on the floor or a toy and keep your hands away for the duration of the session.

To put it in the form of a list, here are possible “symptoms” cats exhibit when under the influence of catnip –

  • Purring
  • Dilated pupils
  • Drooling
  • Behaviors such as rolling in the catnip
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Aggression

Here’s a video that one of our members shared. It shows her 11 cats enjoying a “catnip party” together –

Does Catnip Affect All Cats?

For all those insects that love catnip so much, no other creature loves it more than cats. This includes many species of cats, among them tigers, lions, lynxes, servals, cougars, and leopards as well as our domestic cats.

Not every domestic house cat goes nuts for catnip either. A study from BMC Veterinary Research estimated that 33 percent of felines don’t care for catnip. Why? Another study published in a Canadian veterinary journal answers that question. It cites research from 1962, in which 26 Siamese breeding cats in a colony were given catnip to see how or if they’d respond. The conclusion was that some cats have a gene that makes them react to catnip. According to that study, a specific dominant gene dictates whether a cat goes crazy for catnip. That means that if one of the cat’s parents enjoyed catnip, so will the offspring.

More recent research from 2011 suggests there may be several genes at play. Both studies do agree that hereditary background will play a role in whether cats care for catnip. If you can trace your cat’s lineage and find that their parents didn’t like catnip, then chances are your cat won’t either.

This also goes for Tartarian honeysuckle wood (Lonicera tatarica), silver vine (Actinidia polygama), and valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), all of which have similar properties to catnip.

Why Does Catnip Not Affect Kittens?

If you have a kitten, you might have thought it would be fun to treat him or her to some catnip. This will be the little furball’s first time enjoying the treat, so you’re excited. You make a big spectacle of introducing the catnip to your kitty. Alas, no response… You try and try to get them interested, but it just doesn’t happen. Why not? Is this because of hereditary factors like those mentioned above? Is this something you should be concerned about?

Before you panic and prematurely schedule a vet appointment, you should know that most kittens don’t really get too enthused about catnip in their infancy. Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behavioral expert, says that if your kitten is three months of age or younger, they may be uninterested and even disgusted by catnip. They’re too young to have any sort of reaction, and you’ll have to wait until they’re at least six months old and then try again.

Kittens aren’t the only ones who don’t necessarily respond to catnip or seem to have only a passing interest. The older your cat gets, the more their desire to have catnip wanes. Also, cats of any age can become gradually less affected by catnip if you give it to them all the time. Johnson-Bennett recommends limiting exposure to a single time each week and no more than that.

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

When you give your kitty catnip, you’re simply exposing them to ground-down parts of the Nepata cataria plant, such as the stems or leaves (the flowers, as pretty as they are, are not often used in producing commercial catnip for cats). In moderate use, catnip is totally safe for your cat to have. Even if they happen to nibble and swallow some leaves, it shouldn’t have any ill effect on them.

You should be aware that kitty catnip overdoses are a possibility, though. These certainly don’t happen often, but they can. Now, when a cat overdoses on this particular substance it can be scary for humans, but not so much for our feline friends.

An overdose in cat terms is just when they ingest too much catnip to the point of it leading to diarrhea and/or vomiting. It will not kill them. Pennsylvania veterinarian Dr. Shelby Neely says that cats are unlikely to overdose on catnip because they seem to sense when they have had enough.

This may not be true of all cats, though. Some felines will take as much catnip as you’re willing to give them. The best way to avoid a catnip overdose then is to limit the quantities of the catnip you offer. If you do happen to accidentally give your cat too much catnip, there’s no need to panic. Most cats who have diarrhea and/or vomiting from a catnip overdose will tend to recover just fine at home with a little rest and relaxation. However, when in doubt, call your veterinarian. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

How to Add Catnip to Your Cat’s Life

If your cat is at least six months old, then you can and should make catnip a weekly part of their life. Not only does it help the two of you bond, but some experts even use it as a means of controlling behavior. Pam Johnson-Bennett, for instance, suggests adding catnip if you are having many people over to your home and your cat is generally fearful of new guests. The plant will calm them down and prevent anxiety.

You can also use catnip to engage your cat in play, which is helpful if they’re not especially playful any other time. If your cat isn’t taking to a new scratching post, bed, or other accessory, applying catnip to the item will attract their interest.

Catnip used to draw a cat's attention to scratcher

Keep in mind that catnip affects cats in many ways. Some cats can become anxious and even aggressive when stimulated by catnip so don’t use it when introducing a new pet or any other situation where your cat may already be stressed.

If you’re interested in adding catnip to your cat’s life, you have several ways in which you can do so. You might prefer to grow catnip, use dried catnip pieces, or put catnip in a toy.

Fresh Catnip

If you want to grow your own catnip, you absolutely can. Many gardeners favor catnip because of the wealth of insects it brings in. It’s also used for decorative purposes in the garden. Even better is that the catnip plant does not need tons of watering, and it will survive even in drought conditions. It does thrive best when it gets plenty of sun, though.

To start your catnip garden, use fertile soil (or add nutrients to the soil as needed). Then, plant your seeds with a distance of at least 18 inches between them, 24 inches if you can. Be sure you prune the flower buds and stems as they appear. This will allow the catnip to grow to its full potential. Another handy tip for letting the catnip thrive? Keep it away from your kitty until you’re happy with your catnip harvest.

If you are concerned about outdoor cats getting to the catnip before you can cut it and bring it inside, you might want to try erecting a loose chicken-wire fence around the perimeter of your garden. This will deter most cats from getting at the plant, unless your feline is a big jumper.

Dry Catnip

If you’d rather not give your cat a direct catnip plant to gnaw on and play with, that’s understandable. Many cat owners prefer catnip in its dried form. This is still the plant you’re used to, and as long as you stick with organic catnip there are no other added ingredients. Unlike our fruit, vegetables and herbs, catnip isn’t subject to inspections so the non-organic versions may be sprayed too liberally with pesticide. If you use catnip for your cat often, it’s probably better to get a reputable brand of organic catnip.

If you want to dry catnip, you have two options. You can either grow your own per the instructions above or you can buy fresh catnip. Once you have some, cut a healthy-looking sprig of the stuff. Avoid trimming as many leaves as you can so the plant may grow even more once de-rooted. Next, grab a few squares of paper towel and place your catnip there. Bend each paper towel corner to create a small barrier around the catnip. All you have to do now is set your microwave and let it warm up over two minutes.

Don’t be surprised if your cats start going nuts, as the smell of catnip will spread around the house. You can use an air freshener if your cats are getting too excited. Otherwise, wait about 30 minutes for the smell to dissipate. For added freshness, store the unused catnip in a jar. You then have dried catnip ready to give to your kitties anytime you want to.

Catnip Spray

Several companies offer catnip spray from steam-distilled concentrated catnip oil. If you prefer not to mess around with tiny leaves this can be a good option. Keep in mind that the spray is concentrated and don’t spray too much. Start with one or two squeezes and check your cat’s reaction before applying more.

Catnip Toys

Whether you prefer to grow your own catnip or buy it from a store, one way to really give your cat some exercise is to place catnip inside a toy. Now, you have a few options for this. You can either buy a toy or use a preexisting favorite. Some toys will come with a vial of catnip you can slip inside. Alternately, you can also rub catnip all over the toy.

Now toss the toy into an open room and watch as your cat goes bonkers. For the next 10 minutes or so, you can enjoy as your cat sniffs, chases, pounces, tosses, and chews on the toy. Of course, the catnip sensation will eventually wear off and your kitty will get sleepy and probably take a nap. Until then, congratulations! You helped your cat become more active!

According to a survey we had, more than 25% of cats prefer catnip toys over any other type of toy! If you’ve never tried one, you should. It’s an affordable and safe way for your cat to enjoy catnip.


What kinds of toys can you add catnip to?

All sorts! You might choose a small plush stuffed animal, a dangling toy the cat can chase, or even a hard plastic or rubber toy. No matter what your cat enjoys playing with, after you add a little catnip, they will be rip-roarin’ to go!

Here are a few popular choices from Amazon –

Don’t forget to let us know if your cats like catnip! Leave us a comment and describe how catnip affects your kitties and share your tips for introducing more of it into the lives of our precious felines.

Related articles that might interest you –
Beating Boredom – What Indoor Cat Owners Need To Know
7 Proven Ways To Get Your Cat To Be More Active
Choosing The Right Cat Toy For Your Kitten

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