What’s the Deal with Catnip?


By Tricia Roberts

It’s no secret that cats love catnip. Leaves or oil from the mint-related plant (scientifically named nepeta cataria) usually gives a hallucinogenic or euphoric reaction to cats. But not all cats are affected, and the euphoric state doesn’t last long.

Cats like catnip for two reasons. Smelling the herb stimulates their senses while eating it calms them down. When cats get a good whiff of catnip, they’ll often respond by rolling around, flipping over, or rubbing on everything. Sometimes they’ll even make odd noises and get bursts of energy that send them running from room to room. When cats eat the herb, they’ll experience a calming effect as catnip causes fatigue and works as a sedative. Both smelling and eating catnip is safe and non-addictive for your cat, but ingesting too much can cause a tummy ache.

Not all cats, though, react to catnip. Interestingly, the ability to react to the plant is known to be genetic. Mother cats with a positive response to it are more likely to pass that response on to their kittens. It is said that about 30% of cats don’t have the inherited trait, and kittens won’t begin to show a response until they’re about 6 months old. Additionally, as a cat gets older, he or she may lose interest in the herb.

For those cats that do show reactions to catnip, the effect seems to last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, and then most cats choose to nap. After napping for a couple of hours, the interest may appear again.

Catnip may cause male cats to become aggressive. This is because of the herb’s connection to mating behavior. If catnip makes your cat appear aggressive, you should consider alternatives like honey-suckle or valerian.

For indoor cats that show a positive, euphoric response, catnip is safe and can be a valuable tool for environmental enrichment, especially for shelter cats or strictly indoor cats. Catnip is a great way to encourage cats to exercise. It can also be used during training to get your cat to use a scratching post rather than furniture and sleep in his or her own bed. Also, watching the effects it has on your cat can be very entertaining for you.

Catnip comes in a variety of forms. Some toys come pre-scented or filled with the herb, but you can also buy powdered catnip to sprinkle on the ground or on toys. Additionally, you can find catnip oil or spray which you can use on bedding. A little catnip goes a long way, so you won’t need much.