What does catnip do to cats that makes them so excited? And why do some have huge reactions and why do others seem to not notice it at all?
It’s all down to how their brains react to the smell of it!
Some cats will get a huge pleasurable response when they give it a sniff, but others won’t feel that impact at all.
What does catnip do to cats brains?
Catnip plants contains a volatile oil called nepetalactone.
Volatile in this context simply means that nepetalactone evaporates quickly into the air, especially when the leaves and stems of the plant are broken or bruised.
When your cat takes a good sniff of the leaves in their toy, it causes two areas of their brain to become very active. The amygdala and the hypothalamus.
These areas of the brain control emotions and basic responses like hunger, so activating them makes your cat suddenly very interested in the world around them.
But this excitement does not last long.
After a few minutes their brains will ‘switch off’ to it again, and they won’t react in this funny way again for at least an hour or so.
What does catnip do to cats behavior?
Catnip triggers a powerful pleasurable response in cats that is instantly recognizable.
When a catnip-loving kitty encounters catnip they will react by sniffing, licking and chewing at it.
And by shaking their head and rubbing their chin and cheek against it, and rolling about.
Some cats also purr, drool, leap about, or become aggressively playful.
This burst of energy is frequently followed by a longer drowsy period.
Does catnip affect all cats?
Not all cats are susceptible to the charms of catnip. Around 25% of cats do not show any reaction to it at all.
Fondness for catnip is a hereditary trait.
A kitten can inherit this from either its mother, its dad, or both parents. It is not related to breed.
If you bring a new kitten home, you won’t find out whether or not they’re a sucker for catnip until they’re about three months old.
Do cats eat catnip?
If your cat is a catnip fan, you may have witnessed them chewing on the plant as well as sniffing it, rubbing against it and rolling in it.
It’s unlikely they are actually eating it however. They are probably just trying to break and bruise the leaves and stems to release the nepetalactone.
Even if they do seem to be eating it, they are unlikely to come to any harm by doing so. Most cats seem to know their limits, and will lose interest once those limits are reached.
Is catnip good for cats?
For most cats, catnip is harmless, non-toxic and non-addictive, and they can’t overdose on it.
There’s nothing about it which is inherently beneficial to cats. But since it’s a safe way to have fun, we can use it in ways which are good for our pets.
We can divert their attention in stressful situations, or help to keep them distracted from bad habits.
Using catnip to distract your pet from unwanted behavior
If your cat seems to have mistaken your stylish new sofa for their perfect new scratching post, spray their usual scratching post with catnip oil to lure them back.
And if you’re keep catnip for fun only, bear in mind that the strength of your pet’s reaction to it will gradually decrease with exposure.
Consider keeping catnip toys in an airtight container and only bringing them out once a week or so.
When not to use catnip
There are a couple of occasions when it’s not a good idea to use catnip.
The first of these is if your cat has a history of seizures – some studies are beginning to show that catnip could increase the risk of seizures in cats already susceptible to them.
And the second is if your cat is pregnant.
Catnip is a uterine stimulant, meaning it will cause the walls of the uterus to contract, bringing a risk of inducing early labor.
Catnip oil and catnip spray
Catnip oil and catnip stray are also widely available.
Be aware though, that the essential oil of the catnip plant contains 70-99% nephetalactone.
So only high quality oils and pure essential oils will have the same affect on your pet as the fresh or dried leaves of the plant itself.
Toys treated with catnip oil will also lose their magic sooner than toys containing fresh or dried catnip, because the oil will evaporate faster.
Growing your own catnip plant
If your cat loves catnip, then it makes sense to grow your own catnip plant, right?
The good news is, if you’re green fingered (and even if you’re not), it’s very easy to grow your own catnip.
Catnip plants grow readily in any sunny spot.
They require little care or attention once they are established. Though you may need to protect them from your cat until they are big enough to withstand being rolled upon!
Being perennial, they will survive year after year.
But there are a couple of possible drawbacks to think about before you start planting.
Firstly, catnip grows SO successfully, and spreads SO quickly, that it can easily become an unwelcome weed. And not an attractive one – unfortunately a large clump of catnip looks a lot like nettles.
To avoid this, consider growing it in a container, stood on a hard surface like stone slabs or decking.
Secondly, if you have a lot of cats living in your neighborhood, consider whether you really want to have three quarters of them all getting high in your back yard.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
If you do grow your own catnip, the leaves of the mature plant can be dried by hanging them, tips down, in warm dark place.
Once the leaves have dried to the point that they crumble easily, transfer them to an airtight container or Ziploc bag and store in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
Where to buy catnip plants
Catnip seeds and young plants are widely available from garden centers, nurseries, and online.
Make sure your plant is labeled Nepeta cataria.
Other species of Nepeta are beautiful and widely sold as ornamental plants, however they have no effect on cats!
Alternatives to catnip
The herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and the tartarian honeysuckle shrub (Lonicera tatarica) have been observed to produce a reaction in cats similar to, but less intense than, catnip.
If your cat is impervious to the charms of catnip, then growing these plants, or purchasing toys filled with honeysuckle sawdust, might be just the alternative they’re looking for.
Does catnip affect dogs?
If you have feline and canine friends at home, you might have noticed your dog reacting to catnip as well, and asked yourself whether it is safe for them too.
Catnip does indeed effect dogs, but in very different ways to cats.
Far from whipping your dog into a state of excitement, catnip has a profoundly sedative effect on dogs.
So when used correctly, a little catnip before a long journey or a trip to the vet can be just the ticket.
There’s also anecdotal evidence that catnip eases digestive discomfort in dogs.
However, dogs won’t react to catnip by smell alone, they need to ingest it.
The right amount will depend upon the animal, so we recommend you ask your vet about the safest way to do this for your pet.
What does catnip do to cats?
Catnip contains an oil called nephetalactone which triggers pathways in cats’ brains giving them a temporary high.
For a lot of cats, catnip is a safe way to have fun, a useful training aid, and a great way for you to bond with your pet.
How about your cat?
What does your cat think of catnip? Have you seen him react to it in a way we haven’t covered here?
And do you have any other uses for it? Let us know in the comments section below!
Today’s article is by Sarah Holloway. Sarah holds a bachelors degree in Zoology and has a special interest in animal behavior and communication
Arden Moore, (2007), The Cat Behavior Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You’ll Ever Face; Answers to Ever Question You’ll Ever Ask, ISBN 978-1-60342-179-9, Storey.
Grognet, J., (1990), “Catnip: Its uses and effects, past and present”, The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 31(6), 455–456.
San Filippo, M., (2012), “Crazy for Catnip”, American Veterinary Medical Association, press release.
Turner, R., (2007), “How does catnip work its magic on cats?”, Scientific American.
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