Everything You Need to Know About Catnip

Written by Small Door's medical experts

If you’re a cat owner, the chances are you’ve heard of catnip and its reputation for driving kitties crazy. But what actually is catnip? How does it work, and is it safe for your cat? Read on to find out everything you need to know about catnip.

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What is catnip?

Catnip, also known as catmint, catwort, field balm and to give it its Latin name, Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family and is a lemony herb that appeals to almost all members of the cat family, including lions, tigers and panthers. It’s a member of the mint family.

How does catnip work?

One of the key components of catnip is a type of chemical called a terpene (a volatile oil), known as nepetalactone, which is found in the stem and leaves of the plant. When cats smell nepetalactone, it stimulates certain brain chemicals related to mood and happiness. (Humans brains, however, are physiologically different to cat brains, and do not respond in the same way to catnip.)

Is catnip a drug? Does catnip make cats high?

While many people refer to catnip as “weed” for cats, it’s actually not related to weed. Some people also describe the effect of catnip as a “high”, because many cats become very relaxed, calm and happy after interacting with the catnip.

However, scientific studies have shown that catnip doesn’t affect the brain in the same way as drugs like marijuana or cocaine do. Cats are completely aware of their surroundings when under the effects of catnip, they’re just much “happier”. Catnip doesn’t have any long-term effects on the brain, it’s not addictive and it’s considered very safe.

Why do cats like catnip?

It’s theorized that cats feel a sense of euphoria or extreme happiness followed by relaxation, when they smell catnip. This may be due to the scent of catnip mimicking a cat’s sex pheromones. The effect tends to last around 10 minutes for most cats, after which they become somewhat desensitized.

Some cats may roll around, rub their face against the catnip, vocalize, and/or eventually ‘zone out’ and lie in a relaxed state. Some cats may simply sniff and rub against the catnip, whilst others may prefer to eat it, particularly when it’s fresh. When eaten, catnip often has a particularly mellowing effect.

Why doesn't my cat like catnip?

Not all cats behave the same way when they encounter catnip. While many become relaxed and happy, for some, the sense of ‘euphoria’ can manifest itself as hyperactivity or even aggression. Other cats may have no reaction to catnip at all.

The causes behind this are both genetic and personality-driven. Firstly, sensitivity to catnip is inherited; some cats may not possess the genes that make them sensitive to its effects. Secondly, just as in humans, some cats may simply respond differently to a stimulus than others.

These differences will determine not only their emotional response (relaxed or hyperactive; mellow or aggressive), but may also affect what they do with the catnip (eat it, roll around in it or simply sniff the plant).

Catnip can be a great boredom buster – most cats adore playing with catnip-infused toys or rolling around in a catnip plant.

What are the benefits of catnip?

Catnip can be a great boredom buster – most cats adore playing with catnip-infused toys or rolling around in a catnip plant.

You can also use catnip as a training aid. If you’re struggling with your cat displaying unwanted behaviors, such as scratching furniture, try rubbing a little catnip onto your cat’s scratching post regularly, to encourage them to scratch there instead.

What’s the best way to introduce catnip to my cat?

If you’re considering trying out catnip for the first time, don’t buy too much until you know that your cat enjoys it. Introducing catnip to your cat is simple and can be done in a variety of different ways:

  • Try buying a catnip toy.

  • Sprinkle the loose herb on your cat’s toys or scratching post to see if they enjoy engaging with it.

  • Sprinkle loose catnip in a new space you’re trying to encourage your cat to explore. 

  • Use it when introducing your cat to a new cat to help reduce anxiety.

  • Place catnip in your cat’s carrier to relax them during car rides or when going to the vet.

What kind of catnip is best?

Catnip comes in many different forms. It’s most commonly available in a dried herbal format, but you can also buy it fresh, infused in toys and chews, or as an extract (oil or spray). Since all cats react a bit differently, you might find your furry friend prefers one type over the other. Some take some time to experiment with different types to see what they like best.

If you buy dried catnip, make sure to store it in an airtight container in the freezer to prevent it from losing its potency. We also recommend looking for a catnip that is 100% natural or organic and grown without chemicals.

Is catnip safe for cats??

Yes, catnip is safe and it’s not addictive. There’s nothing in it that could harm your cat, assuming it hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides etc.

How much catnip is too much? Can my cat overdose on catnip?

Cats can’t technically ‘overdose’ on the smell of catnip, however, they shouldn’t eat too much of it in one go, as they may experience some mild gastrointestinal distress, such as vomiting or diarrhea. If this occurs, remove the catnip from your cat’s environment.

How long does catnip last

The effects of catnip vary depending on the individual cat and how they respond to the herb. For most cats, effects and behaviors associated with catnip will last around 10-15 minutes. Once catnip has worn off, it may take around 30 minutes to an 1 hour for your cat to respond to it again. 

This also depends on the potency of the catnip itself, so if you plan on keeping catnip on hand, make sure to keep it sealed in an airtight container to preserve its potency.

Can kittens have catnip?

While you can give catnip to your kitten, it’s probably best to save your money until they’re a bit older. Universally, most cats don’t begin reacting to catnip until at least 3-6 months of age.

Ask your vet if you have questions about catnip

Reach out to your veterinarian if you have any questions about catnip and whether it’s suitable for your cat. They can help put your mind at ease about the safety of the plant.

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