The science behind catnip – what it does to cats

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Published: April 8, 2022
Image Credit Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock.com
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Everyone knows that cats go crazy over catnip. But what is it about this herb that makes cats lose their minds? Read on to find out more.

What Exactly is Catnip?

Catnip is a type of plant that is scientifically known as Nepeta cataria, which is a member of the mint family. The active ingredient in catnip is nepetalactone.

This plant produces the chemical nepetalactone in tiny, microscopic bulbs that coat the plant’s leaves, seedpods, and stems. Whenever the small bulbs are ruptured, they release this chemical into the air.

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The smell of this chemical is what makes cats go crazy for it. But did you know that not every cat is affected by catnip? It’s said that only about 50% of cats will have any sort of reaction to being exposed to it.

The catnip plant was originally native to Europe and Asia, but it now grows wild in many countries alongside roads and highways. If you want to identify the plant, it is a grayish-green color with jagged, heart-shaped leaves, and its stems are thick and covered in fuzzy hairs.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

There are many experts that believe that the chemical Nepetalactone acts as a feline attractant that triggers strong responses in cats. Once your cat gets a whiff of catnip, it may begin to act strange.

Your cat may rub its face around the catnip, roll around on its back, chew, rub, or kick it around. If the catnip is in a toy and you see your cat chewing on it or batting it around, it is to help release more of the oil that was produced by the plant’s leaves.

When the smell of catnip enters your cat’s nose, it goes on to bind to the receptors that line the nasal cavity. These receptors are on sensory neurons that help to activate different parts of the cat’s brain when exposed to various scents.

The parts of the brain that tend to activate in your cat when exposed to catnip are the same parts that regulate emotion and behavior. This is why it appears as though your cat is going crazy, but it is completely harmless.

Normally, the effects of catnip only last for about 10 or 15 minutes, but the amount of catnip you give your cat and how your cat consumes it will ultimately determine its response.

Typically, the more your cat eats or inhales the catnip, the stronger the cat’s response will be. If your cat is only playing with a cat toy that is infused with catnip, the impact on its behavior may not be as strong.

But again, it also comes down to how sensitive your feline friend is to catnip, as some may have no reaction at all. Cats will normally react to catnip by sniffing, licking, or eating it and then rolling around and rubbing their cheeks.

Some cats may become hyperactive after being exposed to catnip, while others may appear to mellow out. And usually, there’s no need to worry about your cat playing with it for too long, as they will normally walk away from it when they’ve had enough.

After a cat has had its fun with the catnip, you may see it walk away from it and not return to play again for at least a couple of hours. This is about how long it takes for the cat’s sensitivity to return to normal levels.

As we mentioned before, not all cats are affected by catnip. The response is actually inherited. Experts report that one in three cats will not inherit the sensitivity to nepetalactone.

They also state that kittens don’t develop the ability to have a reaction to catnip until they are anywhere from three to six months old. The research has found that a kitten that has only one catnip-sensitive parent will have a one-in-two chance of inheriting the sensitivity themselves.

If the kitten was born to two parents who both have a sensitivity to catnip, then the chances will increase to three-in-four. They also state that there isn’t a correlation between catnip sensitivity and color, sex, or breed of the cat.

So don’t be surprised if you purchase catnip or a catnip-infused toy and your cat doesn’t have a hilarious reaction.

How to Use Catnip Safely at Home

So let’s say you want to purchase some catnip for your cat to play with. What is the safest way to do this? Well, most catnip you find at your local pet store will be perfectly safe for your cat to enjoy.

You’ll want to decide if you’d rather purchase the loose catnip herb or if you want to buy a cat toy that is infused with the scent of the plant. Either one you choose will have almost the same sort of effect on your cat as long as it has the sensitivity, to begin with.

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Catnip is commonly used as a way to encourage playful behavior in cats, but keep in mind that some cats can get aggressive or territorial when exposed to it.

You might find that your cat begins to hiss at you or any other pet you may have in your household if you or the other pets come near it while it’s playing.

If that happens, simply let your cat burn itself out on the catnip before you try to take the toy away. Normally, the effects of catnip are short-lived so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.

If you’re using the loose kind, be sure not to give your cat too much from the start. It’s not common for a cat to overdose on catnip but if it ingests too much of the plant, it can have an upset stomach.

Be sure to monitor your cat while it plays just to be sure that it’s having fun and not overdoing it.

Catnip can also be used as a way to help train your cat for certain behaviors. For example, you can place a small amount of catnip on or near a new scratching post to encourage your cat to scratch there rather than on your new sofa.

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This creates a positive association and further encourages the correct behavior. Catnip can also be used as a way to help your cat destress. You can give your cat a small amount when you know it will be exposed to a stressful situation or environment, like going to the vet.

You may even try placing a small catnip toy inside of the cat carrier with it if your cat has a fear of being inside its cage. This might help to keep it occupied and reduce its anxiety levels.

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Although catnip is non-toxic to cats, as we mentioned before, you want to be sure not to let your cat overindulge in it. If your cat experiences vomiting or diarrhea after playing with catnip, it may have had too much.

Keep an eye on your pet and always rotate its toys so that it doesn’t get bored of them. You can even experiment with adding a bit of catnip to one of your cat’s interactive toys to make it even more fun.

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It’s also important to note that when purchasing loose catnip, be aware that dried catnip doesn’t contain as much of the oil, nepetalactone, as fresh catnip.

You also have the option to grow your own catnip at home or in your own yard. If you want to keep it fresh throughout the year, try freezing it in an airtight container.

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

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