Sprinkling a bit of catnip on a scratching post or tossing your kitty a catnip toy can bring you and your favorite feline a lot of joy. Not only do most cats seem to enjoy the experience, but watching your pet act like a goofball can be endlessly entertaining, too.
However, despite its widespread use, how much do you know about catnip and how it helps calm (or perk up) your cat? We dug deep to help you uncover the roots of this kitty catalyst, how it works, and what veterinarians have to say about using it safely.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a leafy green plant that’s from the mint family of the plant kingdom, just like lavender and basil.1 Originally introduced as a culinary herb, catnip plants can now be found in outdoor and indoor herb gardens all over the world, as well as growing in the wild as a weed.2,3
Catnip plants produce an oil called nepetalactone. This is the chemical compound responsible for the strong response evident in most cats.1 When catnip leaves are harvested and dried, the oil becomes much more potent. This is the kind of catnip typically sold to cat parents, either as loose leaves or stuffed into cat toys. There are other ways to process catnip as well, including creating tinctures from the oil or even steeping the leaves to make an herbal tea that both cats and humans can enjoy.1,4
So what does all this mean for your cat? For an explanation of catnip effects on cats, Dr. Emily Swiniarski, DVM, Chief Medical Officer of PAWS Chicago has some answers. “When most cats smell catnip, it binds to scent receptors in their nose and creates a state of arousal,” Swiniarski says. “This can lead to increased playfulness and ‘zoomies,’ but can also lead to agitation, including growling and swatting. Then, after about a half hour, the effects wear off and the cat tends to get tired and relaxed.”5
Swiniarski adds that not every cat responds to catnip the same way. “If you’re giving your cat catnip for the first time, you should watch them closely. You never know how they’ll respond, and if you have other cats, they may lash out if the catnip makes them agitated,” she cautions.
Also, it’s worth noting that not all cats are affected by catnip. Experts estimate that only 70% – 80% of cats are affected by nepetalactone, and that susceptibility to the effects of catnip is an inherited trait.3
Catnip stimulates the parts of a cat’s brain responsible for emotional and behavioral responses.3 That can prompt an excited feeling of euphoria and stimulation, followed by a relaxed state of calm once the effects wear off. Generally speaking, many cats seem to enjoy the stimulating and calming effects of catnip, which could enrich their life.
“Catnip provides a unique taste, smell, and texture that activates your cat’s senses. It helps them experience their natural behaviors in a different way, which helps prevent boredom,” says Swiniarski. She adds that it’s especially useful when you have a cat who isn’t physically active, noting, “Catnip could be used to entice cats who need more exercise to move around more.”
While catnip can be a good source of pleasure and fun, Swiniarski cautions that overuse can significantly reduce its impact. In essence, your cat could build up a tolerance to the effects. “I wouldn’t use it more than once per week,” she advises. ”If cats are playing with catnip all the time, it’s not going to stimulate them.”
Not sure if catnip is right for your kitty? Consider these benefits:
- Used appropriately, catnip can trigger positive natural responses in some cats, including excitement, euphoria, and relaxation.
- Catnip can energize some cats, encouraging physical activity.
- Catnip may help prevent boredom by enriching a cat’s environment.
- Catnip plants offer a safe, non-toxic alternative — with some fringe benefits — for cats who tend to nibble on houseplants.
There are lots of safe ways to offer catnip to your favorite feline. These include:
- Loose, dried catnip leaves, which can be sprinkled wherever you like
- Cat toys stuffed with dried catnip
- Catnip plants, which can be grown indoors or outside
- Catnip spray
- Catnip bubbles
- Catnip treats
- Catnip tea
Dried catnip is by far the most popular option, but note that this highly concentrated form does lose its potency over time. You can extend its life by storing it in an airtight container in the freezer.6
Swiniarski recommends that pet parents offer cats a “generous pinch” or two of dried catnip. For other catnip products, follow the directions on the product label or check with your vet. And always ensure that the catnip you purchase is safe and non-toxic for cats. Some products, such as highly concentrated essential oils, are designed for human use only and may be harmful to cats.7