Nepeta Cataria, commonly known as catnip, is appealing to cats because it contains nepetalactone, a volatile oil that mimics feline pheromones. These pheromones trigger a response in the hypothalamus and amygdala, brain structures that play a critical role in the regulation of emotions and responses to stimuli and mediate appetite and sexual and predatory behaviours. The result is excitement, euphoria, predatory playfulness, and/or sexual behaviour, depending on the cat.
Because catnip is a member of the mint family, some cats are also attracted to mint plants. Catnip and fresh mint leaves aren’t harmful to cats, though certain essential oils, including peppermint oil, are toxic to them.
Valerian, another cat-attractant and intoxicant, has a stimulating effect due to a substance called actinidine, which induces similar reactions to nepetalactone. Cats get excited and sometimes even a little aggressive under its influence. Fresh-growing valerian isn’t harmful to cats, though some highly-concentrated medications containing it may not be safe for them.
Catnip’s effects on cats
The effects of catnip vary from one cat to the next. Common behavioural responses include:
- Chewing or batting at the catnip
- Increased playfulness
- Kicking with the back feet
- Reduced inhibitions
- Rolling around on the floor
- Rubbing their heads or bodies in the herb
- Strange vocalizations
- Stumbling or falling
Catnip’s effects last for approximately 10 minutes, followed by a period of about 30 minutes during which the cat is immune to it.
Can cats become addicted to catnip?
Cats can’t become addicted to catnip, but they may stop responding to it with frequent exposure. Catnip has no adverse health consequences for cats. It makes them happy, and has the added benefit of diverting them from snacking on houseplants.
The benefits of catnip
Catnip can provide a number of benefits:
- Feuding cats (assuming they’re catnip responders) may develop positive associations with one another if catnip is applied to the fur of one or both.
- Catnip may provide pain reduction for ill or injured cats.
- Catnip reduces inhibitions, which can help nervous, timid cats grow bolder and friendlier.
- Catnip makes cat toys more appealing and promotes energetic play, which is beneficial for helping obese cats lose weight.
- Catnip can be used during play to help stressed out cats relax.
Why some cats don’t respond to catnip
The catnip response is hereditary. Approximately 70% of cats are natural responders (responder estimates vary widely from one cat expert to the next). Male cats are more likely to be responders than females, and unneutered males tend to respond more strongly than neutered males, probably because nepetalactone resembles a chemical found in female cat urine.
Cats that are genetic catnip responders may not respond to the herb when under stress or in a new environment. Also, the effects may diminish if cats are given catnip more than once a week.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
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- Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith. (2010). “Catnip and the Response in Cats.” PetEducation.com.
- (2010). “Peppermint Oil.” ASPCA.org.
- Feline Advisory Bureau. (n.d.). “The Cat Friendly Home.” FABCats.org.
- Hartwell, S. (2008). “Catnip, Valerian, Honeysuckle and Other Cat-Attractant Plants.” MessyBeast.com.
- com. (28 August 2001). “Catnip Repels Mosquitoes More Effectively Than DEET.”
- Turner, R., DVM. (29 May 2007). “How Does Catnip Work Its Magic on Cats?” ScientificAmerican.com.