What’s The Deal With Catnip?

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Happy National Catnip Day! What? It’s a real thing.

I am declaring today, April 20th, National Catnip Day for *ahem* reasons. Sure, I may be the only one celebrating it, but hopefully with some time it will catch on. I figure today is a great day to add to my series on catnip alternatives by sharing some information about catnip itself.

Check out my first two posts on silver vine and valerian.

Catnip is commonly added to many cat products and toys. Heck, Chewy has (as of writing) over 700 different products that come up when searching for catnip toys! So what exactly is this feline frenzy inducing plant and why do cats love it so much? Let’s take a look.

What is catnip?

Catnip is known in scientific circles as Nepeta cataria. It’s in the same family as the mint plant and, much like mint, is sometimes made into tea for human consumption. There are other plants in the Nepeta genus that cats will also respond to so plants from the genus are often referred to as catmint.

Catnip plants can grow pretty big under the right conditions and will produce tiny flowers. It can be grown indoors or outdoors. For outdoor planting, it’s hardy to zone 3. Most of Minnesota is in zones 3 or 4 so if you plant catnip outside, it will likely come back the next year.

Catnip can be grown from seed or propagated by dividing mature plants. You can even try taking a cutting and rooting it in water before transferring it to soil. I’ve done this before with a catnip plant from my mom’s garden. Sweet Z got all the fresh catnip he desired that summer.

Why do cats like catnip?

Cats love catnip, but why exactly does it make them go bananas? The secret is a substance called nepetalacone. Nepetalactone is part of a family of chemicals called iridoids that, among other properties, may be involved in helping plants keep pests at bay. While this may not be what the cats are thinking of when they roll around in the ‘nip, catnip may help protect cats from pests like mosquitoes. Chances are your cat isn’t thinking about mosquitoes when they’re enjoying a bit of catnip, however. They’re likely just having a good time.

An orange tabby cat looking delightfully stoned near a large catnip plant.
“Aww, yeah. Give me that sweet, sweet ‘nip.” Photo Credit: Pixabay

Even though one of the behaviors cats will exhibit is trying to eat the catnip, it’s actually the cats inhaling the nepetalactone that causes its psychoactive effects. Resisting my urge to get too nerdy about exactly what happens, the cats detect the nepetalactone via special scent cells in their nasal cavity. This sets off a cascade of signals to different parts of the brain that eventually reach behavior centers. In particular, areas involved in sexual response are activated and your cat begins to act as if they’ve just seen a particularly sexy lady/gentleman cat walk by (or, more accurately, they’ve sniffed said sexy lady/gentleman cat’s pheromones).

Basically, catnip is kind of like an olfactory “adult video” for cats.

Interestingly, drug used in humans to treat overdoses of opioids can affect responses to catnip. Administering naloxone has reduced the responses of cats to catnip. Naloxone works by blocking opioid receptors so it’s likely that opioid receptors in cats play at least somewhat of a role in cats’ response to the ‘nip.

What does catnip do to cats?

Seeing as cats have the sexual centers of their brains activated by catnip, it probably comes as no surprise that many of the behaviors cats exhibit are similar to those of female cats in heat. Even male cats will act like female cats in heat when exposed to catnip.

Common Behaviors Observed

Behaviors you may observe in your cat include rolling around, rubbing up against things, meowing, purring, drooling, and flopping all over the place. They may become more playful and affectionate, though some cats can become aggressive. For the majority of cats that respond, they’ll have a really good time so if you haven’t given your cat some catnip yet, just make sure you’re careful the first time as a precaution.

In younger cats or older cats, you may not see as much of a response. Usually, cats won’t respond to catnip until at least 6 months of age, though for some it can be about a year before they respond. Older cats may also not respond as robustly as younger cats.

Cats tend to have a better response to fresh catnip than they do to older stuff. If you don’t want to grow your own, there are plenty of sources of pregrown catnip out there. You can get it in a spray form (including a spray with both calming pheromones and catnip), loose leaves, or even a super potent ground catnip powder. My favorite ‘nip is from Meowy Janes. They’re who I use with Z and with clients’ cats so if you’re looking for a good, reliable brand of catnip, they’re who I’d go with first. Other reliable brands include Yeowww! and Meowijuana. 

The best thing about catnip? For most cats, it’s completely safe. Cats don’t become addicted to catnip and if you give it to them too frequently, they won’t respond. So go ahead, go give your cat some ‘nip guilt free! Your cat will thank you.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!