Catnip Alternatives Part 1: Silvervine

updated on 03 March 2023

I'm sure you, somebody who is reading a blog post on cats on a website for a cat behavior consultant, is familiar with catnip. The herb is well known for causing cats to get higher than a kite in a windstorm. You may have even tried giving your cat some catnip before!

While many people who try giving their cat catnip will note a delightful response of purrs, rolling around, and generally being stoned, catnip only elicits a response in about 60% of cats (though estimates of the exact percentage vary!). This may be disappointing to many cat parents who were hoping their kitties would enjoy the 'nip. Are there any alternatives available so their cats can enjoy the chemical induced delight that catnip responsive cats do?

I hope the post title tipped you off to the answers being a resounding yes! In fact, there are a few options out there. I'll talk about each of them in separate future posts, but for now I want to highlight my favorite catnip alternative.

An Euphoric Kiwi

For those who've stopped by the MPLS Pet Market or another event I've been at, you know I sell silvervine, also called matatabi, from the fabulous Meowy Jane's. It probably doesn't surprise you that I'm starting out talking about silvervine. I always describe silvervine as "super catnip" because it often produces an even stronger response than catnip does and more cats react to it than will react to catnip.

Silvervine's scientific name is Actinidia polygama. It's a vining plant that is native to mountains in Japan, Korea, and China. It's also related to this bad boy:

Dinner or drugs? Image: Kiwis sliced into coins.
Dinner or drugs? Image: Kiwis sliced into coins.

That's right, a plant closely related to a fruit many of us are familiar with will make your cat go absolutely bonkers. The fruit of the silvervine plant, however, is orange on the inside. It's not the fruit of the plant that the cats are most interested in, however. The real good stuff is in the gall fruit of the plant. While cats will react to any part of the plant that has the active chemical compounds in them, the gall has the highest concentration. In fact, a lot of silvervine powder is ground up galls!

A Chemistry Lesson

So what is the stuff cats are after? The most likely culprit is nepetalactone, an iridoid chemical found in catnip, silvervine, and other feline psychoactives. Silvervine has had at least 6 other compounds with similar chemical structures to nepetalactone identified so it's pretty likely that other fun sounding chemicals like actinidine and iridomyrmecin also play a role in getting your cat blazed.

But why do cats like these chemicals so much? There are a few theories out there, but the leading one can actually help explain why cats respond the way they do to silvervine. Cats on the 'vine will roll around, rub their cheeks up against things, purr, and melt the hearts of any humans nearby. This will last from 5-30 minutes, but exactly how long cats respond is unique to each cat. In the wild, cats who do these behaviors are likely to damage the plants and get whatever chemicals the plant has inside of it all over their fur.

While this may sound like it would just create a mess for the cats, nepetalactone and related chemicals have mosquito repelling effects. It's likely that cats who reacted in ways that covered them in this natural insect repellent lived longer than those who don't as the trait gave them a survival advantage. Cats aren't likely thinking of that, though, and are just enjoying the feeling of bliss silvervine gives them!

How To Drug Your Cat

Hopefully by now you're convinced that your cat needs to try silvervine. There are a few different forms available so you have options of how your cat can give it a whirl. In order for them to elicit a response, the cats need to sniff the plant material as the response is based on smell, not ingestion of the plant material.

Probably the most potent form is silvervine powder. As previously mentioned, it's the ground up gall of the plant and has the highest concentration iridoids in the entire plant. You'll just need a little bit for your cat to have a good time with it! You can get the fruit whole, too, if you don't want a powder.

Another common form of silvervine is sticks. Sticks are great as they can help give cats that like to nibble on other things something else to chew on. Plus, they'll help clean your cat's teeth!

I strongly recommend Meowy Janes' silvervine as it really is the most potent and highest quality silvervine I've found, but there are other manufacturers out there. Regardless of where you source your silvervine from, you will want to give your cat a bit of a break between dosings of it. Cats need time between dosing or they won't respond at all.

Of course, not all cats will respond to silvervine. While approximately 80% of cats have some reaction, there are the unfortunate kitties who don't get to experience the joy of silvervine. Thankfully for them, there are other options out there! Keep an eye on my blog for future posts about catnip alternatives like valerian root and Tatarian honeysuckle.

Until then, go get your cats some drugs.

About the author: Joey Lusvardi CCBC is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. He is available for consultation in the Twin Cities or virtually wherever you are located.

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