Catnip is a perennial herb and a member of the mint family. It is also known as catmint, catnep, catwort, and field balm, as well as other names. The volatile oil that causes the “catnip reaction” is nepetalactone. Catnip was native to Europe but was imported to the United States and other areas and is now widely grown.
Why Cats React to Catnip
There are several schools of thought as to why catnip creates a response in cats. It has been reported that the cat experiences a marijuana or LSD-type response. This response, luckily for the cat is without any of the risks and is simply getting high without any of the consequences associated with that action. Other theories include: the reaction being the same as the estrus behavior of female cats (rolling, rubbing); or that it simply triggers a pleasure response. Even though your cat may look like a love-sick feline, catnip is not an aphrodisiac. Cats who are neutered or spayed will have the same reaction as intact cats.
How Cats React to Catnip
The typical behavior of a cat reacting to catnip includes sniffing, licking, head shaking, eating the herb, body rolling and head and cheek rubbing. The effects usually last about 5-15 minutes. Even though the cat may display these behaviors, the response occurs through the olfactory system. Once the cat has had his fill, he will walk away from it. A cat will not respond again to catnip for at least a couple of hours.
Not all cats respond to catnip. The catnip response is hereditary. It is estimated that about 1/3 of the cats lack this gene. Additionally, kittens less than three months old don’t respond to catnip and often even show an aversion. With many kittens, the response doesn’t even occur until they’re almost six months old. Kittens don’t really need catnip exposure though anyway – they’re already motorized and ready to play at a moment’s notice. Many elderly cats may not show much of a response as well.
The euphoric state produced by catnip is safe and you don’t have to worry about kitty getting hooked. There are a couple of precautions though to be aware of:
Cats Can Lose Their Ability to Respond to Catnip
First, if exposed to catnip too often, there is a risk of your cat losing his ability to respond to it. That would be a very sad consequence, so it’s recommended that you provide catnip no more than once a week. Don’t leave catnip toys hanging around the house all the time. Instead, keep them in tightly sealed containers when not in use.
Some Male Cats May React Too Enthusiastically
It has been my experience that there some male cats who, when exposed to catnip, get a little too rambunctious and can even border on being aggressive. In a multicat household, that can create a challenge if one cat who is on his catnip high, starts in with too much rough play. The first time you give catnip to a male cat in a multicat household, my recommendation is to do it in a separate room so you can see what kind of reaction he has.
It won’t take long before you can easily evaluate what kind of response each of your cats will have. Some will become extremely playful, some will drool, others get very vocal and some will just roll back and forth in a euphoric state. Either way, it’s as much fun for you to just watch your cat totally enjoying himself without a care in the world.
Quality of Catnip
When buying dried catnip, look at the packaging and try to find brands that state they use only leaves and blossoms. Companies that put use lots of stems aren’t as good.
To ensure you’re getting the best catnip possible, try growing and drying your own. Of course, it can be very difficult to grow fresh catnip without kitty getting into it before harvesting time.
Cats easily pick up on the catnip scent so don’t grow catnip outdoors unless you want every cat in the neighborhood to visit your backyard. Catnip will also easily take over your garden.
How to Use Catnip
Catnip comes in various forms – catnip spray, liquid, dried herb, fresh and catnip-filled toys. I think some of the lower priced catnip-filled toys aren’t really filled with catnip at all. My advice is to buy regular toys and “marinate” them in dried catnip or buy toys that have catnip pouches where you merely fill them with the dried herb. If you’ve bought some catnip toys and your cat doesn’t show a reaction, it might be a poor quality product. Before giving up and assuming that you have a cat who doesn’t have the catnip response gene, invest in some good quality catnip and see what happens.
I buy plain old fuzzy toy mice and keep them in a sealed container filled with top quality dried catnip. It’s cheaper than buying catnip-filled toys and they can be marinated over and over again. You can even fill the tip of a sock with catnip and put a knot on the end. Sprinkle a little on the floor and watch your cat roll around and redisover his “inner kitten.” There are so many ways to use catnip.
Hint: When using dried catnip, rub it between your hands before giving it to your cat to release the volatile oil.
Catnip as a Behavior Tool
Don’t just view catnip as an opportunity for your cat to swing from the chandelier and act goofy. It can be a powerful behavior modification tool to help with many feline behavior challenges you might be facing. If you have a timid or fearful cat, offer a little catnip so he has a chance to lose some of his inhibitions. If you’re in the process of introducing a new cat to a resident cat, a little catnip can be helpful. If kitty is scratching in all the wrong places, rub a little catnip on his scratching post.
If you haven’t done much playtime with your cat and are having trouble enticing him into a game, try jump-starting the session with a little catnip.
Whenever we’re having a party at our house and I place my cat in the bedroom for safety, I let her have a little catnip party in there so she can have some fun and then sleep it off.
Need More Information?
For more specifics on how to use catnip or how to incorporate it into a play session with your cat, refer to any of Pam’s books, including Think Like a Cat. If you’re experiencing a behavior problem with your cat and would like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office.