Catnip is a perennial herb of the mint family with over 250 species in existence and cats can be quite attracted to it. The main varieties that are available are Common Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and Catmint (Nepeta mussinii), the former species being the one that cats seem to enjoy the most. The Catnip species contain a number of aromatic oils, but the active organic compound that is responsible for the effects we see on cats is called nepetalactone.

How Does Catnip Work?

Cats inhale the aromatic oils from catnip where it comes in contact with a special receptor in their nose. This receptor is linked to a region in the brain (the hypothalamus) that controls behaviour.  Sometimes you may observe the Flehmen response which is when your cat appears to curl their upper lip and press their tongue to the roof of their mouth, some people describe this as a cats “smile” or a “Cheshire grin.” This helps to concentrate the smell and intensifies the effect.  

When cats come in contact with catnip they commonly sniff it, rub it with their chin and cheeks, lick and then finally eat the plant.  The sniffing produces the stimulating effects, with the licking and eating of the plant bruising the leaves and releasing more of the hallucinogen. It may also produce a sedative effect when eaten.

Signs can be quite variable between cats:

  • 10-30% of cats show no affect when exposed to catnip (according to FAB's Cat Personality Survey)
  • Very young kittens and senior cats show little to no effect and sometimes even an aversion to it. 
  • Some cats seem “intoxicated” or in “ecstasy” and start to drool and roll on the floor - the belief being that these cats are reacting in a similar way to when they have the “feel good” pheromones released during sexual courtship or activity.
  • Some cats become hyperactive with excessive vocalisation, chasing and hunting behaviours being observed.
  • Some cats display signs of aggression. 

The behavioural changes vary between individuals and tend to reflect a loss of inhibition. Signs generally last for five to ten minutes, and then cannot be repeated for at least an hour. 

Why and When to Use Catnip?

It is advisable to trial catnip on your cat to assess the response. Obviously if the effects are undesirable (ie aggression) then it is best to avoid planting catnip in your garden/ allowing access for your cat.

If however Catnip has a positive effect then it can be a very useful training aid. You can use it to help with:

  • Encouraging the use of a scratching post
  • Encouraging active play and exercise with particular rewarding toys such as kitty kongs. Keeping cats active can help keep them fit and healthy and reduce anxiety.
  • Encouraging shy cats in a new environment or help cat-to-cat introductions go smoothly. 
  • Reducing anxiety, or at least inducing a sedative state during car rides.

Cats cannot overdose on catnip – they seem to know when they have had enough and will refuse any further offers or will not seek it out.  It is not seen to be harmful or addictive to your pet, however it is possible that overuse may lead to your cat not responding as well to the plant.  It should only be used as an occasional treat.

Where to Buy Catnip?

Catnip is quite easy to grow and can be purchased from your local garden centre in the herb section.  It can be bought in seed or seedling form and is best planted in early spring.  The plants grow quite large so make sure you follow the instructions on the packet or the punnet to ensure that you have enough room between the plants.  The plants like sandy soil and grow best in full sun.

Catnip toys can also be bought from pet shops or pet warehouses or may be purchased in a dried or a spray form.