What Every Cat Owner Should Know About Catnip

All cat lovers have heard of catnip and probably given some to our kitties more than once. But how much do you know about this herb that cats are so crazy about? We’ve done the homework, in this case, so you don’t have to…

4 Things Cat Owners Need To Know About Catnip

cat with catnip toy

Catnip is in the Mint Family

Catnip, or nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It’s also known as catswort or catmint because of its famed effect on cats. The plant is very hardy and easy to grow, and prevalent in many parts of the world. It is native to Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of China. It is also now successfully incorporated into Northern Europe, New Zealand, and, of course, the United States.

It’s All About Nepetalactone

What makes catnip special is nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is the naturally occurring chemical in catnip that drives cats cuckoo. This chemical is also a natural insect repellant. Nepetalactone can repel aphids, flies, mosquitoes, and even termites. This same chemical that repels bugs actually attracts cats.

Catnip can also be safely brewed to make herbal tea, which was thought to have a calming effect on humans. It’s not especially effective (or particularly tasty), so it has largely fallen out of favor for human use. But it sure is fun to have around if you have a cat!

cat rolling around on his back

What Does Catnip Do?

When a cat sniffs catnip, the nepetalactone bonds with chemical receptors in your cat’s nose. This stimulates the neurons in his brain and causes a reaction. Typical catnip reactions include rolling in the catnip or rubbing his face on it, pawing at it, licking it, and even chewing or eating it. After a cat has eaten catnip, they will often exhibit drooling or sleepiness. Some cats also run around and pounce on invisible prey. Another common reaction is to become very vocal. Other cats may even growl, bite, or hiss (kind of like being a mean drunk). A typical catnip reaction lasts only about 5 to 15 minutes before olfactory fatigue sets in. In other words, the smell doesn’t seem as strong and stops affecting the cat. It sometimes takes an hour or two afterward for a cat’s nose to “reset” and allow him to react again.

Some theorize the effects of catnip mimic the hallucinogenic effects of LSD in humans, but others say it is closer to the experience of smoking marijuana. Since catnip has no similar reaction in humans, it’s hard to say. Some cats have no reaction to catnip at all. About 30% of adult cats, along with kittens under eight weeks of age, do not experience any catnip reaction. Bummer!

closeup of stoned looking cat

Is Catnip Safe?

Good news, catnip is safe for your cat! Even daily doses of catnip are okay. Some say the reason catnip gets cats so excited is that the nepetalactone chemical mimics pheromones. There is no evidence that catnip is habit forming. There has never been any evidence of ill effects from catnip use over a long period, and it is not addictive.

So there you have it, what every cat owner ought to know about our cats’ favorite recreational pastime. Catnip is safe, fun, and even encourages kitties to exercise (always a good thing). So go have fun with your cat!