Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

If your cat can’t get enough catnip, here’s what you need to know about the potent herb.

Many cat lovers have given their feline a catnip-filled toy and watched with amusement as it changed his total demeanor. Catnip can turn a cat from mellow to wigged out in a matter of seconds. But do you know why catnip produces this kind of reaction in felines, or why some cats are affected while others aren’t? Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating plant.

What is Catnip?

Nepeta cataria, also known as catnip, catswort or catmint, is an herb within the mint spectrum of plants. Catnip only affects animals in the feline family (although it also attracts butterflies), which includes your domesticated cat, panthers, tigers and lions.

Happy Pheromones

With just one sniff, catnip brings out intense feelings in cats with a sensitivity to the herb. It’s thought to mimic feel good pheromones and stimulate receptors within the feline brain that are responsive to these pheromones. It’s interesting to note that 50 percent of kitties react to the herb, so there’s a good chance that your cat may not be affected at all.

If your cat is affected, you may see him acting strangely after taking a whiff. He’ll roll around, rub his face against the toy and just act plain weird. Some felines may even become vocal, hyper or a bit aggressive and protective over the catnip. If your cat happens to eat catnip, the opposite reaction may occur, mellowing him out instead.

Nepetalactone Rush

The chemical that gets kitties excited is called nepetalactone, which is found in the herb’s oil. The oil is derived from the plant’s stem, seed and leaves, and all it takes is a couple of sniffs for a cat to feel totally blissed out.

Don’t worry: your cat will return to normal state of mind in minutes. The effects of this chemical are short-lived, lasting about 10 minutes, so enjoy the antics while they last. And again, the effects will vary from cat to cat, with some acting calm or mellow, and others becoming really active and playful. It’ll take roughly two hours before your cat’s body responds to the herb again.

Dried or Fresh Catnip?

The type of catnip used will affect the intensity of your cat’s experience. Whether dried or fresh, the herb is safe, even if your cat eats a bit, and it isn’t addictive. But because the oils will dissipate quickly, it’s a good idea to store dried catnip in your freezer to preserve its potency.

Although you can purchase catnip sprays, they’re usually not as effective as fresh or dried catnip because they typically don’t have enough nepetalactone to cause a reaction.

Whether you grow your own catnip or buy it from the store, you can use it as a tool to train your cat. For example, you can rub some on a scratching post you want your kitty to use, or you can sprinkle some in your cat’s new bed so he’ll use it.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Typically, cats know when they’ve had enough catnip, but if your kitty goes a bit overboard and eats too much of it, he may experience vomiting or diarrhea. As long as he takes a break from catnip, his body will come back into a state of balance naturally.

Other than that scenario, the herb is safe and non-toxic, though some pet parents choose to stick with organic varieties. Some will even grow their own catnip at home so that their cats can enjoy the herb fresh or dried.

You typically won’t be able to tell if a cat is sensitive to catnip until he’s around three months or older. But if your feline friend loves it, let him enjoy it every couple of weeks in order to prevent the diminishment of its effects.

Meet the Author: Amy Tokic

Amy Tokic is the Editor of Petguide.com, the flagship site to over 70 different pet communities, which offers pet parents a one-stop-info-shop for all things dog and cat related. Amy's been with PetGuide since the beginning, guided by the wisdom of her Shih Tzu mix and furry roommate, Oscar. Together, this pet power couple has their paw on the pulse of the pet industry, sniffing out trends, advice, news, tasty treat recipes and other tail-wagging stories.

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