Catnip: The plant that is irresistible to cats


All types of cats from our domestic pets to lions and tigers are highly sensitive to a volatile oil found in the stems and leaves of the catnip plant. Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a member of the mint family native to Europe that contains various volatile oils and other compounds.

It is known that the chemical “nepetalactone” in catnip is what triggers the response. This excited behaviour response to catnip is what you could term one of a cat’s “true instincts”.

Effects of catnip for cats

When sensitive cats (both males and females) smell catnip they exhibit several behaviours not unlike those seen in female cats in heat. They may rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, call, chew it and salivate. These behaviours usually last for about 10 minutes.

After the first dramatic response, the cat will look like it is in a state of bliss or euphoria, and different cats responses will vary ranging from mellow or calm to aggressive playfulness. The cat next becomes temporarily immune to catnip's effects for a few hours.

The dramatic response to catnip is not seen in all pet cats, but about 50-70 percent of cats exhibit this behaviour and it seems to be hereditary. Also, catnip does not affect kittens until they are about six months old and begin to reach sexual maturity. Cats will respond again and again to catnip provided they do not experience it to frequently. However, they mostly react progressively less to catnip as they get older.

How does it work? It is catnip bad for cats?

Nepetalactone enters the cat's nose, where it is believed to bind to smell receptors that stimulate sensory neurons that trigger the brain to release the behaviours. Catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and completely harmless to cats.

Although found in some cat treats, catnip does not have the same effects when eaten and is not especially attractive to cats as part of a food.

Types of catnip

The potency of different types of catnip varies, and fresh or dried herbs usually work best. Fresh catnip may also be grown in the home or garden. Various forms of catnip can be purchased including fresh and dried herb, dry powder and spray. It is also incorporated into some toys and treats.

Catnip is used in various toys that are sold for pet cats with the aim of making the toy attractive and stimulating the cat to exercise. Owners can also make their own toy, for example put some herb in a sock or cloth and tie up, or in a paper bag rolled into a ball.

For cats that react to catnip it can be a helpful training aid. For example, a scratching post may be made more attractive by rubbing in some catnip. A cat bed cushion may be sprinkled with catnip powder. Training using catnip helps some timid cats to be more friendly.

Catnip effects on humans

Human brains are physiologically different from cat brains so people do not react to catnip by getting "high." Catnip is promoted in some herbal teas as a mild sedative. In alternative medicine, catnip is commonly recommended by herbalists to lessen migraine headaches and to relieve cramps, gas, indigestion, insomnia, nervousness and anorexia, or as an herbal paste to reduce swelling associated with arthritis and soft tissue injury.

Dr Peter Messent

For your interest

Hunting and feeding behaviour of cats

Cats are natural carnivores and their wild ancestors are expert solitary hunters that will prey on a range of animals including small rodents, birds and insects.

How does heat affect dogs and cause heatstroke?

Dogs get overheated more easily than people and this can quickly lead to physical distress known as heat stroke (hyperthermia).