by K Marie Alto September 15, 2021 8 min read
Catnip is a fascinating plant. Every cat parent, and well most everyone else knows of catnip as a sort of kitty drug. It makes them go wild, they get goofy and playful, and they just love when they get it. At least, that's the more well-known picture.
What is catnip, though? How many people know what the plant looks like, how to identify it beyond its commercial packaging, or what it's actually doing to your cat? Do all cats love catnip, or does it affect certain cats differently? You may also be wondering, is it unsafe for young cats, if so how old should your cat be before you give them catnip?
Let's find out!
Catnip is one of the many herbs in the mint family. It's more than just a euphoric plant for cats. Over the course of history, humans have commonly used catnip as tea to aid in digestion and induce relaxation, and it's even a good insect repellant.
How does it work for cats? Well, to understand that, you need to know something cool about cats. Cats have an extra organ on the roof of their mouth called the vomeronasal organ, more commonly known as Jacobson's organ. It's why cats have such a good sense of smell; they take in scents (sometimes you’ll even see them with their mouth open and lips spread; we call it “stinky face” because they look like they encountered something foul smelling), and the information is sent directly to their brain to interpret.
Catnip itself contains an oil called nepetalactone, which has a specific scent that:
"…mimics feline sex hormones, so cats enjoying this substance will often display behaviors similar to a female cat in heat (although both male and female cats can experience the effects)."- PetMD
Cats react in different ways to this scent; they might become more playful and active, more affectionate, or they may experience relaxation and happiness. Inhaling the scent from catnip generally induces a hyperactive state, whereas consuming the catnip orally causes a more relaxed state. Cats may also get some pain relief and can experience reduced anxiety from it as well. On rare occasions, catnip can make some cats more aggressive.
Catnip can be a fun recreational treat for cats, and it can be used in therapeutic situations to relieve anxiety, such as separation anxiety.
It's also interesting to note that while the common perception is that catnip works on all cats, it actually doesn't! While estimates vary, it's probably fair to say over half of all cats (60% or so) have a reaction to catnip. This seems to be based on genetic factors; some cats simply don't have the right genetic traits that cause reactions to catnip. Fun fact: kitties in Australia have a higher rate of immunity (i.e., no reaction) to this leafy green plant.
Some cats are fiends for catnip, while others just like to roll around in it; thankfully, catnip isn't inherently dangerous. In fact catnip might even be helpful and can aid in digestion. But as is true of most things, too much of a good thing can cause problems. If your cat eats too much catnip, they may experience digestive issues.
If your cat loves catnip, s/he might try to dig into the package where it's stored, so it's best to keep it out of reach. Too much catnip at once can overwhelm your cat leading to digestive upset and vomiting. Their behavior mimics an overdose, and while it can be scary to see, it's not life-threatening. Incidentally, this is why you should avoid using concentrated catnip oils.
Since the active ingredient in catnip is an oil found in the leaves, catnip will degrade over time. In old catnip, the oils dissipate and dry out, so the herb loses potency. It's just like any other tea, spice, or herb in your kitchen; once it ages, it loses its potency.
By the way, you don't have to worry about addiction. Catnip isn't any more addictive than any other pleasurable toy, and there are no withdrawal symptoms. It's just a short-lived good time for your feline friend. Feel free to use it whenever you want to get your cat riled up or calmed down, depending on their particular reaction.
The effects of catnip last around 10-15 minutes after giving the herb to your kitty, after which they won't be able to benefit from the herb again for about an hour or two.
A common question is how old your cat needs to be before you can give them catnip. If you give catnip to a kitten that is too young, is it going to cause problems? Can it cause developmental issues?
Luckily, the answer is no. There's a specific age at which you can start giving your cat catnip, but the reason might surprise you.
Remember up above when we mentioned that catnip mimics a cat's sex hormones? Well, there's the key. Catnip doesn't work on very young cats – those under six months old – because they are simply too young to care. In fact, they may be somewhat avoidant of it. They still recognize that catnip has a strong odor, but they don't get pleasure out of it, so they might just ignore it altogether.
This doesn't mean your cat is one of the ones that doesn't respond to catnip. It just means your kitty is too young for the nepetalactone to cause a response in their brain. As they get older, they may or may not develop a finer appreciation for the plant and its oil, or they might simply show indifference to it.
Catnip isn't going to harm your kitten; it just won't do anything for them except for being a source of a strong scent. They may be curious, they may avoid it, or they might ignore it. Regardless, it's not dangerous. Feathery toys or balls to chase are a better option for kittens as they will activate their primal instinct to hunt.
Once your fuzzball is over six months old, they'll likely start to show a reaction to catnip, if they're going to at all. By a year old, they will be fully susceptible to catnip, or you'll know they don't react to it.
If you find your kitten tears into a bag of catnip, it's probably because the bag made a fun sound, they thought it was a toy, or they were digging for a treat, not because of the euphoric effects of the herb.
Once your kitten is old enough to start getting some joy out of catnip, you can test it out. Give them a little bit of the herb and see how they react. If your cat is one of the lucky ones that have the dominant gene for catnip response, you have a wonderful new tool and toy on your hands. The only question now is, where do I get it and how can I use it?
Buy high-quality catnip, or grow it yourself.
Catnip is easy to grow. It's a simple herb that grows broadly across North America and around the world and is hardy in many climate zones. It's also easy to grow in a pot on the windowsill.
There's just one problem with growing it indoors: with the plant so readily available, what's to stop your kitty from chewing it down to the stems or knocking over the pot? If you plant it outside, what if it attracts other neighborhood cats and makes your kitty scared or territorial? If you’ve ever had a cat grass plant you may have seen your fur baby overindulge and subsequently regurgitate the grass; this can happen with catnip too.
If you don’t have a green thumb or would rather not have to supervise access to an indoor plant, the easiest method most cat parents choose it to simply buy catnip.
We recommend getting your catnip from a verified, organic seller like toe beans. You want high-quality, fresh catnip for the best effect, and that's what we provide. Buy it, keep it in an airtight container, and only break it out when it's play time.
Use catnip to encourage positive behaviors.
One of the more common ways you can use catnip to train your feline is by scattering or rubbing some on a surface that you want your cat to use.
Cats love to scratch, so getting them to consistently use a scratching post rather than the side of a couch or a table leg is tricky. But, if you rub some catnip on the scratching post, they'll be attracted to it. As long as you keep the catnip away from the furniture, they'll be more inclined to use the scratching post for their scratching needs.
We've all seen the jokes (and experienced firsthand) how a cat loves the box that the cat tree came in far more than they love the cat tree. Cats do love boxes, but if you scatter some catnip on that new bed or cat tree, they'll be more likely to hang out there. This is best for cats that tend to be more relaxed on catnip than those who are more energetic and aggressive, though.
Sprinkle catnip around a new area to encourage exploration.
If you have an anxious kitty that exhibits the relaxation response to catnip, it can be a great tool to help them to explore a new area. This can be distressing if you've just adopted a new furry friend and want them to explore your home rather than hiding in the spare room all the time. Catnip is also good if you move, and the disruption makes your cat retreat into one specific area.
Simply sprinkle some catnip around key areas of the rooms you would like your kitty to explore. As a less messy alternative, sprinkle some catnip on top of their food at mealtime and then slowly introduce your fur baby to new spaces that have been fitted with familiar scents.
Put some catnip in their carrier to reduce anxiety for car trips.
Cats don't usually like their carriers as they tend to associate it with going to the V-E-T. We get it, a car ride is a scary, noisy time with a bunch of movements they can neither see nor control. Bumpy car trips can also cause motion sickness and even anxiety.
By adding a bit of catnip to their carrier, you can reduce anxiety and make your kitty more amenable to both the carrier and the car.
Just make sure your cat is the kind that responds to catnip with relaxation rather than energy or aggression. It does no good to rile up your furry friend and then confine them to a carrier!
Make a new toy a little bit more fun.
Catnip is a great way to enhance certain kinds of toys. Do you have one of those dryers that eats socks, where you end up with a bunch of singles? Grab one and sprinkle some catnip inside, tie a knot at the top, and then you have an inexpensive new cat toy. There are also soft balls and other fabric items that can be filled with or rubbed with catnip for a similar effect.
These are particularly good for kitties that get energetic and wild when you give them catnip. By focusing their attention on a toy, you can avoid their energy damaging the arms and legs of your furniture.
Remember that catnip fades over time. The longer the herb is exposed to air, the more the oil will oxidize, dissipate, and evaporate. Eventually, the herb's scent on the toy or other items will fade, and you'll need to restore it with some fresh catnip.
If you are in the market for some fresh catnip for your cat, make sure to read the Momma Knows Best® 7 golden rules of buying catnip: How to Buy Catnip for Cats and avoid irreversible damage to your cat and your loved ones.
If there's one thing we know, it's that pet parents love talking about their pets. So, if you have a feline family member, tell us, does your cat react to catnip, and if so how? What sort of antics do they get into when they're nipped up? What's the silliest thing they've done with a catnip toy?
We're also curious, have you done anything innovative with catnip, like training or attracting your kitty to a new toy or hangout? Tell us all about it; we'd love to hear it!
Of course, if you're not sure if your new furry friend has a sensitivity to catnip, you can always pick some up and give it a try.
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 19K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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