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What Is Catnip?

If you’re a cat parent, you’ve probably witnessed this enchanting display at some point—your furry feline friend suddenly transforms into a whirlwind of excitement, rolling, pouncing, and purring like there’s no tomorrow. All triggered by a little heb called catnip.

But what is catnip exactly? Why does it turn your cuddly companion into a kitty on a mission? Can your cats have too much catnip? Here’s everything you need to know about catnip, from its effects on cats, its different forms, and the many ways you can use it for your feline friends.

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Botanical Background of Catnip 

So what is catnip? Catnip, scientifically called Nepeta cataria, is a hardy, perennial herb in the mint family with serrated, heart-shaped gray-green leaves. 

Originally native to Europe and Asia, it has found its way into gardens and homes around the world. It thrives in well-drained soil and plenty of sunlight, making it a favorite among gardeners. Catnip is easy to cultivate, making it accessible for cat lovers who want to grow it for their pets.

Cats eat catnip, yes, but it also has a history of human use. People have used it for medicinal properties for centuries, brewing infusions to treat ailments such as insomnia, anxiety, and digestive issues. Cats’ calming reaction to catnip is mirrored in some humans, making it a popular choice in herbal remedies.

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

Yes, catnip is generally safe for cats. It is non-toxic and non-addictive, posing no harm to cats when used in moderation. Most cats can enjoy catnip without any adverse effects, and it often provides them with entertainment, mental stimulation, and relaxation. However, it’s best to consult your veterinarian before giving anything new to your kitty.

How Does Catnip Work?

Catnip’s effect on cats is not just a random quirk—it’s rooted in science. The magic lies in a compound called nepetalactone, found in the leaves, stems, and seeds of the catnip plant. 

Nepetalactone mimics feline pheromones, the natural chemicals cats use to communicate. Eating catnip will result in your cat displaying behaviors similar to a female cat in heat. They’ll roll and rub around in the catnip, sniff, rub their chin or cheeks on it, jump, run around, or even speak more. Cats with a more laid back personality may become more docile and even drool.

The effects of catnip are usually temporary, lasting only about 10–15 minutes. Afterward, cats enter a refractory period, during which they exhibit less response to catnip. This refractory period can last for 1–2 hours.

How Do Cats Respond to Catnip?

Your kitty will either be very excited or will be much calmer when given some catnip. As the nepetalactone activates their senses, cats may roll, rub, and purr ecstatically. You might notice your cat becoming unusually hyperactive, engaging in playful antics, and chasing imaginary prey like their life depends on it! 

For some cats, catnip puts them in a state of relaxation and contentment. They might become more affectionate, simply lounge around, and even become unusually vocal.

Does Catnip Work on All Cats? 

No. Cats inherit their sensitivity to catnip, and approximately 70% of cats possess the specific gene that makes them responsive to the herb’s enchantment. Kitties lacking this genetic predisposition simply don’t experience the euphoric effects, no matter how enticing the scent might be.

Kittens and elderly cats, regardless of their genetic makeup, often show little to no interest in catnip. This is because reaction to catnip usually develops around the age of 6 months as they reach sexual maturity. Similarly, senior cats might lose interest as they age, and individual cats within the same litter can also have different responses to catnip.

What Are the Benefits of Catnip?

Aside from giving your cats that delightful high, catnip also offers several benefits that enhance the overall well-being of our feline companions. 

  • Reduced Anxiety and Stress. Catnip can have a calming effect on cats, which can be helpful in reducing anxiety and stress. This especially benefits cats who are new to a home, who are traveling, or who are under other stressful situations.
  • Increased Playfulness. Catnip can also make cats more playful and energetic. This can be a great way to get your cat moving and to keep them entertained. 
  • Improved Digestion and Pain Relief. Because catnip, or Nepeta cataria, contains nepetalactone, it can help improve your cat’s digestion, relieve stomach upset, and reduce pain.
  • Repelling Insects. Since catnip is part of the mint family, it can also be used to repel insects, such as mosquitoes and fleas. This can be helpful for keeping your cat healthy and comfortable.

How Much Catnip Is Safe for Cats?

For most cats, a sprinkle of catnip on their toy or scratching post should suffice and give their playtimes a boost. Usually, your kitty will walk away on their own when they’ve had enough catnip. Constantly exposing them to catnip will decrease their sensitivity to it. 

Even if it’s considered safe, it’s important to observe your cat’s catnip reaction. If they seem overly excited, try decreasing the amount you give them or offer it less often. Always monitor your cat during catnip play. 

Can Cats Get Too Much Catnip?

While catnip is generally safe for cats, eating too much of it can cause stomach upset, such as vomiting and diarrhea. In rare cases, a cat may become overstimulated and aggressive if they have too much catnip.

To avoid any adverse reactions when cats eat catnip, start with a small amount and supervise them closely. You can give your cat a pinch of dried catnip, a leaf of fresh catnip, or a small catnip toy. See how your cat reacts and then adjust the amount of catnip you give them accordingly.

If you notice any signs that your cat may have had too much catnip, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy, remove the catnip from your cat, give them water to drink, and call your veterinarian if these symptoms don’t go away.

Should I Give Fresh or Dried Catnip?

Both dried and fresh catnip are safe and produce similar effects. 

Dried catnip is more convenient and easier to store than the fresh herb. It is also less expensive and more widely available. Usually a sprinkle is enough for cats to feel its effects.

Fresh catnip is more potent than dried catnip, so you will need to give your cat less of it. One to two leaves should be a good start. It’s also more aromatic, which may be more appealing to some cats. However, fresh catnip is more difficult to store and has a shorter shelf life than dried catnip.

How to Use Catnip Effectively

Cats sniff and eat catnip, but that is not the only way you can introduce this herb to them. From catnip toys to catnip treats, try different methods to get full use of this plant. 

Different Forms of Catnip Products

Catnip comes in various forms, each offering unique ways to engage your feline friend. 

  • Dried catnip. This classic form is versatile; sprinkle it on their scratching post, stuff it into toys, or place it in a sachet. Cats love the crinkly texture and potent scent. 
  • Catnip spray. Ideal to use when your kitty has a sensitive stomach. You can also use it to revitalize old toys or introduce new ones. A quick spritz can transform an ordinary item into your cat’s new favorite plaything. 
  • Catnip-infused toys. Many pet stores offer toys filled with catnip. From plush mice to interactive puzzles, these toys provide both mental stimulation and entertainment.

DIY Catnip Toys and Treats 

You know the answer to the question “what is catnip” and you know its effects. So try your hand at creating your own catnip-infused toys and treats. You can create catnip pouches by sewing small pouches of fabric, filling them with dried catnip, and securing them tightly. Toss them around your cat for instant fun! 

DIY catnip treats are also something you can try. Bake homemade cat treats with a pinch of ground catnip. Use these special snacks as a training aid. Rewarding them when they perform a trick makes the learning process a fun experience for your cat.

Can Kittens Have Catnip?

Kittens under 6 months old typically don’t experience catnip effects, as their olfactory system hasn’t fully matured. Once they reach 6 months, you can introduce them to catnip and observe how they respond to its effects.

Can I Grow My Own Catnip Plant? 

Growing catnip at home is a fantastic way to provide your feline friend with a fresh source of this delightful herb and benefit from it as well. Here’s a simple guide to help you grow your own catnip:

  • The Right Location. Catnip thrives in well-drained soil and plenty of sunlight. Try to select a sunny spot in your garden.
  • Planting Catnip. You can grow catnip from seeds, cuttings, or potted plants. If you’re starting from seeds, sow them directly into the soil. Cover the seeds lightly and water gently. Space the seeds or plants about 18 to 24 inches apart to allow for growth.
  • Watering and Soil. Catnip prefers slightly alkaline to neutral soil. Water the plant regularly, keeping the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Ensure good drainage to prevent root rot.
  • Pruning and Maintenance. Pruning catnip encourages bushier growth and more abundant leaves. Pinch back the stems regularly to promote branching. Removing flowers as they appear can also prolong the plant’s life and encourage leaf growth, as catnip plants tend to focus their energy on flowering.
  • Harvesting Catnip. Catnip leaves are most potent just before the plant flowers. Harvest the leaves by snipping the stems just above a set of leaves. Dry the leaves by hanging them upside down in a dark, well-ventilated area. Once dry, store the leaves in an airtight container away from light and heat.

The Tail End

Now that you know the answers to “what is catnip” and more, give it a try! Start small, see how your cats react to it, and enjoy the silly antics that may ensue!.

Kristen Levine is a nationally acclaimed pet expert, influencer, and Fear Free Certified® Professional with over 30 years of experience working with pets.

Through this blog and her book, Pampered Pets on a Budget, Kristen has helped millions of pet parents solve problems and provide the best care for their dogs and cats.

Working alongside hundreds of pet professionals, including veterinarians, behaviorists and trainers inspired Kristen to become a pet parenting “guide”, providing readers with reliable information about health, wellness and lifestyle for dogs and cats and the people who love them.

A dogged advocate for pet adoption and rescue, Kristen has featured over 1,000 adoptable dogs and cats from the SPCA on live television and radio appearances to get them adopted. Her blog, KristenLevine.com has been featured in over 100 media outlets – including the New York Times, USA Today, FOX & Friends, Good Morning America, Women's Day, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, Pop Sugar and more.

To stay up to date on the latest health and lifestyle trends for pets, Kristen regularly attends the top veterinary and pet product conferences, where she’s often a featured speaker.

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