Catnip: everyone knows that it makes cats go a little crazy. Some of you out there may even have catnip products for your cats at home. So we thought it might be nice to give you a little more information on what catnip actually is and how it affects cats.

What is Catnip and What Does it do to Cats?

Catnip refers to a herb from the genus Nepeta, usually the plant Nepeta cataria. It is a member of the mint family and grows widely in Europe, Asia and North America. You may see it in the wild or even growing in people’s gardens.

There are other plants that have a catnip-like effect in cats, so may be confused. These include valerian plant, silver vine and Tatarian honeysuckle wood. Like many plants, catnip contains oils that give it its distinct smell; nepetalactone is the oil that cats love.

When a cat smells or eats catnip, nepetalactone enters their nose and activates sensory nerves. These send signals to the olfactory bulb of the brain for processing. This information is sent to the amygdala that controls emotions, and the hypothalamus that regulates body functions. We think that nepetalactone from catnip acts like a pheromone to cats, which is why their behaviour is similar to a female cat during heat! 

How Does a Cat Act on Catnip?

The effects vary from cat to cat, but in general they will show a lot of interest in the catnip, licking and rubbing against it. Some may be more relaxed, acting more calm and laid back. Others can enter a hyperactive stage where they run, jump and roll around, meow loudly, drool, growl or even become a little aggressive. It may be best to avoid giving catnip to these cats. Any behavioural changes are short-lived, lasting only 10 minutes or so before they return to normal. After this, a cat will enter a ‘refractory period’ of an hour or two where catnip will have no effect on them. 

As far as we know, there is no danger of overdosing a cat on catnip, and cats do not become addicted either. They can start to get used to it, however, and the response may reduce if used too frequently.

Why Doesn’t My Cat Like Catnip?

To respond to catnip, a cat must carry certain genes and have them turned on. 20-40% of cats do not have these genes present or active and thus won’t respond to catnip. If you have tried to give your cat catnip before and they didn’t seem to react, your cat may be one of these.

And because the genes are hereditary, any kittens your cat has may not respond to catnip either. We also know that young kittens and much older cats do not respond to catnip as well, or at all. However, if you still are looking for something to mellow out your cat, many cats that do not respond to catnip do respond to other plants.

How to Give Your Cat Catnip

There are hundreds of catnip-based products out there, all readily available from pet shops, supermarkets or online. If you just want to give them a treat now and then (perhaps a nice Christmas present?), catnip can be given in pouches or toys to simply enjoy. However, we think a better use for catnip is as a training aid.

Cats will associate objects with catnip if you sprinkle some around. This could encourage the use of scratching posts, litter trays, bedding, toys or cat carriers. Do it a few times and your cat will hopefully use them happily!

It can also be useful if you have a particularly nervous cat. Either used around the house during a noisy family Christmas, or in the car if they need a booster; the effects of catnip can be good at reducing anxiety in some cats. You may be lucky enough to get a new feline friend for Christmas – catnip can be perfect to introduce a new cat to your home. A little spread in each room can tell your cat that the room is safe and enjoyable. 

Because catnip can cause hyperactivity in some cats, a little catnip now and then could help encourage exercise in fat cats needing to lose some weight, particularly around the usually lazy Christmas period! Even if they aren’t overweight, playtime is a good stress-buster. Balls filled with catnip are a good choice. However, remember some cats do the opposite on catnip, and become very lazy…

If you are particularly thrifty, you could grow your own catnip, from seedlings from the garden centre or even harvested wild. You can then dry the herb out and add it to toys or baskets when your cat needs it. Catnip does lose its potent effect over time, so store any excess in the freezer. 

Humans and Catnip

Did you know that catnip also has some effects on humans? Sadly, it doesn’t do anything quite so dramatic. It was used by Native Americans to help babies with colic, and it can be brewed into tea for its mild sedative and calming effects. It may also help migraines, cramps, indigestion, insomnia, anxiousness and even arthritis and other injuries; some even claim it is a good antimicrobial! However, none of these effects have been widely studied. Finally, though it’s the wrong time of year right now, it can be used as a mosquito repellent, similar to citronella.

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