Catnip is well-known to cat lovers around the globe. Its effects on cats are famous (or infamous), although some cats don’t react to catnip. The catnip plant releases a chemical called nepetalactone that reacts with a few areas of the brain when sniffed by a cat. These areas include opioid receptors, making cats go wild for the plant; they cannot help but feel happy and giddy! However, this reaction comes down to an inherited trait from their parents. The response some cats have to catnip is hereditary!
What Is Catnip?
Nepeta cataria (or catnip) is a herb native to Asia and America that’s part of the mint family. It grows worldwide as a non-native species and is attractive to pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Catnip has a potent effect on some cats, with some sources suggesting that the number of cats it affects is around 50–70%. This is due to the chemical it releases when it’s crushed and a certain “reactive” gene that some cats inherit from their parents.
Catnip releases nepetalactone, which enters the cat’s nose when they smell it and makes contact with the olfactory bulbs. This causes an explosion of activity along the same neural pathways as feline sexual pheromones, meaning the cat enters a state of euphoria.
What Does Catnip Do to Cats?
Catnip causes seemingly euphoric responses in cats, including larger members of the felid family, like lions and leopards. The catnip releases nepetalactone once the cat rubs up against it, which is then either smelled or ingested.
The scent molecules enter the cat’s nasal tissues and bind to special receptors. This triggers a lightning reaction. These receptors signal to neurons that fire through the cat’s brain, entering the amygdala and hypothalamus. The amygdala is responsible for how a cat regulates its emotions, and the hypothalamus controls the cat’s behavior. This is the reason a cat will go crazy for catnip, as the responses are a mix that resembles the natural behavior and emotion they would display and feel when around sex pheromones.
The classic responses of a cat enjoying catnip differ slightly, but all follow the same general behavior pattern—that of a female cat in heat. These effects usually last for between 5 and 15 minutes, and the behaviors cats can exhibit when they smell catnip include:
- Rolling around
- Sniffing and eating the catnip
- Running around and pouncing
- Growls or meows
However, the behaviors seen in cats when they eat the catnip are different. Ingesting catnip gives cats a calmer, more relaxed demeanor. The effects of eating catnip in cats have been compared to the effects of chamomile tea in people.
What’s in Catnip That Makes Them Crazy?
The source of the crazy behavior in cats is nepetalactone. This isomer compound is found in other species of the Nepeta genus as well as catnip, and it works on a cat’s opioid system. This doesn’t mean that catnip is addictive; cats develop drug tolerance to catnip very quickly (almost a cooldown timer), and it won’t affect them for around an hour after exposure.
Catnip is found in a few forms, but most cat toys are filled with dry catnip. It can grow wild as a herb and is sometimes sold in garden centers to encourage pollinators to visit the garden. You can also find catnip in sprays. However, these may contain other ingredients that could be potentially harmful to your cat.
What if My Cat Doesn’t Like Catnip? Is There an Alternative?
Because almost a third of cats don’t react to catnip, you might wonder if there are alternatives. There are three well-known alternatives to catnip widely available to purchase that sometimes have even stronger effects than catnip:
- Silvervine is a plant native to Asia. The stems are often dried into sticks, which produces an effect that is stronger than catnip and is very effective for those who may not be receptive to it. Ensure you always supervise your cat when giving them silvervine, as it can present a choking hazard. Around 80% of cats¹ will respond in this way to silvervine.
- Valerian is a plant commonly used in pet calming preparations or diffusers and can be introduced to your cat in dried form. The valerian root has been shown to produce euphoric effects in cats, particularly in those that don’t respond to catnip, but it also has calming and relaxing effects. Around 50% of cats¹ will respond in this way to the Valerian root.
- Tatarian Honeysuckle is a flowering shrub that also produces a euphoric effect in domestic cats, but to a somewhat lesser degree than catnip. The wood of this plant causes these effects. Be aware that this plant’s berries, leaves, and flowers are toxic to cats and should not be given, but the wood is safe. Around 50% of cats will react positively to Tatarian Honeysuckle.
How Much Catnip Can My Cat Have?
Because catnip is non-addictive and non-toxic, your cat can enjoy it as often as they want. Catnip toys are good for this, as they allow your cat to indulge when they want to. Cats have a cooldown period of a few hours between uses, so they might take a break for a while and come back later for more fun!
Be cautious about loose catnip, however, as there is a possibility that your cat might get an upset stomach if they eat too much.
Only a third of domestic cats have the inherited trait that makes them receptive to catnip and nepetalactone. Cats can enjoy as much catnip as they like, but don’t let them eat too much, as it can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. If a cat doesn’t react to catnip, the alternatives Silvervine, Valerian root, and Tatarian Honeysuckle can be introduced to see if they make your cat deliriously happy. Catnip is a great way to introduce new enrichment opportunities into your cat’s life.