Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a garden plant from the mint family. It is hardy and easy to grow in most climates (although I tried to grow some from a seed for this article with no luck). Catnip is interesting and fun to cat lovers because its essential oils cause delightful antics in cats that are sensitive to it. It appears that the active ingredient, nepetalactone, binds to the olfactory receptors and triggers a physiologic response from rolling and frolicking to chewing and vocalizing that is comical to watch.
There is not much published recently on the subject, but one study showed that the cat actually perceives the fragrance with his olfactory glands instead of the vomeronasal organ, a feline specific sensory organ on the roof of the mouth, so your cat responds to the scent of catnip where it is perceived as a pheromone (hormone substance that evokes a behavioral response). The response will wane after about 10 minutes, like other scents that your nose “turns off” after a time. Cats do not typically respond to catnip again sooner than an hour. It is thought that the receptors must reset for the effect to occur again. (1)
Not every cat will react to catnip. Most say that it is a dominant gene so 70-75% of cats will respond to catnip, but it is important to note that kittens under 6 weeks of age will probably not respond no matter what their genes say. One source said that cats in Australia do not have the gene, but I could not find support for the theory.
People used to claim it to be an aphrodisiac for cats because it causes physical manifestations similar to a female in estrus, but because both genders react, there is no proof for this claim.
It is used for its mild sedative properties in herbal teas for humans, but the differences in our brains and feline brains mean that we don’t get any type of euphoria from its oils at all.
If you want to see if your cat reacts to catnip, be sure that the leaves are fresh before you decide whether your cat is genetically able to respond. Some cats will not show a response until they are 3 months of age. People say that cats that do not respond to catnip may respond to honeysuckle, but there are no studies on this at this time and I would not recommend it.
The leaves can be used to train cats and direct their behaviors (like destructive scratching), but it is important to remember that once dried, the leaves lose potency very quickly. Freezing them may help them last longer. In cats that respond to catnip, it is a safe and fun game. There have no reports of addiction or adverse effects of catnip on cats.
Catnip is safe and can be fun. It is said to be easy to grow and hardy to maintain (despite my green thumb failure), so if your cat doesn’t like it, you can always make yourself some tea!
- Hart, Benjamin L.; Leedy, Mitzi G. (July 1985). “Analysis of the catnip reaction: mediation by olfactory system, not vomeronasal organ”. Behavioral and neural biology.
About The Vet: Dr. Kathryn Primm is a small animal veterinarian. She owns a busy practice in Tennessee and loves sharing all kinds of animal facts and fun. She has consulted on articles for national magazines, done numerous radio interviews and appeared on local television. She has contributed to an article for Woman’s Day in Feb 2014 and Prevention magazine, April 2015.
She has a social media presence on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and enjoys interaction with others about her passions, animals and communication. She is a regular contributor to Boomeon, the online community which can be found at www.boomeon.com. She has also written a book, Tennessee Tails:Pets and Their People. The book received recognition as Runner Up in the Memoirs category at a national book festival. You see an article that Dr. Primm contributed to in Prevention magazine (April 2015) and Woman’s Day (Feb 2014 and June 2015). Read more about Dr. Primm and how to get the best value for your pet care dollar at her website, www.drprimm.com.