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Ginger cat enjoying catnip

The essentials

  • Catnip is a natural herb that’s easy to grow — This plant is native to large parts of Europe and Asia, but you can grow it at home in practically any environment.
  • Catnip is harmless in small doses — Even if your cat goes bananas for catnip, you don’t have to worry since this herb is safe for kitty consumption.
  • Not all cats respond to catnip — An estimated 30-50% of the feline population doesn’t react to catnip. Silvervine is a safe alternative that typically works on cats who are immune to catnip’s effects.

You’ve likely laughed watching a cat react in strange ways to an herb called catnip, but have you ever really considered – what is catnip used for? Cats are known to go crazy over catnip leaves when sprinkled on their toys or baked into treats. And yet, these aromatic leaves and volatile oils don’t tantalize every kitten. Let’s talk more about what exactly catnip does to cats, and why it doesn’t affect all of our feline friends.

What is catnip?

Catnip, known by the scientific name Nepeta cataria, is a member of the expansive mint family. There are over 250 varieties of the herb, hailing from Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. The aromatic leaves tickle your cat’s nose, and that’s when the magic starts.

Cats under the influence of catnip often roll around or rub against the plant, while others may become quite energetic and hop around excitedly. Their enthusiasm is short-lived, though, since most cats lose interest after about 10 minutes. However, it may take a couple of hours for them to completely return to normal.

How does catnip work? 

Nepetalactone is as powerful as it is hard to pronounce. As the main active chemical responsible for catnip’s potency, it causes neurons in the brain to light up, setting off the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and behavior. When cats ingest or inhale the chemical, there’s a simultaneously anxiety-reducing and stimulating effect on cats, making it a great way to entertain and calm your furry friends.

Despite its psychedelic reputation, catnip is nonaddictive and completely safe for your cat to inhale, eat, or drink. The only possible side effect would be an upset stomach with signs such as vomiting and diarrhea if your cat ate a serious amount. Catnip can also make cats slightly dizzy as it produces a type of high.

Benefits of catnip

While their day may be dominated by napping in sunbeams and eating expensive food, many cats still struggle with stress and anxiety. Rubbing dried catnip on their bedding, scratching posts and pads, or on the ground is an easy way to provide some stress relief to your cat, as long as you don’t mind bits of the dried plant left over after playtime.

Some sources say that catnip can even provide pain relief, and a 2012 study found that catnip oil reduced pain and inflammation in rats. However, you should always consult your vet before using any essential oils on your cat since they have sensitive skin and some of these oils can be toxic to cats.

👉 If you notice your cat becoming more agitated or irritable (or any other behavioral changes) after using catnip, consult your veterinarian. 

Can cats have catnip? Is it safe?

The short answer is yes, catnip is safe for cats. The herb has long been employed by cat owners to provide energy and stimulation for furry feline friends. However, before you use catnip on your pets, it’s important to understand how it affects them, and how much you should expect to use to see any effects.

Does catnip work on all cats?

Many cats are enraptured by catnip’s neurotic effects, but not all kitties find this plant all that charming. Researchers say about 50-70% of cats react to the plant, with varying responses. Genetics often determine whether a cat will or will not like catnip. It can take up to a year for a cat to develop a response to catnip.

What do you do if your cat doesn’t dig the nip? In one study , 75% of cats who lack the genetic receptors to catnip responded to silver vine, another safe herb that produces neurological effects. Cats usually react similarly to silver vine, with behaviors like rolling around, acting hyper, or going into a super relaxed state.

Can kittens have catnip?

While catnip is considered safe to use on kittens, they won’t typically react until they are at least 6 months old. Cats aren’t receptive to nepetalactone, the oil in catnip that does the trick, until they are around 6 months old–if they are at all. The timing suggests that sexual hormones may play a role in catnip reactivity since that’s around when cats reach puberty.

A cat’s response to catnip often mimics the behavior of a female cat when she’s in heat. However, male and female cats can both respond to catnip, regardless of whether they’re altered or not.

How to use catnip with your cat 

Cats can eat, drink, and roll in catnip all they want without risking addiction or withdrawal symptoms. Although there isn’t a set recommended amount of catnip to give your cat, you should still only give them a pinch at a time to reduce the chance of stomach upset or other gastric distress in the event of consuming too much.

How to make catnip tea

Humans have long been brewing the leaves of this herbaceous perennial to ward off coughs and cold symptoms. The tea has an herbal, grassy taste that pairs well with natural sweeteners like honey.

Note that catnip is a diuretic, which means that you’ll likely need to use the bathroom soon after. Drink it in small doses to avoid possible side effects like headache and upset stomach. Now, you and your cat can enjoy tea time together with this purrfect recipe that’s safe for you both.

  1. Boil water — Start by bringing a cup or two of water to a boil.
  2. Measure 3 teaspoons of catnip — Pour the hot water into a cup with the 3 teaspoons or so of catnip.
  3. Steep the mixture — Once the mixture steeps for around 3 minutes and cools to room temperature, it’s ready to be served!

Straining the leaves out is an option, but leaving them in will make the drink even more potent. Both options are completely safe for your cat.

It’s best to make catnip tea out of leaves that you’ve grown and dried yourself. Otherwise, try to buy organic catnip leaves or pre-packaged catnip tea so that you know it’s food grade for humans.

Add catnip to toys

Many cat toys can be infused with catnip to make them even more entertaining and alluring to your furry friend. These toys target your cat’s hunting instinct and often come with little vials or packets of catnip you can slip behind a zipper or into a pouch to make your cat go after it even more ferociously.

For more basic toys like teasers or yarn balls, rub some catnip all over to make them immediately more entertaining and engaging.

Use catnip as a handy training aid

Want to encourage your cat to scratch the brand new scratching post or cat tree instead of the door frame or your favorite chair? A generous application of catnip is all it takes to direct those clawing instincts to something more decor-friendly.

Catnip can make for a nice distraction, too, if your cat seems fixated on playing with your blinds or engaging in other undesirable behavior you want to curtail. However, don’t do this often since you might end up reinforcing the behavior with the reward of catnip.

Catnip toys can also aid in the socialization of new cats into a household. Placing catnip on either side of a door or a similar barrier between two unfamiliar cats can help them associate the pleasant feeling of the catnip with the smell of the new kitty.

Try it as a pest deterrent

While catnip is irresistible to many felines, many other animals are repulsed by the stuff. Growing the herb in your backyard garden or planters can repel common pests like tiny mosquitoes and even animals as large as deer.

You can also make a natural insect repellent spray by brewing catnip tea overnight and then misting the area with a spray bottle. This makes catnip an eco-friendly alternative to chemical deterrents.

Use catnip as an appetite stimulant

If your cat disdainfully swats away their food, catnip can inspire them to form a positive association with mealtime and encourage them to eat. Be sure to talk to your vet, however, if you notice negative changes in their appetite, or if they get an upset stomach after eating.

Grow your own catnip

Catnip is great, so how do you get some? You can buy dried catnip, but growing a fresh supply is hard to beat and cheaper and more convenient than repeated runs to the pet store. Catnip is a relatively hardy plant that’s easy to grow in zones 3-9. You can even buy planting kits to make the process simpler if you don’t want to start with seeds.

Should I give my cat catnip?

Despite its intense effects, catnip is perfectly safe to give to your cat. It’s non addictive, and can even help calm anxiety and reinforce positive behaviors. You’ll still want to limit their portion to a pinch at a time to reduce the chance of stomach upset, though. If your cat doesn’t care about catnip, silver vine is a comparable alternative that’s more likely to elicit a response.

Frequently asked questions

What does catnip do to a cat?

This herb produces a neurological response that some say mimics a marijuana high in humans. Cats frequently meow, roll around, scamper across the floor, dilate their pupils, and then ease into a relaxed state after ingesting or inhaling “the good stuff.” There aren’t any serious risks associated with cats using catnip and it even provides some health benefits, like reducing pain and anxiety.

Is catnip safe for all cats to consume?

Absolutely! Catnip is considered entirely harmless for kittens and adult cats alike. The only way your cat may suffer from catnip is if they eat piles of the stuff at one time, and even then, the worst side effect they’ll get is a tummy ache.

Is catnip safe for kittens?

Cats younger than 6 months old usually don’t respond to catnip. However, it won’t hurt your little kitten to play with a catnip toy or eat a catnip-based treat. It can take up to a year before cats develop a response to catnip, and some never do depending on whether or not they inherited the genetic receptors.

Why does catnip make cats go crazy?

Nepetatalcone, the main active chemical in catnip, stimulates the chemicals in your cat’s brain that are linked to happiness and energy. This is why responsive cats act like they’re on Cloud Nine after they inhale or ingest it.

Is catnip edible to humans?

Although it doesn’t have such an exhilarating effect on us as our feline friends, catnip, when brewed as tea, can calm and soothe humans. The taste is a bit grassy, so you might want to mix in some honey to make the brew more palatable. Catnip tea is used as an herbal remedy for coughs and colds and is thought to have some medicinal properties.