Why Do Cats Love Catnip?

Cat enjoying catnip

Watching a cat play with a toy stuffed with catnip is a sight for sore eyes. Jumping around and showcasing its best moves, you may notice that your pet has been taken to another dimension altogether when it comes in contact with catnip. The first question that comes to mind in such situations is why cats love their catnip so much?

In order to understand the reason why cats seem to behave differently around catnip, it is important that you understand what exactly catnip is and the effect it has on your pet when ingested — which is exactly where we get started!

What Is Catnip?

Officially known as Nepeta cataria, catnip is a part of the mint family Labiatae. This is a perennial herb, which keeps growing till the time it reaches a height of even three feet in some cases.

In most cases, a catnip plant will be anywhere between two feet to three feet in terms of height. Small flowers in a range of colors — everything from white and blue to lavender and pink — can be seen sprouting from the ends of the catnip’s stems.

While this herb was initially imported to the United States from Europe, Africa and Asia, it is currently being grown all across North America.

The main point of interest in the catnip plant, especially when it comes to cat owners, is the chemical compound that it houses. Known as nepetalactone, this compound can be found in catnip stems as well as leaves and has the capability of pulling cats towards it.

Upon consumption, cats can be seen getting affected by the catnip plant because of the presence of this compound. If you are wondering what effect is being discussed here, the next section will elaborate further upon how catnip affects the cats in your homes and in the wild.

How Does Catnip Affect Cats?

As was mentioned earlier, nepetalactone is the chemical compound found in catnip that attracts and affects cats. The way in which it works is very interesting.

First, if your cat just smells the compound in catnip, it will act as a stimulant and your cat may seem like it is going crazy with tons of extra energy. Here, it resembles a drug-induced “high”, which humans achieve when they consume LSD and similar drugs.

A common hypothesis is that the compound acts in a manner that is similar to cat pheromones, causing the cats to get excited and give you a hyperactive show of energy.

On the other hand, eating the catnip will have a completely different effect on the cat. Upon consuming this herb, most cats seem to be sedated or lethargic. This is similar to the effect it has on humans, which is discussed in greater detail later in this explainer.

However, a common query that arises at this point is whether or not all cats — large and small — are affected by catnip and its chemical compounds. If you have the same question, the next section can provide some answers!

Are All Cats Affected by Catnip?

If you look at how many different types of wild and domesticated cats are found across the world, you may find yourself astounded by the number.

All of these have some common features and behavioral patterns but everything else does not stay the same from one type to another. In the same way, it is not possible for all cats to react to catnip in an identical manner.

While anywhere between 50% and 75% of all cats could be attracted to and affected by catnip, there is also a significant population that does not share the same reaction. For example, if the cat is older or a young kitten, there is a chance that it will not be affected as easily as an adult cat.

The popular belief is that the reaction to catnip is something that is passed on from generation to generation in the form of a hereditary trait. This is not limited to house cats, with lions, leopards and tigers also responding in a similar manner.

Is Catnip Safe for Cats?

One of the most common questions that cat owners have when it comes to catnip is whether or not this product is safe for cats. While there are unsubstantiated reports that claim that cats can get addicted to catnip — even to the degree that they start looking for this herb instead of eating their own food — there has been no indication of this being true.

The popular consensus remains that catnip is not addictive when it comes to cats and if you look at it broadly, the herb is perfectly safe for your cat’s consumption.

Having said that, it is also important to note that there will be a number of physiological changes that are temporarily brought about in the cat’s body, for example, faster heart rate, overall relaxation and more.

All of these changes do not last very long and your cat should be back to normal after a brief period of time. In that sense, if your cat has recently been under a degree of stress, catnip can help make the animal more relaxed.

Regardless, this doesn’t mean that you should keep giving your pet unregulated amounts of catnip, as too much of this product can have some repercussions on its health.

While these may not be life-endangering, bouts of vomiting and diarrhea are common when the cat seems to have ingested too much catnip. In some rare cases, there have also been reports of cats getting irritated or aggressive if the catnip does not suit them.

In case your cat shows signs of discomfort or deteriorating health after consuming catnip, it is important that you discontinue its use immediately and visit your vet for further consultations.

This may help you ascertain whether it is the catnip that isn’t suiting your cat or some other factor that is affecting its health. Other than this, catnip is considered safe for consumption.

What Form of Catnip Works the Best?

Catnip is a perennial herb, which means it can last for years. As it is relatively easy to grow catnip even at home, the best form of this product is fresh catnip. Not only does it have the strongest effect out of all other forms of the herb, but it can also be bought in the form of a plant from any pet store near you.

After that, you just need to pluck a leaf and rub it in your hands so that the oils in the plant are released. Put it anywhere near your cat and it will consume it directly. You can also refrigerate the catnip that has been plucked.

The most common form of catnip used by most cat owners is dried catnip, which is available for purchase in the form of bags. In many cases, these bags of dried catnip are put inside small cat toys for your pet to play with.

While it is technically stale in this form, catnip doesn’t lose all potency at that time. Just remember that it will — soon — and then your cat will lose interest in it.

Finally, you can also purchase sprays with extracts from the catnip plant, which can then be used on a variety of surfaces and products that your cat has around it.

For example, if your pet refuses to go close to that new bed that you purchased for it, simply spray some extract around it and the cat will come running. It also proves to be an interesting way to distract the cat when you are looking to disengage.

Does It Affect Humans?

While cats seem to love catnip because of its drug-like effects on their system, cat owners often wonder whether this herb has any effect on humans. The answer is yes, the herb will also have an effect on you if you consume it in the right way. There is, however, one major difference.

Once your cat has ingested catnip, it will seem like it is more stimulated — with heightened senses. In humans, catnip works in a different way — as a relaxant. This means that if you have a nice cup of tea with some catnip added to it, you are more likely to feel relaxed.

Not only does this herb have a calming effect on humans, but it is also safe to use. This essentially means that even if you are looking to calm down your children or older members of the family, catnip in a cup of tea will be extremely helpful.

People dealing with nausea, an upset stomach or similar ailments are also known to get some relief by consuming catnip in some form or the other — so you must give it a shot!

Catnip can prove to be just the additional tool you need at hand when you are dealing with a difficult situation in relation to your cat. While all cats do not react to catnip in the same way, it is really worth a shot if it can help alleviate some amount of stress that your cat is feeling in a particular situation or if you are trying to introduce a new object or experience in the pet’s life and want it to adapt quickly. As long as you have an eye on how much catnip the cat is consuming, you should be good to go!