If there’s toy your cat will go crazy for it’s their catnip toy. Catnip is one of the greatest pleasures a cat can have, and here we explain why.
What Exactly Is Catnip?
Catnip, catswort, or catmint (Latin name Nepeta cataria, a plant of the Lamiaceae family) is an aromatic plant, with small clusters of purplish blue flowers, which are tubular in structure and prettily spotted with purple dots. It looks very similar to a mint plant in many ways, but is a softer colour. It has sturdy stems with grey green leaves, and it is the chemical in the leaves that cats are attracted to. Plants of the Lamiaceae genus are native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, where it will grow freely, in even very poor soil and hot, dusty conditions. Some people regard catnip as a weed, it is so common. In countries where it is bought as a garden plant however, catnip is treated as a herbaceous perennial. Catnip has been used by herbalists for centuries. Its uses include relief for colic, dental problems, and indigestion. It can also be made into a calming herbal tea, used as a flavoring in sauces, soups, and stews, or even made into wine.
What part of the catnip plant is my cat reacting to?
The ‘active ingredient’ in catnip is an oil called Nepetalactone. This is the scent that your cat is trying to bathe in when he rolls around in the plant, or rubs his face against his catnip toy. The leaves, stems and seedpods of the catnip plant are covered in tiny bulbs called ‘trichimes’ which contain the oil, and unless they are crushed or pecked at by birds the oil will stay inside the bulbs until the plant has matured. However, your cat knows that he can release the oil scent by pouncing, chewing or rolling in catnip. He can’t get enough of that smell. This explains the repeated rolling over your cat might indulge in during his catnip playtime.
What sort of behaviour might cats display if he is exposed to catnip?
- Rolling over on their backs, and stretching out
- Chewing or rubbing their faces on the catnip product
- Throwing catnip toy around
- Blissful, sleepy expression
- Running skittishly round the room
- Mewing or growling
Why is the scent so much fun for cats?
There is some debate about the exact neurological explanation for the behaviour. It is suspected that it induces a state of euphoria a little like when humans are in love. The skittishness and silliness you will see in your cat will certainly demonstrate this amply. You will see your cat on a ‘Nip Trip’ behave almost as if he is intoxicated. Although nepetalactone oil seems to have an almost drug-like effect on your cat it is totally safe and he will not become addicted to it. The effects last only around five to fifteen minutes, and after that they wear off.
He cannot ‘overdose’ on catnip – in fact if he is given catnip too often the effects just lessen. So keep his treat for twice a week at most. It’s a great way to see him have pleasure, knowing all the time it is a safe and natural treat.
Do all cats respond to catnip?
No. Up to 25% of cats have not inherited the ‘catnip gene’, so they won’t respond. A kitten with only one parent with the catnip gene has a one-in-two chance of inheriting it, and a kitten whose parents both have the gene has a three-in-four chance. Little kittens and older cats are not likely to be much interested either. But that leave a majority of cats for whom it is one of life’s little pleasures.
Do big cats like tigers and lions react in the same way to catnip?
Yes! Have a look at some of the videos on our site to see what pleasure big cats get from catnip. You’ll see that some sanctuaries actually use catnip regularly to provide entertainment and pleasure to their big cats. These are known as enrichment activities, and they keep the animals in tip-top condition mentally. All cats needs some extra fun from time to time, and big cats are no different to any other cat in this respect.
Izzy Woods is a cat lover and travel blogger with a passion for all things cute. She writes for everything from cat breeding zines to caravan insurance newsletters, enjoying the company of her own pets.