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What does catnip do to cats?

Photo: Andrew Marttila

If you want to give your cat a treat that will either perk him up or put him to sleep, consider catnip, a perennial herb of the mint family. 

How does it affect cats?

For felines, catnip can either be inhaled for a stimulating effect or ingested for a sedative effect. If your cat is reactive to the chemical compound in the plant—called nepetalactone—at all, he’ll likely respond by rubbing against and chewing on the catnip to release the aroma. Give your cat a catnip toy and watch him roll around on it, salivate and meow. Catnip makes some cats go crazy. Just one whiff of the herb and your cat gets happy before eventually crashing like humans do after a sugar high.

The catnip “high” typically lasts about 10 minutes. To keep your cat from becoming desensitized to the herb, hold off offering it again for another two hours to allow him to “reset.”

Is catnip safe?

While catnip is safe for cats to eat, too much of a good thing can cause vomiting and diarrhea. If that happens to your cat, keep the lovely stash put away for a while until your kitty feels better. The herb is not addictive and produces no ill side-effects unless your cat eats too much of it and responds negatively. Plus, catnip is relatively inexpensive, making it a special treat you can dispense guilt-free once a week if you so choose.

Clever ways to use catnip:

  • You can refresh old cat toys by simply rubbing catnip all over the surface of the object and reigniting your cat’s interest in the old toy. You can buy catnip spray that works effectively as well for reviving old toys.
  • If your cat is scratching surfaces—like sofas or chairs—that aren’t acceptable to you, try rubbing some catnip on his scratching post to redirect him to the more appropriate place for stretching and scratching.
  • Use the herb to encourage a shy feline to play. A cat that tends to hide because she’s timid might benefit from a catnip toy you can use to coax her out of her hiding place and induce her to play. 
  • Stimulate an older cat to exercise by filling an old sock with catnip and tossing it for some interactive fun.
  • If your cat is stressed out after a trip to the vet, reward him with a catnip treat to help him settle. If you’re transporting your kitty in a carrier, a catnip toy might also keep him distracted through the bumps and turns.
  • If you’ve purchased catnip for your cat for the first time and discover he’s unaffected by the herb, you could always prepare a cup of catnip tea for yourself. For humans, the herb, when brewed, offers similar effects to chamomile tea. If you can’t calm your cat, at least you can enjoy a few minutes of serenity yourself. In humans, catnip can also relieve anxiety, headaches and insomnia.

There’s a chance your cat will be completely unaffected by catnip since about 50 percent of felines are insensitive to the herb. And if you have a kitten, you won’t even know whether she’s catnip-friendly until she’s about 6-months-old when the capability to detect the scent finally emerges. If you know your kitten’s parents are catnip fanatics, however, there’s a good likelihood your feline youngster will be too since it is an inherited trait.

So the next time your cat needs a pick-me-up or a chill-me-out, try catnip. She’ll either do a happy dance for you, and you’ll know you’ve struck gold, or she’ll be non-reactive, and then you can brew a cup of calming catnip tea for yourself and curl up for a cat nap.