What is Catnip and What Does it do to Cats?

Last Updated on January 21, 2021 by Julia Wilson

At a glance

  • Genus: Nepeta
  • Family: Lamiaceae
  • Botanical name: Nepeta cataria

What is catnip? Catnip is a perennial herb from the mint family which contains nepetalactone, a volatile oil which induces a high in some cats.

Does it affect all cats? Approximately 64% of cats are affected by catnip; kittens under eight weeks aren’t able to enjoy catnip.

How does catnip affect cats? Cats respond in several ways including drooling, head and body rolling.

How long does the effect last? Approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

World catnip awareness day: 15th June.

What is catnip?

Nepeta cataria, commonly known as catnip is a perennial herb from the mint family Labiatae, which is made up of 250 species. These plants have a square, square stalk with typically green/grey coloured heart-shaped leaves and scalloped edges with a similar appearance to mint. The purple flowers grow in spikes, reaching 1/2 inch in length.

Catnip is native to Europe and Asia but is now naturalised in the United States, Canada, Northern Europe and New Zealand after being introduced by settlers. The name Nepeta is believed to have come from the ancient town of Nepete (now known as Nepi) in Italy, and Cataria is thought to have come from the Latin word for cat.

Synonyms

Nepeta cataria is also known by the following names: cataria, catmint, catnep, catrup, cat’s healall, cats-play, true catnip, cat’s wort, catswort, catwort, chi hsueh tsao, field balm, Garden Nep, Herba Cataria, Herba Catti, Nebada, Nep.

Active ingredient

The active ingredient that causes a high in cats is the essential oil nepetalactone, which is present in the leaves and stems of the plant and protects the catnip plant from phytophagous insects which feed on green plants. 

Effects on cats

Researchers have found that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET, the active ingredient in most insect repellents and also repels cockroaches. This is where the story becomes interesting.  A study out of Japan’s Iwate University and published in ScienceAdvances found that nepetalactone and nepetalactol (present in silver vine) activate the brain’s opioid reward system. Endorphin levels were measured before and after exposure, which found elevated endorphin levels after exposure to nepetalactol. When the cats were given naloxone, a drug which inhibits the cat’s opioid receptors, they were no longer attracted to nepetalactol.

There is a biological advantage to this. When the cat rubs against catnip or silver vine, nepetalactone or nepetalactol transfer onto the fur which acts as a chemical defence against mosquitoes.

Does catnip affect all cats? 

Neil B. Todd found 31% of cats are immune to the effects of catnip. Kittens younger than eight weeks old aren’t able to enjoy its effects; in fact, they show an aversion to it. Large cats including lions, tigers, bobcats, jaguars, servals and snow leopards also react to catnip, but it does not affect other species of animal. 

A cat’s sensitivity to catnip is inherited an autosomal dominant gene, which means the gene is located on an autosomal (non-sex) chromosome and only needs to be passed on from one parent.

Mechanism of action

The olfactory system mediates the response to catnip:

  1. When nepetalactone enters the cat’s nasal passages, it binds to olfactory sensory neurons found in the olfactory epithelium (specialised tissue located on the roof of the nasal cavity, at the back of the nose), which is involved in smell. A layer of mucus covers the olfactory epithelium which traps odour molecules.
  2. The olfactory sensory neurons send signals through the olfactory tract to the olfactory bulb which is located in the front part of the brain and responsible for processing smells.
  3. The olfactory bulb then sends signals to the opiate receptors which induce a high similar to that of morphine or oxycodone in people.

How do cats respond to catnip?

Four behaviours have been described when a cat encounters catnip.

  1. Sniffing
  2. Chewing, licking and head shaking
  3. Chin and cheek rubbing
  4. Head rolling and body rubbing

The high produced is short-lived and only lasts a few minutes; this is followed by a one to two hour period where the cat does not respond to catnip.

How to grow catnip

The catnip plant is easy to grow and should be able from most local garden centres in the herb section.

Catnip likes light, sandy soil and grows best in full sun. Keep it well watered until it has become established. As the plant is growing, pinch out the top growth tips to promote bushiness. If you are planting it in a garden your cat has access to, make sure there is plenty of adjacent space around the plant so that other plants won’t be damaged if your cat rolls in it.

If you have catnip in a pot for an indoor cat, have several pots growing outdoors so that you can rotate plants regularly.

Frequently asked questions

How much catnip can I give?

A sprinkle of dried catnip is enough, this can be placed on scratching posts, floors, inside a paper bag or in catnip toys. Too much catnip can cause mild gastrointestinal symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.

How to give catnip to a cat

  • You can grow it in a pot and keep it near a window or in their cat enclosure. They can have a nibble as they see fit.
  • You can dry it out and sprinkle some on the floor for them, add a few pinches to a paper bag and scrunch it into a ball or place a few pinches in a sock.
  • You can buy catnip toys from most pet shops.
  • Catnip spray can be used on the cat’s scratching post to make it more appealing.

Is catnip harmful to cats?

There is no evidence that catnip is harmful to cats.

Can pregnant cats have catnip?

Catnip is a uterine stimulant and should be avoided in pregnant cats.

Does catnip work on humans?

Catnip doesn’t induce a high in humans as it can in cats and tends to have a sedative effect instead.



Julia Wilson is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. She enjoys photography, gardening and running in her spare time. Full author bio Contact Julia