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Catnip and Your Cat - Best Thing Ever or No Big Deal?

Cat Sleeping on a Couch in the Sunlight

If you walk down the cat toy aisle at your favorite pet store, you'll notice that a large proportion of the toys in stock are stuffed with catnip. If you're like most cat owners, you've probably bought your cat at least one or two of those toys, too. But how did your kitty react to the toy(s)? Did s/he act like it was the best thing ever in the world, or did s/he have no reaction? Either way, both are normal, depending on your cat's genetics. But why? The answer to why that's the case involves an exploration of what catnip is and how it affects cats in the first place.

What is Catnip?

Catnip is an herb belonging to the mint family. It's native to Europe but has been imported to many parts of the world and is now grown widely (maybe in your garden?). The plant's Latin name is Nepeta cataria, and it was used in traditional herbal medicine for centuries. Of course, it's long been known as a favorite of cats - "cataria" literally means "of cats" in Latin!

How Does Catnip Affect Your Cat?

As you may know, cats who like their catnip, REALLY like their catnip. They’ll catch a whiff, and the next thing you know, they’re rolling around on the ground. Maybe they're rubbing their faces in it; maybe they're eating it. Some cats do one, then the other!

Not every cat reacts to catnip the same way, but for most, the plant's oil, called nepetalactone, causes a "feel good" reaction that lasts about 10 minutes. According to The Humane Society, "The most intense catnip experience starts with the nose—one whiff of the stuff and your cat promptly goes nuts. Researchers suspect that catnip targets feline 'happy' receptors in the brain. When eaten, however, catnip tends to have the opposite effect and your cat mellows out." 

"Happy" sessions usually last about 10 minutes (though every cat is a little bit different), and then your cats will lose interest. It may take a couple of hours for Kitty's system to become receptive to catnip again. Luckily, it's not possible to overdose, though if Kitty eats too much of it, s/he could get a little sick later (vomiting or diarrhea). Not to worry, though - it's no worse than a human hangover! 

Why Doesn’t It Affect All Cats Alike?

If you have multiple cats, you may have noticed that they’re not all equally affected by catnip. In fact, the response to catnip is genetic. It's estimated that 60-70% of cats have the genetic predisposition to respond to catnip, and those that don't may respond to other (also safe) plants like silver vine, valerian root, and Tatarian honeysuckle.  Age plays a role in the response, too - kittens less than 3-6 months of age don't respond to catnip, and elderly cats may lose their interest in it.  

So if your cats don’t respond to catnip, no worries: there’s nothing wrong with them. They may simply lack the “catnip gene.” (If you want to get technical: studies show the response is probably not controlled by a single gene [Mendelian], but rather by multiple genes [polygenic]. This also explains why there is a spectrum of responses among cats that respond to catnip.)

Catnip at Home

As an herb, catnip is easy to grow at home. We suggest putting it in a pot that can be moved if you don't want Kitty (or your neighborhood felines) spending all his/her time with it. If you do decide to grow catnip, you may find your cat indulging in it periodically throughout the day - possibly chewing on it. For the most part, it’s a fairly harmless indulgence. Remember, though, if Kitty eats too much of it, s/he might experience some vomiting and/or diarrhea. If that happens, you might want to consider relocating the plant to a spot that's harder to reach. (Kitty can also strip a plant bare if s/he's dedicated. Then you'll need a new plant.)

Depending on your cat, toys may last longer than actual plants. However, a catnip-stuffed toy can lose its potency after a few weeks and need to be refreshed. When Kitty seems to lose interest in the catnip toys, try refreshing them with catnip spray or fresh/dried catnip. (Many newer toys have velcro openings to make it easier to re-stuff them with Kitty's favorite herb.)

Catnip is a fun and harmless way to keep your cats entertained if they're genetically inclined. Does your cat enjoy catnip?  We carry a number of catnip-stuffed toys in the Silver Collar Boutique - come by and pick one or two up for your favorite feline friend!

If you have any questions, give us a call or fill out our online form.