Why Do Cats Like Catnip?

Why do cats like catnip, and how does it work? This article will go over the basics of catnip use for cats, as well as how to grow it.

Jan 27, 2024By Sara Rumrill
why do cats like catnip

If you’ve ever given your cats catnip, you’ve probably noticed that it can cause them to become relaxed, playful, sleepy, or even more energetic. Today we will find out what catnip is, why and how it works, and whether it is safe for human consumption. If you’ve never given it to your cats, this article will give you all of the information you need to try it with confidence!

What is Catnip?

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Image credit: pixelstalk.com

Believe it or not, catnip belongs to the mint family. Its scientific name is Nepeta cataria and is a perennial herb. Catnip once only grew natively in parts of Europe and Asia, but due to its popularity with cat owners, it has now been introduced and naturalized in parts of the United States and Canada. Most people know that domestic pet cats love to roll in, chew, and eat catnip. But did you know that big cats, like tigers and lions, also enjoy the plant?

To identify catnip growing in your garden or yard, use these guidelines. The plant has a square-shaped stem and is covered in fine hairs, like other plants in the mint family. The plant can grow quite large - as high as a full meter, which is equivalent to about 3 feet! If the plant is flowering, look for small lavender flowers. Catnip can also be identified by its distinctive heart-shaped leaves, which can be grayish green to bright green, and are covered in small hairs like the stem. The plant may also give off a minty smell.

What Does Catnip Do to My Cat?

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Image credit: cat-world.com

Cats react to catnip due to the presence of the chemical compound nepetalactone. This compound is what causes the behavioral effects that most cats experience when they come into contact with the plant. Your cat may chew on the leaves, eat them, or just roll around in the leaves to inhale the scent. Nepetalactone is stored in the leaves, stems, and bulbs of the plant. When your cat chews or ingests the plant, the nepetalactone binds to the olfactory cells in their nose, which sends signals to the brain.

Once the olfactory cells receive the compound, sensory neurons are stimulated through the brain. These neurons are located in the amygdala and hypothalamus regions of the brain. The amygdala is the behavior center of the brain, and the hypothalamus holds pheromone receptors. Together, these areas of the brain govern your cat’s behavioral responses, which is why catnip affects cats’ behavior in ways like affection, playfulness, and sleepiness. You may notice that your cat wants more attention when they’ve had catnip - that’s normal! Some breeds are naturally quite affectionate, but the herb can also increase this behavior. Some cats may also show more exaggerated social behaviors with each other or may want to spend more time alone.

Why Doesn’t My Cat Like Catnip?

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Image credit: feakypet.com

It is estimated that about 20% of cats don’t react to the plant at all. If your cat doesn’t care when presented with dried and fresh leaves, your cat might be in this minority. However, some cats that don’t react to catnip do react to silver vine, which is a similar plant that similarly affects cats. Silvervine also contains nepetalactone, but it also has a compound called actinidine, which causes similar effects, such as relaxation and affection. Remember - all cats are different. Some may enjoy this herb much more than others. Those who do react to the plant will likely experience an exaggerated version of what their usual cat day looks like - affectionate cats become more so, and playful cats will become more so. Your cat’s body language in general is definitely a subject of its own!

Can I Grow My Own Catnip?

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Image credit: britannica.com

You can absolutely grow catnip at home if you choose to! Most home and garden stores in areas that are conducive to catnip (the US, Canada, and parts of Europe) will have seeds or seedlings available for purchase. Be sure to schedule planting as soon as the last frost of the year passes. Plant your seeds or seedlings in a very sunny spot, with rich soil full of organic matter. Most people like to use compost for this. Water your plants thoroughly whenever the top inch of soil becomes dry.

Can I Use Catnip Myself?

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Image credit: readersdigest.com

Humans can also benefit from the effects of catnip. While catnip does not affect people in the same ways, some people smoke it or drink it as a tea for stress relief, insomnia relief, and mild pain relief. There are some things to keep in mind. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should not use catnip. There are also some side effects to keep in mind - catnip use can cause excessive sweating and urination, as it is a diuretic. It’s also important not to overdo it - too much can cause headaches, gastrointestinal distress, sleepiness, and nausea. It’s also not a good idea to use it before driving or working, as some people may find the drowsiness more intense than others.

Before you use catnip yourself, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. While it is mostly safe, in rare cases for certain people it can do more harm than good. If you have a cat and you’ve never tried giving them catnip, giving it a try could be a fun bonding experience!

Sara Rumrill
By Sara Rumrill

Sara lives in the US with six pets - a pit bull, a shi-tzu, and four cats, named Frankie, Morty, Ralphie, Stevie, Fritz, and Ayla. She has been in the veterinary field for over a decade and considers animal care to be her life's work.