Posted In: Behavior & Training, Feline Health & Wellness

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb belonging to the mint family.  It is reported to have a strong mint-like taste and odor. Compounds in catnip have been found to alter the behavior of wild and domestic cats, other mammals, and insects, particularly the compound nepetalactone. The feline response to catnip is characterized by sniffing, then licking and chewing with head shaking. Followed by chin and cheek rubbing and then a head-over roll and body rubbing.  Spontaneous vocalization occurs occasionally and has been interpreted by some observers as a response to hallucinations. The effects typically last between 5 and 15 minutes before olfactory fatigue usually sets in. 

The plant appears to be pleasurable as cats seek the source of the scent and return daily to eat and roll in the foliage. It is hypothesized by researchers that the effect this plant has on cats is an evolutionary advantage used to protect them from mosquitos, flies, and other insects, which are naturally repelled by the nepetalactone compound in the plant.  

If a kitten is less than 6 to 8 weeks old, it will not react to catnip, and some cats will not be responsive to its effects until 6-12 months of age. However, not all cats respond to catnip- there is a recessive gene that causes some cats to lack the receptors which catnip acts (it is estimated that about 2/3 of cats have a reaction to it). Some people assume that because catnip has a drug-like effect on cats, that there are health risks involved, however, there is no evidence that catnip is harmful to cats or kittens. In some cases, excessive exposure or ingestion can occasionally cause an upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea, but there are no known long-term negative effects. 

There are a wide variety of catnip products available for purchase- raw dried leaves, chews, sprays, infused toys, and many pet stores even carry live catnip plants that you can cultivate and harvest fresh leaves from as needed! Periodic use of catnip with your cat is a great way to stimulate their mind and senses and enrich their lives. 

The Animal Medical Center of Mid-America has veterinarians at three locations that can answer questions about your pet’s health. Call 314-951-1534 or click here to request an appointment online.